Mary Peterson

Creator
ElderSpirit Community
Purpose Prize Fellow 2006

Building a cohousing community of mutual support and late-life spirituality.

At 18, Geraldine (Dene) Peterson left her parents and ten siblings to join a convent. She ultimately chose to leave the religious order, but her spirituality remained deeply rooted. In 1995, at age 65, she created the ElderSpirit Community in Abingdon, Virginia. Inspired by a Danish model, Peterson wanted to form a co-housing retirement community that would allow friends to live together in a collaborative and supportive setting while also offering some of the autonomy of private dwellings. Peterson also envisioned an alternative to institutional long-term care, a place where community members would have the emotional support of their peers as well as the necessary medical assistance to live out their lives at home. Using a creative patchwork of funding from public and private resources, Peterson raised $3.5 million, and her vision materialized. Construction of the 29 residences, common community building, and a prayer room was completed in late spring of 2006 and will house both the moderate and low-income. The model has gained national attention, and an ElderSpirit outreach extension program in now helping to plan similar communities in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Kansas, and Virginia.