Friendships Help Seniors Remain at Home

The Alliance homes of Marin County are ideal places for older people to remain as they age because they lack stairs and are well located. Equally important though is friendship -- and that is what Carolyn Blackburn and Diane Carter have. Photos by Dave Weinstein

For decades Carolyn Blackburn was known to her neighbors in the mid-century modern San Rafael neighborhood of Terra Linda as the woman with the pink Mustang.

Today the Mustang is garaged. It has been sold and is awaiting pickup from the buyer. “I’m 98,” says Carolyn. “I don’t drive anymore.” But she is still enjoying life, thanks to good health, a great home and neighborhood – and a new friend.

For more on this topic, read ‘Aged in Comfort,’ in this sneak preview of the spring '17 issue of CA-Modern magazine, where Cathye Smithwick writes about longtime owners of modern homes who love their homes so much they forego the conveniences of retirement communities.

Neither Carolyn Blackburn nor her friend Diane Carter are contemplating such a move – though many of their friends and former neighbors have done just that. Carolyn and Diane live in a neighborhood of Alliance homes, which we also visit in the spring issue, adjacent to a neighborhood of Eichlers. Carolyn, who has lived in her home for 48 years, raising a son there, loves both the home and the neighborhood too much to leave.

Today Carolyn Blackburn's pink Mustang is garaged and has been sold to a new owner. But for years it was a mobile landmark in Terra Linda.

She remembers her first sight of the area, back in 1943 when she was serving as a Marine – that’s right a Marine, and one of the first women Marines too – in San Francisco, dispatching equipment overseas.

“There was nobody here in 1943,” she recalls. “Who thought I would be living in Marin County after all these years?”

She also recalls her first visit to an Eichler, in the same neighborhood, more than a decade later, when a friend bought one in Terra Linda. “I came over and I could not believe the lightness and the airiness. I loved it.”

She appreciates that the house is level, which makes it easy to get around, and lacks stairs, which are dangerous. She mentions a friend who fell on stairs.

Diane also appreciates the accessibility of these modern homes. When her late husband Jack was ill, a couple of years ago, Diane did alter the shower to accommodate him, and add grab bars so he could haul himself out of the wheelchair he used towards the end.

The arabesques that make up the wallpaper that decorates the entry to Carolyn Blackburn's home suggests something of her lively style.

“For wheelchair access [to the exterior],” she says, “all you need is ramp to go up four inches.”

Carolyn also praises Terra Linda’s weather. “The climate is fantastic,” she says. “It’s the best in Marin County, the least wind. Even right around here, it will be sunny and bright here and cold in downtown San Rafael.”

Both she and Diane rhapsodize about the neighborhood’s convenient location, an easy walk or short drive to shopping, a movie theater, schools, and only half a mile to Kaiser Hospital. Ever since she had a non-injury collision with the Mustang that marked the end of her driving days, Carolyn has learned about transit services for seniors.

“There are freebie rides that will take you almost anywhere you want to go two or three times a month,” she says.

Carolyn does miss driving the Mustang, a 1967 model that she bought in downtown San Rafael the year she moved to Terra Linda. She put 65,000 miles on it, mostly in Marin, sometimes hitting the East Bay.

“Pink is one of my favorite colors. It’s a good, sturdy car,” she says. “It’s the only car I’ve ever owned. I tell you, it’s wonderful. It’s the best thing I ever did.”

About Terra Linda, Diane appreciates the mini-trails that connect the various residential streets. “The alleys are terrific,” she says. “The kids would use them to go to school. It was a direct shot.”

Every neighborhood should have one home -- at least -- that remains intact, just to show how well designed the homes were in their details as well as their form. The kitchen of Diane Carter's home is a fine example.

Diane also cites state Prop 13, which has essentially frozen property tax rates for people who remain in their homes. “If you’ve been here a while, your house is cheap and taxes are low,” she says, citing lower house costs in Portland, but where high property taxes mean higher total costs.

But lifestyle, not money, is the big issue for her.

“Just look at my garden,” Diane says to indicate that has no plans to move. The garden, which she works herself, is a marvel, with an arbor of trailing lemon tree limbs and wonderful places to sit and relax and enjoy.

She could also point to her house itself, which could be the most intact structure among the Alliance homes.

The home retains its intact footprint -- though Diane and her husband did turn the garage into bedrooms. For a while, they had a blended family of six kids. Everything else is basically intact too, the original mahogany paneling, the sculptural shelves that separate kitchen from living areas, and the original stained wooden ceiling.

“I just liked the house so much I didn’t want to change,” Diane says.

Growing old in a community means that you watch as old friends either pass away or move away. Carolyn and Diane have gotten to know their newer neighbors, but generally in a casual way.

“People are nice and friendly and say howdy,” Diane says, and laughs. “Once in a while somebody brings me something to eat. People are very busy.”

Here's one of the 'alleys' in the Terra Linda neighborhood that allows people to make shortcuts, and to enjoy getting away from the street in a mini-park. Next to it is an Alliance home,

Diane has some advice for people advancing in years: “Stay in your house, especially if you have children in your area, and try to be as independent as you can.”

She notes that neither she nor Carolyn have children in the area, and Carolyn was feeling lonely when her neighbor and good friend Donna moved to a retirement home. But then something happened, and it suggests another piece of advice.

Make new friends.

Carolyn and Diane had been neighbors for decades, and they recognized each other's faces but that was it. Then they met at a grocery store. They got to talking. Today they are fast friends.

“I met Diane. That was a godsend,” Carolyn says, adding, “I couldn’t do without her.”

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