Where will you live when you’re older?

Anna Edey in her West Tisbury home. — Photo by Sam Moore

Times correspondent Valerie Sonnenthal visited with Anna Edey recently. Ms. Edey is  a longtime environmental activist on Martha’s Vineyard, the owner of the solar greenhouse Solviva, and the author, most recently, of “Green Light At The End of The Tunnel: Learning The Art of Living Well Without Causing Harm to Our Planet and Ourselves” published by Trailblazer Press, 2014.

The best of me for the last phase of life

Valerie Sonnenthal: I would love to hear what you envision as a community for your last phase of life.

Anna Edey: Yes, a smaller house in a community, let’s say, 20 or so smaller houses with fabulous commons, brunch and dinner every day.

VS: Together?

AE: Together, or if you want to be in retreat, the food comes to you. Most people who are creative want to spend a lot of time alone. I might want to closet myself alone for weeks on end in my own little cottage and not have the welcome sign out and have all the food brought to me and I just steep myself into painting or writing. Here at my home, I am continually interrupted by got-to-eat-something, got-to-fix-that, have-to-call-so-and-so-in-order-to-fix-that. I yearn just to be able to really give the best of myself I still have in me before I can’t do that anymore. I want to move and dance every single day. Not just alone in my house. I don’t want to have to drive someplace to do yoga, dancing or whatever, I want to do it in a community.

VS: So there would be space for that?

AE: Yes, it will have three large common buildings. One would be the great room with a big living room, a big woodstove in the middle, a big open kitchen and several long tables all flanked by an indoor garden, fragrant herbs and flowers, all purifying the air.

VS: Indoor garden the way you have created an indoor garden in your home? The same kind of sustainability you have created in your own home you’d like to see in this community?

AE: Yes. My dream has two main components; one is to live in community, but having my own little private house. Not so tiny either, not like a real “tiny house.”

VS: So square footage-wise?

AE: About 1,500 square feet is what I imagine.

VS: So you can have your own guests.

AE: Right, a study, a studio for my own creating. I dream of doing all kinds of things. And full kitchen, washer/dryer.

VS: How would you say this is different than co-housing? That it is an elder community?

AE: Children are welcome to visit and will be included in all kinds of things like visiting the onsite farm which will be producing all the eggs, chicken and turkey, vegetables and salad greens, berries, fruits, nuts; all the food that can be grown year-round on Martha’s Vineyard.

Why not visiting students to help?

VS: Who is doing the work?

AE: Resident staff. That would be the gardener/farmer, his/her assistants and students, ‘cause this whole place would also be like a school where people can learn about the ultimate in solar green design because this place will use no fossil fuels. It will have electric vehicles powered by the sun. I know all these things are completely doable.

VS: By students do you mean from Island schools or are you talking about an older population?

AE: They would come from all over, universities. You want to come here and learn solar green, you want to learn how to live this way? This kind of way of living is not just for elders. It would be very suitable for families, students, any category of people.

VS: So it’s basically taking the ideas that exist in your books and creating an elder community, like Solviva Elder Community?

AE: Yes you could say that in the sense that Solviva means as solar green as you can possibly get. There are other people doing this around the world under other names, but ‘solar green’ is the term I like to use that covers whatever designs are used because there are many different ways of doing this as long as the principles are followed, using solar as much as possible, without overheating, of course, without looking ugly. There would be wide paths meandering throughout the community, everything wheelchair accessible, and everything fragrant gardens.

That’s something I really know, I want to live in a garden all year round. Most people would love to not have to cook all the time so there would be the master chef who would cook meals for any kind of diet, buffet-style, two meals a day with plenty of input from the elders, who would teach the chef their favorite recipes. A lot of participation on the part of the elders in terms of what they would like — food especially. There would be a master caretaker/handyman with an assistant and students who would keep everything humming, so no one has to worry about that whether it is their home or the community at large. And then there would be the caregivers: master caregiver, assistant, and students.

Sounds crowded

AE: This might sound like a whole lot of people, almost as many as resident elders, but they would live there in upstairs apartments above the three large buildings; the central building with the living room and audio/video, kitchen and dining; the arts building with a large room for theater and dance and music, the other half of the room with moveable walls to make it smaller or bigger and the other side would be the art studio where any of the elders could teach, learn, paint or sculpt together. If you want to be alone you stay in your own home. The third building is the spa building with a warm pool, exercise equipment of various kinds, spaces for giving massage which can also be given in personal cottages. All three buildings flanked by indoor gardens and mostly heated by the sun.

VS: So all composting toilets?

AE: No, flush toilets that flush into a composting system so that wastewater will go out clean into the ground water. That’s part of the solar green system. So above each building there will be two fully equipped apartments. All the staff and students would have their own apartment. In the summer there would be an extra number of people. Nine people would live in what you might call a summer village because more staff would be needed in the summertime because of the outdoor gardens, canning, and things needed to be done from the outside garden. They will have a village of their own, each one would have their cabin and a central building for them to eat and hang out, and another central building for their bathhouse and laundry. There would be a one-acre farm with solid food production and flowers. There would be four additional buildings with upstairs apartments, workshop for the handyman, guest quarters for family visiting. This is for the last decade or two of your life where some people will choose to die in the hospital and some choose to die at home. If your whole family comes then there will be room between your own home and the guest quarters. Also renting out to people who would be interested in learning about such a community and solar green design.

A place where people could learn

I imagine a large component would be the educational piece because once you make a community like that there will be a tremendous amount to teach people because they don’t really know it’s possible to live with near zero fuels. It would be a demonstration place. Because of the nature of the elders everything would need to work extremely well. There would be 20 – 30 elder residences and the staff would be nowhere near as expensive as they would be because they are residents and have their food and lodging right there. The other aim with this is that it would be less expensive than most of the other options for retired elderly.

VS: You mean assisted living communities? Or Waldorf communities where seniors can live with families?

AE: I would insist on having my own house, not apartment. I want to have a community discussion about how people would like to live for their last decade or two. What are the most important components others can see or imagine as their ideal for the last decade of their life? Gradually, sooner rather than later, become reality.

VS: How many acres would your community need?

AE: I have figured it at about 7½ acres.

Obviously it could have a wilderness area. I have designed it with all the walkways, gardens and areas.

VS: Just curious, you’d probably have metal roofs? (Anna nods her head, yes). Solar panels on the roofs?

AE: Yes.

VS: There might be some changes from things you’ve created previously, where you know there could be improvements.

AE: Of course. I built this house in 1980.

Shower the people together? While eating tomatoes?

VS: There may be improved materials, a compost area for garden use. And such a Martha’s Vineyard question, would there be a communal outdoor shower?

AE: Everyone would have their own shower. And the spa of course has plenty of showers and deep bathtubs right in the solarium. It’s heavenly to be under the sun in a deep bathtub and pick a ripe tomato to eat. We can have heavenly without causing any harm whatsoever, or near-zero harm, no more harm than the earth can easily deal with. It has to be economical. There is a range from $3,500 – $10,000 a month these places cost. What my research has shown so far is a median cost of $3,500 – $5,000 a month is most common. I think this might be able to be done for less than the average assisted community monthly fees. People would not own their own buildings, they would not have to invest in it, they would pay rent. It would be no higher than the average assisted living community.

VS: The idealization of all these things operating, this is your vision and you are hoping to talk to others for more input. How will it operate in terms of decision-making? Who decides on how someone can get in to the community? I realize that these things are a long way off.

AE: Yeah, my mind goes to wanting to solve and predict every aspect of it and some of them I do not need to worry now, that is not up to me. I guess because of my depth of knowledge and experience I would have a very large role in designing the systems.

I don’t know anyone else who knows what I know. Also the investor would have a very large voice. One of the reasons I like the renting idea, rather than people investing, is that it would minimize friction.

VS: You join and these are the systems that are in place and this is how it works.

AE: Right, if there is someone who does not like some aspect of it, they can leave at any time; they don’t have to feel trapped.

VS: Right.

Dinner together, and dreaming of community

AE: One thing I see that would be very democratically done is the food, so people can have the foods they love. I want to set it up in a way to reduce the chances of cliquishness, so at least some of the meals you would draw your seating place from a basket.

VS: Where you are sitting?

AE: Right, so you sit with a new person.

VS: Sounds like times when you walk into a dining situation and deal with the anxiety of where and with whom to sit.

AE: I go into panic mode, since childhood, whereas if you draw from a basket, no problem.

VS: I know you mentioned this to me in an off-hand way — wouldn’t this be wonderful — did you just begin to think about this because you haven’t had much time due to your other projects? Or has it popped into your mind at various times throughout your life, but because it wasn’t a pressing issue was just put on the back burner?

AE: Well living in community, ever since I separated from my husband back in the mid-70’s and then subsequently got divorced, I was dreaming of community. And I went visiting various intentional communities in Vermont, Western Mass., Denmark and read about them. I’ve visited at least a half-dozen different places and they were awful, really awful. They were messy, people did not look happy, they were living on top of each other and who was going to cook tonight. Last night’s meal was awful. They just seemed to be full of unhappy people. I knew what I did not want from that experience. And so it’s been kind of percolating over the years and then last winter…

VS: You started dreaming.

AE: [Laughing] I don’t want this anymore. Alright, get into gear and think about it: what is it I really want? Got to be my own house. Got to be two meals cooked every day, nutritious, marvelous homegrowns, flowers and veggies everywhere. It’s got to be staffed to run it, but I would never have to go out to garden and I can be in the garden as much or little as I want. Part of the whole food production system would be people’s individual gardens. I can decide if I want to do all my gardening or hire staff to help me or do it for me. The community should not have to pay for the gardening in my little plot unless it is growing fruit for the rest of the community.

Health and well-being

VS: You started to talk about health needs, ideally is everyone coming in healthy or not necessarily?

AE: Not necessarily at all.

VS: So caretakers or a live-in person will be welcome.

AE: The full spectrum of care. Maybe some people will need daily care.

VS: Like a nurse practioner (NP)?

AE: It would be somebody who knows the basics, maybe an NP, somebody who knows what to do under many health circumstances, then that person would have a caretaker living with them or they would have to move to where their needs are met. I imagine dying there.

VS: You want someone who checks in on people if, say, you have the flu or cannot leave your house?

AE: You’ll have a bell or button so somebody comes to you. Ideally a medical practitioner comes and sees everyone on site so no one needs to go to a doctor’s office. Everybody on the staff, including the students, would get training to ideally be able to handle whatever would come up with the elderly. So everyone keeps their eyes open to see if they may need help.

Driving around like the Jetsons, and storytelling

VS: How might the community serve a person who no longer drives?

AE: I imagine we would ask Elon Musk/Tesla and buy a small fleet of electric cars and vans. We also would have stimulating activities, lectures, films happening every day. And there would be shared storytelling about their own lives. There would be deep discussions exploring differing points of view. And the other thing I imagine is, as a group, we might have the ability to do deep research on something that comes up and ask the high school for students to assist us. Getting in and informing ourselves on the real effect of how we are living our lives, finding out what the real footprint is of what we use daily, so we minimize, from cradle to grave, the harmful effects of what we use. You often feel so powerless as just one person, but as a community we could move mountains. I want to have an effect for the rest of my life, as one person I have very little effect. If there was a community, give it a year to prove itself and then let the world know.

VS: Very cool. It becomes a model for other communities.

AE: I have not seen anything that is even close to what I dream of. And I want to be on the Vineyard. I love the Vineyard. I don’t want to go anywhere else. How can I live without these beaches and marvelous walks available everywhere. It’s a very unique feature which gives us a sense of co-ownership, freedom, and inspiration.