Editor’s Note: Faced with the usual options for senior housing and elder care, some older adults are inventing their own grass-roots versions — do-it-yourself senior living that’s friendlier, more autonomous and less expensive. Fellows in the News21 program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism are posting video reports on four of these: a shared housing arrangement in White Plains, a senior cohousing development in Virginia, an urban village in Chicago and an RV community in East Texas. Following is a story about the RV community by Jason Tomassini and Dewi Cooke, News21 fellows at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and published by the New York Times.
When his vision failed, Ed Spake, 71, was on Route 105 in East Texas, driving a van that pulled a 19-foot recreational vehicle that he and his wife, Rae, had lived in for five years.
“I can’t see out of my right eye,” Mr. Spake told his wife. And with that, his driving days were over. The following year he was declared legally blind, a victim of age-related macular degeneration.
Full-time travel in an R.V. has become a popular lifestyle for independent-minded seniors. But age takes its toll, and there comes a time when even the hardiest have to think about parking the R.V. for good.
For the Spakes, the usual options for seniors who need care — assisted living, nursing homes, moving in with children — were unattractive or too expensive. So they made an unusual choice.
In Livingston, Tex., a 140-acre R.V. park called Rainbow’s End serves as the national headquarters of the Escapees Club, the largest association of R.V. enthusiasts. Next door sits a smaller park with 33 lots: Escapees Care, the country’s only assisted living facility for seniors in R.V.’s. It is, in many respects, the end of the road.
In 1993, the Spakes sold their belongings to travel the country, visiting 35 states along the way and living for months in state parks in South Dakota, Utah and Northern California. They moved to Escapees Care to get the health care they need while remaining in their R.V., surrounded by kindred spirits.
“I think of us as an extended family,” said Mrs. Spake, a loud, animated woman with a gravelly voice. The Spakes’ R.V. is now stationary and has a stained-wood deck.
For $824 a month per person, or $1,236 a couple, residents at Escapees Care have access to the Care Center, where registered nurses are on call 40 hours a week. They take regular blood pressure readings, clean and dress wounds, help residents with their medications and schedule doctors’ appointments. The monthly payment also covers laundry, transportation and three meals a day in the Care Center’s dining room.
The center offers adult day care for those with dementia and a weekly support group for those with low vision. During the latter, Mr. Spake usually dozes off on one of the center’s plush couches while his wife takes copious notes.
More important to most of the 50 or so residents, the community provides a social network, with daily activities like bingo, bluegrass concerts and Wii bowling.
For Father’s Day, Escapees Care staged a blind golf cart race. Competitors drove their carts, the primary mode of transportation there, around a parking-lot obstacle course of cones, with the passenger as navigator and the driver either blindfolded or actually blind.
Bud and Pearl Crispell, 94 and 93 respectively, had decorated their cart with an American flag. Mr. Crispell donned flame-covered hot pants with “Hot 4 U” printed across the rear. Residents in folding chairs lined the course to cheer. (Mr. Crispell, the navigator, and his wife, the driver, earned style points but not much else, failing to finish in the top three.)
At Escapees Care, “you’re more aware of what life is really like and how important other people are to you,” said Mr. Spake, who did not compete. “Whether you can see them or hear them or whatever, it’s just enjoyable meeting people.”
The Care Center is often called “Kay’s Dream” after Kay Peterson, who founded the Escapees Club in 1978 as a way to unite the R.V. community; she and her husband, Joe, hit the road in their R.V. back in 1970. Rainbow’s End soon followed, along with similar parks where fellow travelers can establish residency, get mailing addresses and register to vote.
As the years passed, Mrs. Peterson, a former nurse, watched physical ailments drive her peers into undesirable living situations. In 1997, with $170,000 in donations from Escapees Club members, she opened the Care Center. Now, residents’ dues cover about 56 percent of operating costs, while the rest is paid for with Escapees’ donations.
“If your situation changes, there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Mrs. Peterson, who lives in a detached single-family home at Rainbow’s End, her R.V. parked nearby. “I made up my mind years and years ago that if I ever could, I would start a place where you didn’t have to put a bunch of money down.”
Some older residents, like the Crispells, have turned in their keys and no longer drive. Faced with the same question as many older adults — what to do if their health worsens substantially — the Crispells have already decided to seek hospice care in their R.V.
“We listened to our bodies,” Mrs. Crispell said.
The Spakes still talk about taking more trips while Mrs. Spake is still healthy enough to drive. “You miss the sights and sounds of new places,” said Mrs. Spake, sounding a bit wistful. “There’s a lot of places yet to go — if we get there.”