Bringing The World Home To You

© 2021 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
91.5 Chapel Hill 88.9 Manteo 90.9 Rocky Mount 91.1 Welcome 91.9 Fayetteville 90.5 Buxton
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Race & Demographics

An Innovative Neighborhood In Durham For LGBTQ Seniors Welcomes New Residents

Retired couple Pat McAulay (left) and Margaret Roesch on their front porch.
Kate Medley
/
For WUNC

Before the shelter in place rules came into effect and businesses shut down, retired couple Pat McAuley and Margaret Roesch were forging ahead with a bold idea, to build a community where LGBTQ seniors feel at home.   

“We wanted a place where we could hold hands, we could kiss each other, you know, hello or goodbye. And our relationship would be honored and respected,” said Roesch. 

McAuley and Roesch founded Village Hearth Cohousing. It’s believed to be the first cohousing community in the nation built specifically for LGBTQ seniors and their allies. Nearly 30 pastel-colored bungalows branch off cement walking paths that intertwine through the neighbourhood in North Durham. Follow one of those paths and you’ll reach the common house, surrounded by windows and bordered by a terra cotta patio.

At Village Hearth Cohousing, colorful bungalows are nestled side-by-side, connected by walking paths.
Credit Kate Medley / For WUNC
/
For WUNC
At Village Hearth Cohousing, colorful bungalows are nestled side-by-side, connected by walking paths.

Cohousing originated in Denmark. The design model includes shared spaces but also private living areas. Imagine owning an apartment but doing most of the cooking in a shared kitchen with all the amenities. At Village Hearth the model works like a condo association with homeowners sharing costs for maintenance and other fees. Cohousing has picked up in popularity in the US., with more than 160 similar communities around the country, according to The Cohousing Association of the United States.

 

Unique challenges

Roesch says she and McAuley saw the community as an opportunity to cut through some of the unique challenges LGBTQ individuals may face as they get older.

"We [have] seen and heard and read horror stories of people once they need to go into the standard medical model, they are forced to go back in the closet because it's not safe or the people taunt them. [And it] took Pat and I forever to come out of the closet, we were both really late bloomers. And we don't want to go back in,” said Roesch.

A rainbow 'sold' sign adorns the home of future Village Hearth residents.
Credit Kate Medley / For WUNC
/
For WUNC
A rainbow 'sold' sign adorns the home of future Village Hearth residents. The cohousing community welcomes LGBTQ individuals and their friends and allies.

Tim Johnston, the senior director of national projects at SAGE, an advocacy and service organization for LGBT seniors, acknowledges that risks exist for these seniors in retirement centers. 

“It might be isolating them or bullying them within the community. It could be substandard care such as having their call bell answered more slowly than the other residents or their food always arrives cold. And in some instances we’ve heard of physical or verbal abuse either from other residents or from staff at these communities,” said Johnston.

According to SAGE, LGBTQ seniors are less likely to have children and often lack the same social net as heterosexual seniors. Social interaction is important as people age and there are medical and practical reasons to have others nearby. But McAuley said living under the same roof with a group of friends is a little too close for comfort. For her, cohousing offers a perfect fit.

“We can have a balance of privacy and community. So Margaret can be as extroverted as she wants, and I can choose when I want to be social and when I want to be private,” said McAuley. 

Pat McAulay (left) and Margaret Roesch tour their new home in the  Village Hearth community for the first time.
Credit Kate Medley / For WUNC
/
For WUNC
Pat McAulay (left) and Margaret Roesch tour their new home in the Village Hearth community for the first time. The homes were still under construction in early spring.

The next chapter, a fresh space

Roesch and McAuley recently got their first chance to walk into their new home, which was still under construction. They personally designed it along with the help of an architect who specializes in cohousing developments. They admired the vaulted ceilings, skylight, and exposed beam as they wandered through the space. The attached-bungalows go for between $299,000 to $409,000 with shared monthly fees ranging from $305 to $413 per month.

Before the coronavirus pandemic swept across the state, a few Village Hearth residents started moving to the area. And they've come from just about everywhere around the country, including California, Georgia and New York. Among the new residents are Allen Keech and Christopher Ross. Before moving to Durham, the couple already had a set retirement plan: they built an eco-friendly house on a sweeping 58-acre property in southern Virginia. But they discovered that privacy could also mean isolation, and Ross says that didn't always feel comfortable.

“Yes, there were two or three other gay people in this town, but it was a whisper. You know, it's okay as long as you don't [make] noise about it,” said Ross. 

Christopher Ross (left) and Allan Keech are two of the inaugural residents at Village Hearth Cohousing in Durham, NC.
Credit Kate Medley / For WUNC
/
For WUNC
Christopher Ross (left) and Allan Keech are two of the inaugural residents at Village Hearth Cohousing in Durham, NC.

‘To live not to die’

For Ross and Keech their new Village Hearth neighborhood strikes the right balance between privacy and community. 

 

“We are going to be having a community garden to grow vegetables and fruit. And a dog park. And we are going to have bees and chickens,” said Keech as he walked along the cement path between the common house and his new home. 

Building a community for seniors in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic has its challenges. Along with permit delays, some residents have moved from across the country but are in a holding pattern waiting to move into their new homes. This week, some of them, including Keech and Ross, should get to move in after delays due to COVID.

Ross says there’s also pressure with being the first group of LGBTQ seniors to build this kind of community.

“We talked about, should we have cameras? What kind of security should we have as a community, given that we're putting ourselves out here into the public?” said Ross. 

But in the end, the need to age and to live on their own terms wins out. 

“We're coming here to live not to die,” said Ross echoing a sentiment the couple shares. “This might be our last stop, and this might be our last stop but we’re coming here with a very different attitude.”

 

Related Stories
More Stories