Philip De Wolff had it all: Two houses, expensive cars, several profitable businesses, money to pay his children’s way through college.
But it wasn’t enough.
About 10 years ago, having sold off his last business as he approached retirement age, De Wolff, 69, realized the traditional definition of success as financial well-being no longer made sense to him. He wanted something more.
“All the material things, once you start achieving them, you’re either constantly striving to achieve them or you come to realize they are the least valuable thing in your life,” explained the Redondo Beach resident, a native of South Africa who grew up in the Reform Jewish tradition. “Where does it all lead to? It always leads to one thing: There’s never enough money.”
So, instead of looking for a retirement home, De Wolff set out on a different kind of quest. Accompanied by his partner, Margaret “Maxx” McKenzie, 54, he went in search of a place that would give his life new meaning, where he could live alongside others who shared his values of putting health and the planet above monetary concerns. He wanted to find a place where people worked together for the common good, shared food and other resources and supported each other instead of competing.
What De Wolff had in mind was an intentional community. These communal-type living arrangements, which range from urban housing cooperatives to communes, number thousands across the United States. Some revolve around specific religious, social or environmental beliefs. Some require the pooling of income or other assets. Some consist of just a few people, others of hundreds. But what they all have in common is a desire to break away from an individualistic approach to life and create a community based around shared values, shared resources and mutual support.
Typically, people in an intentional community own land together or control a long-term lease on a property where they live. Individuals or families usually have their own private space — a room, apartment or house — but there are also common facilities shared by the group (a living room, meeting space or recreational area, for example). Members are generally required to contribute to the group in some way by helping with chores such as farming, childcare or food preparation, and by participating in collective decision-making on how the community is run.
According to Laird Schaub, executive secretary and co-founder of the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC), a clearinghouse for information and resources related to this field, interest in intentional communities has been growing over the past eight years. More than 2,000 communities or communities-in-formation are listed in the FIC’s online directory at ic.org — which Schaub emphasizes is not all-inclusive because some communities don’t want to be listed — and the number of visitors to the Web site has been growing by 10 percent per year, he said.
Schaub, 63, who lives in an income-sharing rural community in Missouri, said these types of living arrangements used to appeal mostly to young people in their 20s and 30s. That was particularly the case during the 1960s and 1970s, a period when intentional communities flourished in the United States. Now, older people are increasingly getting involved in the movement, he said.
Schaub attributes the change partly to “delayed curiosity” among progressive-minded baby boomers who may have been intrigued by communal living during the ’60s and ’70s and want to revisit the idea. Many are still healthy and active and don’t want to idle away on the sidelines of life waiting to be put in an assisted-living facility. By joining an intentional community, these older Americans can be a part of something, contributing their time, skills and experience to a group, he said. It’s also a great way for seniors to find companionship, particularly when a spouse has died, Schaub indicated.
For De Wolff, the search for a community has taken him and McKenzie all over the country. They’ve spent time on a well-known collective called “The Farm” in Tennessee, visited communities in Pennsylvania and Virginia, helped at a friends’ homestead in Arkansas, and worked on a community garden while living in a shared house in Savannah, Ga. They said they haven’t found their ideal community yet but won’t give up searching.
“I like being on the land. I like eating food that I’ve grown. It’s so strange to go to the supermarket now,” McKenzie said. “I’m not looking for a safe place to retire. I’m looking to be the most active I’ve been in my life. I want to bloom.”
In Los Angeles, meanwhile, one of the city’s most successful intentional communities is celebrating its 20th year in the Wilshire Center/Koreatown area. The Los Angeles Eco-Village Intentional Community is a two-block neighborhood, where about 40 residents dedicate themselves to living in a way that demonstrates the art of sustainable, healthy, community-oriented urban living. This includes cooperatively owned housing — where members enjoy rents well below market rate — community gardens, an organic food co-op and a volunteer-run bicycle repair space.
Among the members are several seniors, including co-founder Lois Arkin, 76, who says an intentional community is a place to which people of any age can bring value.
“There’s always a need for people to share in communities, for work to be done in the community, for truth to be told — which is sometimes easier for older people than for younger people — and certainly a sense of belonging,” Arkin said. “We read about the problems older people have in our societies, [but] we don’t think of them here. … I still work way more than full time and can’t imagine not doing it.”
Arkin, who was raised in a Conservative Jewish household and considers herself culturally Jewish, noted that Jews are well represented in intentional communities. In fact, she estimated as many as a quarter of the people she interacts with in these groups are Jewish.
“I think Jews like to think of themselves as very community-oriented and they’re drawn to community,” she said. “And of course we have this great history of the kibbutzim in Israel.”
But ultimately, Arkin believes, intentional communities can appeal to anyone wanting to make a difference in the world.
“There are so many people who want to change and don’t know what to do,” she said. “Living in community, you have mutual support for change. Living alone, you may change, but it’s hard to do without that support."