Senior Cohousing Provides Community Assistance with Living

Instead of assisted living, or managing a large home without help, cohousing creates a small neighborhood of independent individuals who all do what they are able in order to maintain a mutually beneficial and enjoyable community.


  • Seniors eating at a community table
    Some seniors prefer intergenerational cohousing. There are 21 seniors (and 37 kids) in Nevada City Cohousing. Other seniors prefer senior cohousing.
    Photo by Charles Durrett
  • Sketch of a walkway between attached homes
    Sketch of Hearthstone Cohousing Community, North Denver, Colorado.
    Photo by Charles Durrett
  • Attached cohousing homes
    Bellingham Cohousing, Bellingham, Washington.
    Photo by Charles Durrett
  • Couple conversing on main walkway
    Pleasant Hill Cohousing, Pleasant Hill, California.
    Photo by Charles Durrett
  • FrogSong cohousing aerial view
    FrogSong Cohousing from the air.
    Photo by Charles Durrett
  • Residents working outdoors
    Common work days like this one at Bellingham Cohousing take care of outdoor maintenance. Commonly, people are obligated to 20-30 hours per year to maintain common real estate. Older residents often help shop, make snacks, or do related administration, but never underestimate their work ethic.
    Photo by Charles Durrett
  • Walkway lined with sunflowers
    Nevada City Cohousing.
    Photo by Charles Durrett
  • Darawing of Nevada City Cohousing site plan
    Nevada City Cohousing site plan.
    Photo by Charles Durrett
  • “The Senior Cohousing Handbook” by Charles Durrett.
    Photo courtesy of New Society Publishers

  • Seniors eating at a community table
  • Sketch of a walkway between attached homes
  • Attached cohousing homes
  • Couple conversing on main walkway
  • FrogSong cohousing aerial view
  • Residents working outdoors
  • Walkway lined with sunflowers
  • Darawing of Nevada City Cohousing site plan

Successful and dignified aging for most seniors means maintaining control over their own lives and not feeling burdensome to their children. Unfortunately, with living situations limited to options like retirement facilities, assisted living, personal caregivers, or reliance on family for help and housing, the loss of independence and self-sufficiency may seem unavoidable. In The Senior Cohousing Handbook, Charles Durrett not only gives an enlightening overview of cohousing as a whole, but encourages seniors and families to consider this approach to aging with their independence intact. Cohousing is a way of cost-efficient, environmentally-friendly communal living, where custom-built neighborhoods fit the needs and aspirations of their residents. Here there are shared resources, safety and security, and perhaps most importantly, accessible social contact, which leads to better physical, mental, and emotional health. Built with an intentional emphasis on autonomy, cohousing provides a way to grow old in community.

In villages, people work together to build a schoolhouse, raise a barn, harvest the crops, celebrate the harvest, and more. Similarly, residents in cohousing enjoy the benefits of cooperation, whether by organizing common dinners, social activities, or caring for an elderly resident. Both communities build social relationships by working together to address practical needs. Cohousing offers the social and practical advantages of a closely-knit neighborhood consistent with the realities of 21st-century life. While incorporating many of the qualities of traditional communities, cohousing is distinctively contemporary in its approach, based on the values of choice and tolerance. Residents choose when and how often to participate in community activities and seek to live with a diverse group of people. Cohousing is a “best of all worlds” solution.

In addition to its social advantages, cohousing offers numerous environmental benefits. Depending on the design, cohousers on average drive about 60 percent less and use 50-75 percent less energy for heating and cooling than they did in their previous homes (for a family of three), in part because the passive cooling measures (cross ventilation, holding the night cooling, etc.), are so effective. Cohousing residences are about 60 percent the size of average new American houses, and cohousing communities on average occupy less than 30 percent as much land as the average new subdivision for the same number of households. But what impresses me most about working with cohousing communities is watching the best intentions of the group for living lighter on the planet percolate to the collective consciousness after being initiated by a few individuals. Community is really the secret ingredient to living lighter on the planet.

Six Components of Cohousing

Cohousing can be found in many forms — from urban factory loft conversions to suburban cities to small towns. Whatever the form, cohousing projects share these six components:



  • Participatory Process: Active participation of residents, from the earliest planning stages through construction, is the first—and possibly most important—component of cohousing. Often a core group of 6 to 12 families establishes a development program, finds the site, hires the architect, and then seeks other interested people. Typically, all of the houses are sold or rented before the project is finished.
  • Deliberate Neighborhood Design: Physical design is critically important in facilitating a social atmosphere. For example, placing parking at the edge of the site allows the majority of the development to be pedestrian-oriented and thus safe for seniors and grandchildren alike, which enhances the neighborhood atmosphere. For senior cohousing, design must be tailored to seniors, but every possible interior safety feature does not have to be installed at the outset. It is critical that every possible measure should be taken to avoid an institutional look. Houses should be warm and inviting and well lit—like a Parisian café. A flexible building design is also important, so that the units can be modified to suit owners who are aging or who are new owners. Every senior cohousing community I visited had remote parking. When asked, these especially conscious seniors said things like, “I used to simply drive directly into my garage. But it’s more important for my long-term well-being to see, talk to, and hang out with my neighbors. While the community is built in the planning phase, the design sustains the community once the honeymoon has worn off.”
  • Extensive Common Facilities: While each private home is a complete house in and of itself, just like any traditional home, cohousing communities have common areas that supplement the private houses. Private houses in cohousing can be smaller than typical houses because features such as workshops, guest rooms, and laundry are located in the common house, and because large-scale entertainment can happen there. The common house is an extension of each private residence, based on what the group believes will make their lives easier and more economical, not to mention more fun and more interesting.  The common facilities often extend beyond the common house to include barns and animal sheds, greenhouses, a car repair garage, and in one case, a tennis court and swimming pool.
  • Complete Resident Management: Major decisions are made by residents at common meetings, usually held once a month. These meetings provide a forum for residents to discuss issues and solve problems. Responsibilities are typically divided among work groups in which all adults must participate. Duties like cooking common dinners and cleaning the common house are usually rotated. Under a system of resident management, problems cannot be blamed on outsiders.
  • Non-Hierarchal Structure: Although residents state opinions about certain, the community shares responsibility. The community doesn’t depend on one person for direction. A “burning soul” may get the community off the ground, another may pull together the financing, and another may arrange the venue for each meeting. This division of labor is based on what each person feels he or she can fairly contribute.
  • Separate Income Sources: The economics of most cohousing communities are more or less like a typical condominium project. There is no shared community effort to produce income. As the example of a typical commune model has shown, when the community provides residents with their primary income, the dynamics among neighbors change—and it adds another level of community beyond the scope of cohousing.

The Architecture of Cohousing

A central path usually connects the individual homes. Often, a common terrace faces the houses and can seat everyone for dinner or other activities. There are gathering nodes along the walkway, such as a picnic table or sand box. Such nodes are associated with every five to nine houses. The houses have front porches at least seven feet deep and nine feet wide, so people will actually use the space. The kitchen is oriented toward the common side of the house, with the sink facing the community, so residents cooking or washing dishes can see people coming and going. More private areas (such as living rooms and bedrooms) face the rear, or private side, of the house. Optimally, residents can see the common house from most, if not all, of the houses and can see if others are using it. The common house generally contains a common dining room, a kitchen, a media room, a laundry room, a sitting room, and other activity rooms such as a workshop, craft room, music room, and others depending on the group’s desires. In a senior cohousing community, the common house often has large guest rooms to accommodate an extended visit from family or for professional caregivers if residents need help.

Further Considerations

Building a viable cohousing community requires that the residents remain true to more than the spirit of the ideal. As such, the following issues greatly influence how a cohousing community develops, both in the short and long term.

hattiesenter
12/21/2018 9:36:03 PM

Great read. Thanks for sharing.


MichaelLesley
3/24/2018 4:36:57 AM

All of us require some support in one way or another, either directly or indirectly to survive. Assisted living facility, memory care unit, independent living apartments or Cohousing are some of the ways society offers the seniors to lead their lives in a comfortable surrounding. Many of these also include the different section for the seniors suffering from Alzheimer or dementia. They require extra care and special attention to lead a normal life. The dementia care NJ(http://jchcorp.org/dementia-care-morris-county-nj) facilities have trained staff to take care of our loved ones. This also gives seniors the freedom to live in their own private space among the people like them.




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