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Empty nesters spread their wings

Liz Dichiara feeds the community chickens at Camelot Cohousing in Berlin. Nicholas Pfosi for the Boston Globe

They wanted freedom, community, and adventure.

If you had your druthers, these retirees thought, why not follow your heart?

Sandy and Carl Greenbaum traded their Lowell condo for a motor home and hit the road.

Cheryl and Brad Leonard sold their 15-room house in Middleborough and moved to a little condo on a pond in Plymouth.

Liz Dichiara left suburban life in Sharon to join a collaborative community in the countryside west of Boston, in Berlin.

Unlike many of their cohorts born between 1946 and 1964, these baby boomers aren’t following old scripts that direct people past midlife to retreat, withdraw, and hang their passions out to dry.


It was in the 1970s, when their two sons were preschoolers, that the Greenbaums moved temporarily from Hudson, N.H., to Seattle for Carl’s job as an engineer. They were about a half-day’s drive from three national parks and curious to see these treasures. So they decided to try camping.

“Carl converted our van to a mini motor home. He built hammocks inside for the kids, and we had a taste of camping,” says Sandy, 70, a retired educator.

Carl, 71, remembers the red shag rug and the eight-track tape player.

That was the beginning of family adventures that ended when the Greenbaums’ sons were teenagers and no longer so interested in spending time with their parents.

The decision for just the two of them to live on the road happened slowly.

In 2001, with one son in Vermont and the other in Florida, the Greenbaums sold their home in Southern New Hampshire and moved to a condo in Lowell, not far from Carl’s job as an engineering manager in Bedford.

Two years later, they embarked on a three-month trip to Alaska that would allow them to test out a life on the road before they retired the following year.


“The first year, it was six months [on the road]. The next it was seven months. Then eight, then nine,” says Carl, recalling how they decided to make the motor home their permanent residence. “We were home for too short a period. It was nuts to keep the condo, so we sold it.”

Carl and Sandy Greenbaum volunteering at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

At first, the Greenbaums were on their own, touring and attending rallies where they met other RV owners with whom they’d connected through an online community. Eventually, they began volunteering at national parks, wildlife preserves, and historic sites. Recently, they completed 15,000 hours of volunteer service, accumulated during roughly 13 years on the road. (Carl keeps track on spreadsheets.)

“We’re sure it helps keep us young and active,” Sandy says. “A lot of people are doing amazing things out there in retirement.”

It was 2008. Brad and Cheryl Leonard had lived in the historic Zachariah Eddy House in Middleborough for 35 years, raised four kids there, rented out apartments in the back, and for their last 15 years there, ran a bed and breakfast in the massive 10-bedroom house.

Then Brad, a state employee working in IT, was offered an early retirement buyout and took it.

“We wanted to travel in winter to warm places,” Cheryl says. “You can’t leave a house built in 1831 and travel, not knowing what’s going on. Plus, tenants. It was a necessity. To travel to warm places, we needed to sell the house.”


The couple, both 71 and married for 50 years, had set their sights on a unit at a new age 55-plus development in town, a practical choice.

But another twist of fate changed that plan, too. Brad had seen an ad for a condo on a pond in Plymouth, about 10 miles away. To satisfy their curiosity, they checked it out.

“It was on a small pond, no motorboats, a complex with nine units, landscaped,” Cheryl says, remembering how her heart skipped a beat when she saw the inside and realized that the unit — the smallest in the development — had the best views and the most sun exposure.

The new place, less than 1,000 square feet, was too small to fit even one piece of furniture from the old house. But that wasn’t a deal-breaker. Instead, Cheryl went shopping for new décor suited to a beach cottage, and a daughter took some of the antiques, now enjoyed by her parents when they visit.

“It’s way better than we ever imagined we could do,” Brad says.

Liz Dichiara was tired of rattling around the three-bedroom home in Sharon where she and her former husband had raised their two kids.

“I was sick of cutting the lawn, shoveling snow from the driveway and roof,” she says.

Dichiara, 56 and retired, had worked in high tech, taught preschool, and once ran for the Sharon Board of Selectman, promoting her campaign with the motto “Be the change you want to see.”


Now she was following that advice, and taking some more from her parents, who live in Northborough and wanted her to move closer to them.

Her mother, a retired schoolteacher, offered to show her a 55-plus community in nearby Berlin. But one good once-over and Dichiara knew it wasn’t for her.

“There’s a commune on the hill,” her mother told her, describing two developments, Mosaic Commons and Camelot Cohousing, located next to each other in a wooded area between interstates 290 and 495.

“We drove up the hill to Camelot, and it just spoke to me. I loved the colors, the light, the vibe,” says DiChiara, who bought her three-bedroom town house a year ago and recently became a member of the 34-unit board of trustees.

She shares lawn and garden chores with her neighbors, attends potlucks and game nights at the Common House, and is busy with new friends, volunteer work, and yoga classes.

“[The town house] is smaller. I have less maintenance. And there are more people in my life,” Dichiara says of her multigenerational community, where neighbors meet on a central path and stay connected by e-mail. “I can sit on my porch with a cup of tea and talk to people walking by.”

Her new home includes a sunny kitchen and bedrooms for her two adult kids. The location gives her options she didn’t have before: She can walk to three farms, an orchard, and an ice cream stand, or make a short trip by car to the supermarket or the mall.


But it’s the sense of community that sweetens this new life and lets Dichiara feel like she’s a grown-up at summer camp.

“I don’t feel retired,” she says.

Cheryl and Brad Leonard on the deck of their condo in Plymouth, where they spend hours reading together. John Tlumacki/Globe staff/Boston Globe

Hattie Bernstein can be reached at