Seniors seek community with cohousing
Seniors seeking to age in place and longing to know their neighbors better, now have another option. The small but growing movement called cohousing features close-knit communities designed from the ground up by those who call them home.
At least 132 of these communities exist nationwide, according to the Cohousing Association of the United States, with another 100 being formed or under construction. The grassroots collaborative neighborhoods feature tight clusters of typically 20 to 40 homes — freestanding houses, condos or apartments — with common spaces built for shared meals and regular interaction. Residents take responsibility for managing the community, rather than turning that over to an outside organization, and tend to prioritize sustainable living.
Typically intergenerational in makeup, many cohousing communities attract seniors — and a handful of senior cohousing communities cater specifically to those 50 and up. “There’s a lot of choices out there right now for seniors, but many are cost-prohibitive and a lot of them are not very health nurturing,” says Alice Alexander, director of the Cohousing Association.
Experts say some seniors choose cohousing over increasing isolation as friends pass away and family move; to save money, such as on lower utilities for smaller residences; and because they prefer living in their homes as long as possible.
“There are some marvelous continuing care retirement facilities,” Alexander says. “My mother lives in one and loves it." However, she and others note that many aging individuals end up in independent living, assisted living or nursing homes earlier than necessary, when added support might allow them to age in their homes longer.
Getting to know the neighbors
A self-described ski bum, Bob Miller and his wife Claire, both in their late 60s, lived for a time near Lake Tahoe in California. “It’s an area of exquisite beauty,” Claire opines — and yet the couple felt they were missing something. “On a normal day, you probably wouldn’t run into one of your neighbors, and if you did, it was a casual wave and you probably didn’t know them,” Bob says.
The Millers longed for a closer community and found it in the growing cohousing movement. In 2012, the couple took up residence in one of 30 condos at Wolf Creek Lodge, a senior cohousing community in Grass Valley, California.
“I’m 69, I’m in tremendous health, but I’m very much aware people my age start to run into various health issues,” Bob says. Though the community doesn’t provide medical help, he’s confident neighbors, who he knows well, would lend a hand if he was ever recovering from a health issue.
Residents of Wolf Creek Lodge tend to a shared garden, maintain the neighborhood landscape, attend neighborhood meetings, and share meals three to five times a week. The Millers and other residents developed the community in a years-long planning process with architect Charles Durrett, who shares credit with his wife, architect Kathryn McCamant, for bringing the concept of cohousing to the U.S. from Denmark in the 1980s.
From California, the cohousing movement has spread to pockets across the country, to Anchorage, Alaska, and Boulder, Colorado, and Boston. “There’s cohousing in many areas,” Alexander says. Still, it remains relatively unknown to most. To date, it’s just getting going in the Southeast and doesn’t yet have as much of a presence in the Midwest, she says.
“It promotes a sense of community in many ways that have been lost in our society,” says Michael Olear, a real estate broker at highly rated MJ Peterson Real Estate, based in Buffalo, New York, who has written on the subject of cohousing after visiting Denmark and seeing all the cohousing communities there.
Olear says seniors on a budget have limited options for housing, noting long wait times for subsidized housing in western New York. “We’re right at the beginning of the Baby Boom,” he says. “For those who can’t afford high-end apartments," he says, and other similarly priced housing options, "there isn’t a lot.”
For single seniors, including those who are divorced, he thinks another option would be shared housing — living under one roof, for reasons such as to save money — another area of increasing interest among Boomers, experts say. “I just think we have to look at other alternatives,” Olear says.
Developing a cohousing community
Many kinds of so-called “intentional” communities exist, from ecovillages organized around ecology and sustainability to communes where residents share almost everything including income.
“Cohousing is just one aspect of that, but it’s the fastest growing option,” says Raines Cohen, certified senior advisor in Berkeley, California. “It’s more mainstream — banks will finance it, cities will approve it.” That’s mainly because residents own their own homes unlike in some other types of intentional communities, he says. “It’s just a condo development as far as they’re concerned,” he says, legally speaking, though as a resident of a cohousing community himself, Cohen sees it as much more.
“The way I describe it is gaining independence through a lot of interdependence,” he says. “By staying in communities, we can age in our own homes by taking care of each other. I call myself an aspiring elder. I’m 48.”
As in the case of the Millers, cohousing communities typically take years to plan and construct, including networking with future neighbors who have similar goals and linking with an architect to bring a shared vision to fruition. Cohen serves as a cohousing coach, guiding people through the process. His wife Betsy Morris, 59, is an urban planner.
Cohen's advice to anyone interested in cohousing: “Don’t wait.” Start networking with people you know, at places where people share your interests, such as farmer’s markets since a sustainability streak runs through most cohousing communities, and go online such as the Cohousing Association’s website. This site also lists architects and developers with experience in cohousing communities. Cross check any architects and home builders on Angie’s List.
Communities usually require an upfront investment to move dirt — a down payment on neighborhood construction financing — so talk to a financial planner before you plunk any money down. “Get familiar with details, insist on open books accounts,” Cohen says.
If possible, visit cohousing developments already in place for ideas and expect it to take years, not months, for a ground-up, grassroots community to come together. That means, seniors shouldn’t wait to start exploring options, if interested in aging in place in a community. “Don’t say, 'Oh, I’ll do it later when I need it,'” Cohen says.
Don’t expect utopia, either. Do expect enriching engagement — just more of it than in a typical neighborhood — and privacy when you desire it, Cohen says. It's important to find the right balance for you. “Like with so much in life,” he says.