New Neighborhoods for Senior Living

A major fear seniors face is being cut off from family and friends as they lose function and mobility. Aging in the family home can lead to increasing isolation, but the fear applies equally to residents feeling shunted away in assisted living facilities and nursing homes. Even with access to a fully equipped accessory dwelling unit (ADU) attached to the family home or in the back yard, the worry is will it come to “out of sight, out of mind?”

A pushback against this unhappy situation comes from the so-called pocket neighborhood, a cluster of small homes (perhaps eight or ten) sharing a common gathering area or garden, with their adjacency planned to maximize privacy. In a pocket neighborhood, as in any well-functioning neighborhood, your friends and social life are just outside your door.

Just how much of a presence are they in our society? I recently spoke with Seattle, Washington architect Ross Chapin, who has spearheaded the pocket neighborhood movement for 20-plus years. He has designed some 40 such neighborhoods in communities across the United States and has been involved in planning 120 or more.

To Chapin, the pocket neighborhood is only one of several senior housing options now starting to grow and gain recognition in our aging society, but he suggests that, in itself, the concept offers the most “neighborly” opportunity of all—“it puts the ‘neighbor’ in neighborhood. Ideally,” he adds, “these would be community-oriented, with walkable amenities and intergenerational exposure.”

Though zoning issues come into play, as with all small housing options, Chapin notes that local community planners might find pocket neighborhoods to be an appealing alternative to suburban sprawl—an “infill” opportunity offering greater density of occupancy and more neighborly relations on a particular property.

Small homes are more attuned, Chapin says, to the one- or two-person majority of households in the country. “Some 60-65 percent of the market consists one- or two-person households. And yet builders continue to focus most of their efforts on the family-size minority.”

But change is coming with increased perception of the demographic reality, a senior population growing at an unprecedented pace, he says. “We’ve been getting a phenomenal response to the pocket neighborhood throughout the country, especially in the last four or five years.

“The culture, the demographics, the economics, they are all driving us in this direction.”