Ruth Dunlap considered retirement communities for about three years hoping to find one she could afford.

Her search proved fruitless — until she learned about Thistledown.

“This is a wonderful opportunity,” Dunlap, 74, said of the New Holland home she shares with three other women in their 70s.

Garden Spot Village opened Thistledown in March 2018 to see if shared independent living might help address two problems pervasive among seniors: isolation and lack of affordable housing.

The early results have proved promising.

Garden Spot CEO Steve Lindsey said he’s heard from organizations across the country and as far away as Australia interested in adapting the model, which receives no government subsidies but relies heavily on community support to build the shared home.

Donated material and volunteer labor helped cut the cost of building the 3,400-square-foot home in half to $300,000. After fundraising, Garden Spot Village covered the balance as part of its service to the community.

For Dunlap and her roommates, the living arrangement offers an affordable alternative to Garden Spot’s regular continuing care retirement community model, where entrance fees range from $81,500 to $365,500, and monthly fees range from $1,112 to $2,269.

At Thistledown, rent for the four women is 30% of their income, and that’s enough to cover utilities and keep the home going without further fundraising.

How it works

The home has room for five residents, each with a private bedroom and bathroom. All other living spaces are shared.

Residents may take part in retirement community activities and use its pool and other facilities but are responsible for their own meals and are not guaranteed health care through Garden Spot.

The lot has room for four more co-living homes, Lindsey said, and Garden Spot will look to start building another one after a formal assessment of Thistledown slated for early 2020 is completed. The findings, he said, may result in tweaking the building design “to make it more livable and less expensive to construct.”

A Garden Spot social worker helps navigate any difficulties in living together but, Lindsey said, interpersonal friction has been “much, much less than we ever envisioned.”

“The bond that has grown between the folks that live there is significant,” he said. “Which doesn’t mean there aren’t times when people get on each on other’s nerves and things like that. That’s part of life. But the support and the relationship is huge.”

Garden Spot Village

Esther Courtney shows how the refrigerator is shared between the 4 residents of their home Thursday, Dec. 13, 2019. Up five residents share a house at Thistledown at Garden Spot Village.


Getting along

Dunlap and roommates Esther Courtney, 71, and Rose Sheaffer, 78, were home when LNP visited earlier this month.

Sheaffer washed dishes at a restaurant for 29 years before retiring. Courtney did laundry at a retirement home. Dunlap held a variety of education-related jobs, including teaching, serving as a student financial aid director and working as a corporate trainer.

They chatted comfortably amid evidence of their interwoven lives, and laughed at the question of whether someone comes in to do the cleaning, because they do it themselves. They don’t have a formal system for cleaning or laundry, they said, but it works out. Three of them have vehicles, and they rotate through the two-car garage on a monthly schedule.

“This is Ruth’s,” Sheaffer said of the blanket on her lap. She noted a particular fondness for pestering Courtney: “Got to have a little fun once in a while, still!”

“I feel very comfortable here,” Courtney said. “They’re all lovely ladies.”

Their most personal items are in their rooms. Dunlap volunteered to show hers, which included a cherished desk and a photo blanket featuring her grandchildren.

Garden Spot Village

Ruth Dunlap shows her bedroom at Thistledown Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. Up five residents share a house at Thistledown at Garden Spot Village.

She is part of some groups that meet in members’ homes, she said, and when they come to Thistledown one of the public living areas that has a door works nicely.

Lindsey acknowledged that housing for five people is a small step against a massive and growing problem. But, he said, it’s a start, a way to begin a conversation, and he thinks solving housing will take “a multitude of efforts, communities coming together and responding and everyone leaning in and finding different ways to meet the needs of different people.”

Thistledown, he said, was built by social service organizations, civic groups, high school and college students, construction companies and church members. And, he said, Garden Spot’s wood shop spent hours framing out the walls.

Garden Spot Village

Ruth Dunlap stands in the loft in a shared home at Thistledown Thursday, Dec. 13, 2019. Up five residents share a house at Thistledown at Garden Spot Village.

Previous story on Thistledown