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.
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.
Community Size: While the average cohousing development accommodates 15 to 30 households, some consist of as few as nine families. Having generated lots of empirical date, the Danes are clear: “Don’t try to get consensus with more than 50 adults or 35 seniors. There are other problems with too many people. Decisions get delegated; people can’t get what’s important to them on to the agenda; and they don’t have a chance to discuss agenda items with folks before the meeting.” The average size of a cohousing community, 40-100 people, allows residents to retain their autonomy and choose when — or when not — to participate in community activities. The freedom not to participate sometimes can help to create a living environment that accommodates people’s changing needs over the years.
Location: Locations of cohousing developments are limited by two factors, the availability of affordable sites and finding enough people interested in living in cohousing there. The majority are situated just outside metropolitan areas where sites are affordable and yet within reasonable distance from work, schools, and other urban attractions. That said, there are no hard and fast rules about location. Some cohousing communities are located in the inner cities. By contrast, at least ten communities have been established in semi-rural settings, some of them using a refurbished old farmhouse for the common house.. Bottom line: cohousing residents decide for themselves which location will work best for their particular desires and needs.
Design: Most cohousing communities have attached dwellings clustered around pedestrian streets or courtyards, although a few communities consist of detached single-family houses. Some communities mix attached dwellings with detached single-family structures. More recent complexes have dealt with their northern climate by covering a central pedestrian street with glass, thus allowing access between residences and the common house without needing to “go outside.” Cohousing is generally a new design enterprise because it is difficult to create the desired relationships between spaces in existing buildings.
Types of Financing and Ownership: Cohousing developments utilize a variety of financing mechanisms and ownership structures, either by choice or by local ordinances: privately owned condominiums, limited-equity cooperatives, rentals owned by nonprofit organizations, and a combination of private ownership and nonprofit-owned rental units. In each case residents initiate, plan, and manage the community, whether or not the units are owner-occupied or rented. Other than sometimes determining who can afford to live in the development, financing makes little difference in the actual functioning of a cohousing community.
Priorities: The priorities of cohousing groups are as varied as the residents themselves. In addition to seeking a sense of community, some groups emphasize ecological concerns, such as solar and wind energy, recycling, and organic community gardens. In other developments, residents place less priority on community projects and spend more time on individual interests such as local theatre groups, classes, or political organizations. And, of course, others are devoted to seniors.
Why Cohousing just for seniors?
Why would someone want to create a cohousing community dedicated to seniors? There is no simple answer, since housing is an individual choice. Mixed-generational cohousing is an option for seniors who are enticed by the hustle and bustle of children and the energy for life they generate. But regular cohousing communities typically focus their energies in places where seniors have already been—building careers, raising families, and the like. As well, concerns of younger cohousers do not usually hinge on health issues. While some seniors find the youthful vigor of a regular cohousing community to be refreshing, others feel like they’ve “been there, done that.” They value living in a senior community that has been designed around their unique needs and aspirations for company, for quiet, etc. They appreciate an environment in which they feel supported in their activities, health needs, and in possible contemplative practices.
So what alternatives are there? For too many Americans who find themselves either widowed and lonely or otherwise unable to effectively care for themselves and their homes as they once did, a planned retirement “community” or assisted-care institution beckons. It’s an odd predicament: most seniors have been capable, reliable people throughout their adult lives. They raised families, owned property, worked in various jobs, and/or ran their own businesses. They were active members of a larger community. But those seniors who choose the planned retirement community route too often find themselves alone, and now locked down behind the walls of a gated compound. As for the seniors in assisted-living care, they become, in effect, patients within an institution, where hired staff dictates the choice of food, the people with whom they can socialize, and the types of activities offered. At best, activities might be modified with residents’ input, but essentially the residents have given up control of their lives. And there’s no going back.
By contrast, in senior cohousing the residents themselves make their own decisions. They are not alone, nor are they lonely. They collectively decide who will cook, what to cook, when to eat, and so on. After dinner, they go to a show or play a card game. They set up quilting racks, make music, and plan the next workday.
Since relationships are paramount in a cohousing community, residents live next door to their friends and, over time, their previous best friends (from life before senior cohousing) move in. These seniors live among people with whom they share a common bond of age, experience, and community — a community they themselves built to specifically meet their own needs. These relationships provide purpose and direction in their lives and are as meaningful as any they have ever had. This is why cohousing is perfect for seniors.
The Intergenerational Argument
Since senior cohousing came onto the scene in 1985, people often debate which is “better” for seniors: intergenerational cohousing or senior cohousing. I have long ago chosen to stay out of this argument. My suggestion: go with what feels right for you! That’s the beauty of having options. Some seniors love intergenerational cohousing, others swear by senior cohousing. Only you know which is right for you, and I believe that it’s inappropriate to pass judgment on which is better. It’s an individual choice.
History of Senior Cohousing in Denmark
The Danes first addressed housing for low-income seniors in 1900 when they converted an old monastery into housing for the elderly. There, many people slept in small cubicles in dormitories, a primitive arrangement more suited to monks or schoolboys than to the elderly. However, the residents bonded with one another and developed a mutual support system that worked very well. Many of the residents refused to move when later offered more physically substantial housing.
In 1976, they put nursing homes and senior housing under one agency. What was a good idea on paper went horribly wrong in practice: seniors who moved into state-supported residences lost their pension and were granted only a small monthly allowance; moreover, they lived with little or no privacy and virtually no independence — they lived in an institution. The Danes described this housing as “the gate to hell,” and the elderly clung to their own homes as long as possible.
The entire system needed an overhaul, and in 1979, the government formed an advisor group, the National Senior Committee, to improve the country’s overall approach to senior issues. They succeeded in raising awareness about senior issues. To counter the view that seniors are merely old, frail people who are mostly a burden to the state, this group advocated that seniors are productive, valuable members of society and helped imagine and devise ways to keep them productive and connected. Senior Councils sprang up spontaneously in some cities, and they advised local officials about senior matters. The groundswell soon became policy, and in 1997, the national government mandated such councils. Additionally, a private national organization with similar objectives, called DaneAge (similar to the American Association of Retired People, AARP), was founded and became a popular force.
The Cohousing Model
In 1982, two Danish women, Tove Duvå and Lissy Lund Hansen, started to campaign for independence-oriented housing for seniors. They touted a successful model that was already in place: cohousing. But they ran into many roadblocks. A critical issue was whether the government would sponsor nonprofit cohousing. Potential residents wanted it because nonprofit status would offer apartments for rent at reasonable prices. Politicians, of course, were wary: How difficult would it be to rent these apartments to newcomers who might — or might not — be interested in a cooperative community?
Finally, the women succeeded in finding Lejerbo, a nonprofit housing developer who was willing to attempt the project; and in 1987 the first Danish senior cohousing complex, Midgården, came to be. The public response to this new development was overwhelmingly positive. Hundreds attended forums sponsored by the nonprofit Quality of Living in Focus (closed in 2001). Now private for-profit consultants (similar to the Cohousing Company in the US) have taken over this job to help seniors realize their projects.
State-Supported Care, Danish Style
In Denmark, there is government support for individuals to stay in their private house as they age. The government delivers medicine (but doesn’t pay for it all anymore), and some food, and it provides personal care and basic housecleaning services. So when people move into a senior cohousing community they are in effect complementing their government services with those that will be provided by their neighbors. These Danes know that government officials and workers won’t sit and play cards with them, or share a pot of tea and chat. And these official caregivers certainly won’t pull the weeds from their garden, come by for a birthday surprise, or invite them over for a snack and a movie. The Danish healthcare system, as good as it is, doesn’t provide emotional support, and, obviously, can’t do everything. This is why, even in Denmark, people are choosing to live in senior cohousing versus staying in their single-family houses. In-house care is on the wane in Denmark, yet another reason why senior cohousing is becoming more and more popular there.
Henry Nielsen’s Model
In 1995, another significant event in the history of senior cohousing occurred. Henry Nielsen, working with Quality of Living in Focus, developed a comprehensive model for the creation of senior cohousing communities that recognized the specific needs of seniors. It was a breakthrough. At last, here was a model — a blueprint, if you will — to help these groups successfully navigate through an otherwise uncertain process.
Nielsen’s model is based on the participatory process, and it neatly incorporates issues of co-care, design considerations, community size, and the group formation processes, among many other things. Once Danes began to use Nielsen’s method, the quantity and quality of senior cohousing communities increased significantly.
Henry Nielsen recognized that groups wishing to create a senior cohousing community needed a comprehensive model for realizing their goals. Nielsen’s aim was ambitious and multi-faceted. He sought a model that would:
• Make senior cohousing an option for everybody (not only the strong-willed).
• Identify and solve key problems that all seniors encounter during the process.
• Enhance the social aspects of the process, which, in turn, foster strong and durable communities.
• Make it easier and more satisfactory for developers and municipalities to start or support new senior cohousing projects.
• Guide the process from start to finish — and beyond.
Reprinted with permission from The Senior Cohousing Handbook by Charles Durrett, published by New Society Publishers, 2009.