Back to the Garden:
Woodstock Nation Values Re-emerge

by Janet Stambolian and Janice Blanchard

By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong.
and everywhere there was song and celebration…
We are stardust, we are golden
and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

— Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock,” 1969

Were You There?

In the interest of full disclosure, Janet wishes to preface this article with the following true confession: “I didn’t actually go to Woodstock. In August of 1969, I was working in the inner city in New Jersey at Upward Bound. My sister attempted to defy our mother and go, but when our mother threatened to kill herself, my sister changed her mind.”

Janice, likewise, did not go to Woodstock. Although technically a boomer, she was only 9-years-old. Although her oldest brother wanted to go, their mother wouldn’t hear of it either!

Whether or not you were there, if you were a certain age or older at the time — and had a pulse — you knew that something really big had happened on Yasgur’s Farm. All these years later, the event still has power as a cultural watershed moment for many baby boomers.

Perhaps we were just looking for a bit of good news

Boomers endured serious, wrenching political turmoil and trauma during our youth, and in those days no grief counselors or school psychologists were on hand to help out. Kids essentially dealt with it on their own and within their families, already grappling with grief of their own: four assassinations (including Malcolm X), a war that tore the country apart, the infamous chaos at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, and the election of Richard Nixon. Boomers were lurching to the end of the decade crushed, anxious, and yearning for evidence that goodness could still be realized somehow, somewhere.

What happened at Woodstock presented that evidence.

The Woodstock Music and Art Festival occurred during the height of the counterculture movement of the 1960s. From August 15–17, 1969, the place to “be-in” was Max Yasgur’s farm, in Bethel, NY. Nearly half a million young free spirits gathered for “three days of peace and love” to hear stellar music and, in the process, became a spontaneous community that would come to be known as Woodstock Nation.

Despite the rain, mud, shortage of water and food, and an over-abundance of mind-altering drugs, there were no riots, fights, nor acts of violence. Instead, the hallmark experience for many who attended was the sense of community fostered through people sharing what they had, helping one another cope with adversity while grooving to the music and each other. For the generation that had become best known for what we stood against, Woodstock showed the world what we stood for — freedom to be our truest selves, acceptance of one another, and living together in peaceful harmony, even in adversity.

Inspired by the possibility of a different way of living, millions of young people joined others in communes, ashrams, and kibbutzim, or banded together in old houses, farms, and school buses to intentionally create community and live out the values that many felt epitomized Woodstock Nation — communitarianism, egalitarianism, environmentalism, social activism, and a general rejection of traditional values and conventional institutions such as marriage, gender roles, and mainstream religion. In sharing the rhythms of daily life, we created bonds between us in ways unheard of by our parents — sharing personally, intimately, deeply with unrelated people outside of our families. While most eventually rejoined mainstream society, many of us recall this period of living in community with other like-minded individuals as one of the most remarkable, growth-oriented, and satisfying times of our lives.

At the Crossroads Again

Boomers once again stand at a crossroads as we leave middle-aged adulthood and begin the journey into elderhood. As was true when we left adolescence and entered adulthood, the customary path that our parents and grandparents traveled is not one that many are willing and/or able to take into the “sunset years of retirement.” For better or worse, the mid-twentieth-century paradigm of life past age 65 as a time to withdraw from work, collect a pension, and enjoy a life of leisure — in a Sunbelt retirement community or in one’s home — has become a mirage.

While many boomers, especially leading-edge boomers born between 1946 and 1955, tend to be healthier, wealthier, and better educated than their parents, this is a broad generalization for an enormous and diverse generation. For example, unlike our parents and grandparents, a significant number of boomers have never married or are divorced; nearly 20 percent do not have children, and the majority live a great distance from relatives. Furthermore, a significant number of our generation do not have adequate savings or retirement income, especially since the economic downturn of 2008. Chuck Durrett, of McCamant & Durrett, a pioneering architectural firm that specializes in ecologically sensitive cohousing projects for seniors and others, says: “Cooperation is the watershed in grappling with this economic downturn. It doesn’t make any sense — economically, emotionally, and environmentally — for retired people to be living in these isolated homes, making thousands of individual trips to the grocery store and pharmacy.”

For many boomers, this life-stage transition evokes that earlier period in our lives when we rejected the well-worn path ahead and sought out like-minded others to forge a new trail. The values inspired at Woodstock and kept alive in our hearts and minds all these years might once again provide a road map into the future. As the country has changed and become in many ways a strange and foreign land, economic, social, and environmental trends suggest a scenario where it is not only appealing, but increasingly necessary, to “get back to the garden.”

Woodstock and Aging in Community

Tending the Same Garden

In the spring of 2006, I sang along with Joni Mitchell, replaying the song “Woodstock” over and over again, as I made the long drive to Dr. Bill Thomas’s farm in central New York. An emerging nonprofit organization, Second Journey, had convened a group of thought leaders to re-think the meaning and purpose of growing older including where we grow older. Driving, I felt that same elation and anticipation I had felt 37 summers earlier when that “other” event was happening at another New York farm. I was two years shy of 60. “Sixty is the new forty,” my peers were fond of saying. Though I recognized the implicit ageism in that adage, I also recognized that mine was not going to be my mother’s 60! Indeed, boomers have redefined every other life stage; undoubtedly we will change old age as well.

At the end of a powerful weekend, we crafted a phrase to reflect our values and our approach to elderhood: aging in community. Below you will find two tables which suggest some striking similarities between the values that epitomize Woodstock Nation (Table 1) and the principles of Aging in Community (Table 2).

While these parallels are not intentional, they do not surprise me. The majority who gathered at Thomas’s farm were boomers; most had experienced living in community and (likely) felt strong affinities to the values of “Woodstock Nation.” More broadly, many who currently live or who are considering living in housing arrangements that support “aging in community” are boomers. Like our core group, most tasted the experience of community earlier in their lives and are also likely to strive to live the values and principles outlined in the two tables below. This is not to say that all people who embrace the values of Woodstock are necessarily interested in an aging-in-community living arrangement — but they are likely to agree with the core principles. Alternatively, if the values of Woodstock Nation do not resonate for a person, it’s unlikely that the aging-in-community model would be an appealing lifestyle choice.

“As a generation, boomers have a unique relationship to the idea of community,” notes Tony Sirna of The Fellowship of Intentional Communities. “Partly because of the Counterculture, many retirees are choosing to create non-corporate senior cohousing, as opposed to traditional senior communities in which they feel institutionalized.”

Economics, demographics, and politics may once again rally boomers to rebel against the current prescribed social norms for old age. Already, we are seeing signs across the cultural landscape that many boomers — particularly in their choice of living arrangements — are coming full circle back to their Woodstock-era values. Whether they live in a group house with services brought in as needed, a shared apartment, a full-on hippie-style commune, or an aging-in-community neighborhood, they will likely live longer and more fulfilling later lives if they choose to grow old together. “The results here are truly amazing,” declares Kirby Dunn, of Homeshare in Burlington, VT. Referencing a number of studies that gauge the effects of shared housing, Dunn concludes, “Across all programs and age-brackets, people say they feel safer, are less lonely, happier, and sleep better.”

Table 1: Woodstock Nation Values

  • Communitarianism is belief that “we are all in this together,” that people are interdependent, need one another, and mutually benefit from loving one another. This philosophy led to the flowering of communes, ashrams, intentional communities, and other collaborative economic and social arrangements that centered on living more interdependently. The back-to-the-land movement embraced sustainability, self-sufficiency, living simply, raising children consciously, and caring for the land and all living beings.
  • Egalitarianism is a commitment to treating everyone equally regardless of sex, gender, race, ethnicity, or age. This value was the basis of the social movements in the 1960s and 1970s (Civil Rights, Women’s Movement and Gay/Lesbian Rights).
  • Environmentalism is a belief that the earth is a fragile and interdependent ecosystem that has finite resources, and humans have a moral obligation to be good stewards of these resources. This value resulted in activism that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Earth Day, the Greenpeace movement, and numerous non-profit organizations dedicated to protecting animals, plants, air, ocean, and land.
  • Integration of Mind, Body, and Spirit is belief that the body, mind, and spirit are interconnected. Boomers began exploring other religions, philosophies, and spiritual practices as well as adopting a more holistic view of health, which led to interest in organic foods; alternative medicine, such as acupuncture, homeopathy, and natural childbirth; and physical and mental fitness practices such as tai chi, yoga, and meditation.
  • Social Activism is belief that the status quo or “Establishment” of the time was unfair, corrupt, based on greed and authoritarianism, and headed in the wrong direction for the health of the people and the planet. Further, this value implied direct action such as protests, marches, boycotts, and sit-ins to promote social, economic, political, and environmental change.

Table 2: Aging in Community Principles

  • Inclusive — People of all ages, race/ethnicities, and abilities, especially elders, are welcome.
  • Sustainable — Residents are committed to a lifestyle that is sustainable environmentally, economically, and socially. Size matters. People need to know each other, and scale determines the nature of human interaction. Small is better.
  • Healthy — The community encourages and supports wellness of the mind, body, and spirit and, to the same degree, plans and prepares programs and systems that support those dealing with disease, disability, and death.
  • Accessible — The setting provides easy access to the home and community. For example, all homes, businesses, and public spaces are wheelchair-friendly and incorporate universal design features. Multiple modes of transportation are encouraged.
  • Interdependent — The community fosters reciprocity and mutual support among family, friends, and neighbors and across generations.
  • Engaged — The community promotes opportunities for community participation, social engagement, education, and creative expression.

In comparing these two tables, it is easy to see how the values of Woodstock Nation and the principles of aging in community harmonize in a number of ways when building community. Combining them together, they can be implemented in the design, structure, and interaction of a community in the following ways:

Embrace interdependence

No person is an island — by our human nature, we need one another. Like other primates, we do best in small groups such as villages or neighborhoods, even when located in urban settings. By acknowledging this human condition, we can better design and build homes and neighborhoods to maximize human interaction and interdependence, particularly in later life. By sharing common space, pooling and sharing resources, and fostering reciprocity and mutual support, we give up some privacy and the illusion of “independence” in exchange for deeper human connections and potentially a more meaningful quality of life.

Plan for everyone

Diversity is the spice of life, and inclusiveness builds the most cohesive and welcoming community. Planning and building for all ages, abilities, income levels, and backgrounds includes incorporating accessible design features (such as universal design principles), housing for all income levels, and community spaces that can be used by all age groups and ability levels.

Incorporate sustainability

At every level we should strive to reduce an individual’s or the community’s use of natural resources. For example, at the planning and building levels, we can draw on the criteria established for L.E.E.D. (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification; build smaller living units/dwellings and more densely designed neighborhoods; aim for net zero or very low carbon footprint buildings; and plan site orientation to maximize daylight, views, and solar gain. Within the day-to-day operations, we should maximize ease for residents to recycle, compost, reuse, reclaim, or redirect resources; use alternative or public transportation; support the local economy; and incorporate other measures that increase sustainability.

Encourage wellness of mind, body, and spirit

Whether in the home or in the community, there should be thought given to creating spaces for spiritual and physical practices that encourage wellness. A meditation garden, labyrinth, community garden, or an area in which to practice yoga, tai chi, or meditation are just a few examples of places where individuals or small groups can practice wellness. In larger communities, paths that can accommodate walking, skating, or biking; sports areas; or an exercise facility not only encourage personal fitness and health — they also provide opportunities to form social connections and friendships that build community.

Promote social activism

Ideally, aging in community not only promotes activism within the community through self-governance, volunteerism, and other social contributions — it also reaches out to the larger community in similar ways. Creating a good place to live requires consciousness and action on issues inside and outside the neighborhood, whether it is creating a community “time bank,” lobbying for access to public transportation, or protesting a new development on environmental grounds.

aging in community

A 21st-Century Approach to Community Development

The aforementioned strategies are more than theoretical ideas of how to build great communities. Comprehensive design — master site planning, architecture, landscape — plays a critical role in furthering the social values and principles that inspire the aging-in-community model. That model anticipates from the beginning the integration of what might be thought of as dual axis: (1) the built environment and (2) the social software.

The built environment refers to tangible aspects of community development — site plan, layout and relationships of formal to informal interaction, unit design, building orientation, green/universal design — in sum, any aspect of design that helps residents experience a sense of place. Examples of the built environment could include new neighborhoods or master-planned communities, retrofitted apartment or condominium buildings, cohousing neighborhoods, housing cooperatives, shared housing, affinity housing, or other housing and neighborhood configurations including ones for those in need of more intensive medical or supportive environments.

Social software refers to those aspects of a community that feed social, spiritual, physical, emotional, educational, creative, and civic life that help establish a sense of community connectedness among all neighbors/residents. They include programs and activities that enhance the quality of life for residents and which, ultimately, maximize the ability of residents to remain in their own homes or residences of choice and remain connected to their communities. Examples of social software include community-based health services such as Eden at Home; the Nurse Block Program and Share the Care; cultural enrichment programs like the Circle of Care Project and Elders Share the Arts; civic engagement programs such as the Experience Corp and Environmental Alliance of Senior Involvement; and community-building programs such as community gardens and farmers’ markets.

The degree to which both the built environment and the social software are brought into alignment from conception exponentially increases the probability of creating the hoped-for outcome — a supportive neighborhood that enhances an individual’s well-being and quality of life at home and as an integral part of the community across the age continuum.

The aging-in-community model draws on the expertise of developers and builders to expedite the design and construction of new projects; however, it also invites future residents to become involved and consulted in decisions affecting their eventual community.

Conclusion

Aging in Community represents a proactive model that intentionally creates supportive neighborhoods to enhance the well-being and quality of life for residents of all ages and abilities, particularly elders. The model promotes a deliberate consciousness about being a good neighbor and a good steward of our fragile planet.

It encourages a sense of social trust and interdependence which is strengthened through positive interactions and collaboration in shared interests and pursuits. The model recognizes elders’ wisdom and experience and creates opportunities to share these qualities with others in the community and in the community-at-large.

For the past 40 years, through life’s changes and against formidable odds, many idealistic boomers have retained their commitment to the values that inspired them during the amazing period of transformation and expansion in their youth. The time is now for planners, architects, developers, and builders to work diligently and help those who want to “get back to the garden” do so with a strong sense of community, meaning, and full engagement.
 


Janet Stambolian, M.Ed., is Director of Business Development for Mackenzie Architects. She has devoted her 35-year career in construction, project management, marketing, and business development to creating environments that enhance the quality of life, promote meaningful intergenerational connection, and tread lightly on the environment. A lifelong community builder, Janet connects and engages people in a common goal through a team-centered, holistic approach. She works to expedite the design, development, and construction of new models of communities nationally. Contact Janet at 802-578-6255 or jstambolian@mackenziearchitects.com.

Janice Blanchard, M.S.P.H., is a gerontologist and nationally recognized writer, speaker, and consultant on aging issues. For 20 years she has worked on the cutting edge of public policy and programs promoting a new vision of elders as valuable members of our communities and of elderhood as a distinct phase of the human life cycle.


Notes

1 See “The Roseto effect: a 50-year comparison of mortality rates” at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1695733/.