STILLWATER — Pat Darlington knew where she wanted to die after finding her father parked on the neighbor's front lawn. She saw his neighborhood in The Villages, a sprawling mecca for retirees in the heart of Florida with more than 8,500 residents and thought it was the perfect place for her father.
The Villages, often called Disney World for retirees, is surrounded by sun and surf and loaded down with daily events, dinners and nightly concerts; Darlington thought her dad would feel at home and have plenty to do.
But after finding out that her father's Alzheimer's was getting worse, she visited him to see how he was getting on.
While speaking with neighbors, she discovered that her dad had been struggling since his arrival. Neighbors said he was often confused and was seen driving through their yards, parking in the wrong driveways and would often stay inside his house for days at a time.
“I asked the neighbors why they didn't call me,” she said. “They said, ‘Well, we didn't want to bother you,' or ‘we didn't feel it was our place to butt in.'
“That was when I realized, it's about the community, not the neighborhood.”
After researching, Darlington, 62, discovered a community in Virginia that practices cohousing for people 55 years and older.
Cohousing is a type of collaborative housing in which residents participate in the design and operation of neighborhoods.
Compared to most retirement options for seniors, cohousing emphasizes living as a community. The physical design encourages both social contact and individual space. The homes are private, but residents also have extensive common facilities such as open space, courtyards, and large common areas.
Darlington said she immediately fell in love with the idea.
“I took a workshop on cohousing, learned all about it and knew that I had to do it,” she said. “I was just super naive. I came back and said, ‘We are doing this.'”
Darlington and friend Kay Stewart, 72, set to work to figure out what it would take to build this community.
They listed the pillars they felt Oakcreek should be founded on: Respect, sustainability, interdependence, diversity and affordability.
Oakcreek's acorn planted
The community would not be like a normal retirement village or assisted living center; residents would own their own homes, cook their own meals and be independent, yet the proximity of everyone together would inspire group gatherings for dinners or parties.
Instead of being entertained, residents would come together and the activities and fun would happen spontaneously.
“When you move into an institutional-type place, the thing you all have in common together is that you are all old and that you are all waiting to die,” Stewart said. “You read all the brochures and you see where they say we do this and we do that, but it's all about being entertained. There is no sense of ownership, or purpose, or what's the reason for this?”
In October 2012, the first dozen residents of the Oakcreek cohousing community, the first of its kind in Oklahoma, moved into their new homes on an acre plot of land in Stillwater with more than 100 trees.
Twenty-four houses were built, all painted in bright colors of pink, blue and green with a wraparound porch on each. By August 2013, all but two had been filled.
The original group that helped start the community had to place their money where their mouths were to get everything built; all told, it took about $1.5 million among fewer than 12 people to get everything started. An additional loan of $3.4 million was given to them to finish building.
Darlington and Stewart helped take the community from a dream to reality.
“Every dollar that we put in the beginning went toward the purchase of our home,” she said. “If we didn't build it then we lost it all. It took guts.”
Stewart, who previously worked as an in-home caregiver, said she was always struck by the people who tried to live out their lives in their longtime home.
“Only time it worked was when they had a big family or community to help them,” she said. “It's not a lot of fun to go pull weeds in your back flower bed by yourself, but when three of you do it and you chat, it's amazing.