Alternative Senior Cohousing Options

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Cover Courtesy New Society Publishers
A Community Approach to Independent Senior Living

No matter how rich life is in youth and middle age, the elder years can bring on increasing isolation and loneliness as social connections lessen, especially if friends and family members move away. The Senior Cohousing Handbook (New Society Publishers, 2009) is a comprehensive guide to joining or creating a cohousing project, written by the U.S. leader in the field. Author, Charles Durrett, deals with all the psychological and logistical aspects of senior cohousing, and addresses common concerns, fears, and misunderstandings. 

Some years ago I lost my husband and went through a difficult time. But I am glad that I lived here when it happened since it meant that I never felt unsafe. I was not together with other residents all the time, but I knew they were there for me if I needed them. And when I came home at night I could feel the warmth approach me as I drove up our driveway. —Møllebjerg in Korsør, Denmark 

So many American seniors live in places that do not accommodate their most basic needs. In the typical suburb, the automobile is a de facto extension of the single-family house. Driving is an absolute requirement for a person wanting to conduct business, shop, or participate in social activities. As we get older, as our bodies and minds age, the activities we once took for granted aren’t so easy anymore: the house becomes too big to maintain; a visit to the grocery store or doctor’s office becomes a major expedition; and the list goes on. Of course many, if not most, seniors recognize the need to take control of their own housing situation as they age. They dream of living in an affordable, safe, readily accessible neighborhood where people of all ages know and help each other. But then what? What safe, affordable, neighborhood-oriented, readily accessible housing choices actually exist?

The modern single-family detached home, which constitutes about 67 percent of the American housing stock, is designed for the mythical nuclear family consisting of a working father, a stay-at-home mother, and two point four children. Today, less than 25 percent of the American population lives in such households. Almost 25 percent of the population lives alone, and this percentage is increasing as the number of Americans over the age of 60 increases. At the same time, the surge in housing costs and the increasing mobility of the population combine to break down traditional community ties. And, for the first time in the history of the US more women live without husbands than with.

Currently, seniors represent a record 12.4 percent of the American population, which, with the swell of post-WWII baby boomers entering seniorhood, will increase to 20 percent by the year 2030. Clearly, action must be taken, and quickly, to correct these household and community shortcomings. But what can be done, and by whom? How can we better house ourselves as we age?

I believe that the answer lies in senior cohousing communities. Having visited many of these communities, I’m now a firm believer that 20 seniors stranded on a desert island would do better at taking care of most of their basic needs than the same 20 left isolated or in an institution.

Searching for a Solution 

When I was in Denmark a couple of years ago to further study senior cohousing, I was there, admittedly, for somewhat selfish reasons.

The agonies of placing my own mother in an assisted-living facility were still fresh. Her story is, unfortunately, typically American: at 72 years old and determinedly, but detrimentally, living alone, she could no longer competently care for herself. Her children, doing their best, had reached the limits of their competency. Institutionalized assisted care, and eventually nursing care, were her only options.

Or were they?

With my mother needing immediate care, she moved into the most agreeable facility we could find and afford. In the meantime, we continued to search for institutional care for her that was not an institution. But what we found was a business system designed to care for people, not with people. The most agreeable senior living facilities can be so large and impersonal that even a well-meaning staff of caregivers cannot truly care about their clients; moreover, institutional, language, and cultural barriers often create a palpable distance between client and staff. Although they may be competent in their care-giving skills, staff are often young and speak English as a second language. Many seniors, for a wide variety of health and cultural reasons, have great difficulty communicating with them. This, of course, does not endear the staff to the clients; and the staff, in turn, can have little patience with this often-cranky elderly population.

Institutionalized American seniors also bear a heavy economic burden as they age. Skilled nursing and convalescent care costs much more than in-home care, and competent inhome care is expensive, starting at about $6,500 a month in California.That nest egg goes all too quickly.

Worse, before the disabled elderly can collect medical benefits, they must spend down all of their assets. The result is that the elderly who have the audacity to linger too long have little or no wealth to support themselves with or to leave behind. After 20 years of designing, building, and living the cohousing life in the US, I was certain there had to be a better way for seniors, too.

A Danish Solution Again 

In Denmark, people frustrated by the available housing options developed cohousing: a housing type that redefined the concept of neighborhood to fit contemporary lifestyles. Tired of the isolation and the impracticalities of traditional single-family houses and apartment units, they built housing that combines the autonomy of private dwellings with the advantages of community living. Each household  has a private residence, but also shares extensive common facilities with the larger group, including kitchen and dining areas, workshops, laundry facilities, guest rooms, and more. Although individual dwellings are designed for self-sufficiency (each has its own kitchen), the common facilities are an important aspect of community life for both social and practical reasons — particularly for common dinners. The common house is there to compensate for many of the things that the car used to provide: bridge, dinner out, friends, singing, music, etc.

So I found myself back in Denmark, confident in my understanding of cohousing yet intent to learn all I could from my Danish elders. And what I found was almost unexpected and utterly refreshing, and that was the extent to which they actually were living the better life in senior cohousing.

Imagine . . .  

It’s five o’clock in the evening and Karen is still going strong. After she puts away the last of the gardening tools, she picks up a basket of vegetables and freshly cut flowers. She feels energized to finish the day as strongly as she began it. Her long-time neighbor and “shade tree mechanic” Andrew passes by to tell her that he successfully changed the wiper blades on her car. Grateful, Karen offers him a few of the choice flowers in her bunch. She knows his wife will love them. “All in a day’s work,” he smiles as he accepts.

Instead of rushing home to prepare a nutritious dinner for herself and her ailing husband Paul, Karen can relax, get cleaned up, spend some quality time with Paul, and then eat with him in the common house. Despite his recent health troubles, Paul wouldn’t miss a common dinner — it keeps his mind agile and makes him feel useful and wanted. It invigorates him on a daily basis.

Walking through the common house on the way home, Karen stops to chat with the evening’s cooks, two of her neighbors, who are busy preparing broiled chicken in a mushroom sauce with new potatoes. The flowers and vegetables she brings to them couldn’t be better looking, or better timed. Several other neighbors are setting the table. Outside on the patio, others are finishing a pot of tea in the late afternoon sun. Karen waves hello and continues down the lane to her own house, catching glimpses into the kitchens of the houses she passes–here, a neighbor’s grandchild does homework at the kitchen table; next door, George completes his ritual after-work crossword.

As Karen enters her house, relaxed and ready to help her husband with his medications and other needs, she thinks they will have plenty of time to stroll through the birch trees behind the houses before dinner. Karen and her husband, Paul, live in a housing development they helped design. Neither is an architect or builder. Karen considers herself a semiretired school teacher; she volunteers in an afternoon reading program at a nearby elementary school. Paul is a retired lawyer. Ten years ago, recognizing the fact they were soon going to join the ranks of senior citizens, they joined a group of families who were looking for a realistic housing alternative to the usual offerings of retirement homes, assisted-living facilities, and institutional nursing care. At the time, they owned their own home, drove everywhere, and knew only a few of their neighbors.But they knew someday their house would become too difficult for them to maintain. They feared that one or both of them would lose the ability to drive. And if — forbid the thought — one of them unexpectedly passed away, how would the other manage? Would the survivor become a burden to their grown children? One day, Paul noticed a short announcement in the local paper:

Most housing options available for seniors today isolate them and discourage neighborhood atmosphere. There is an alternative. If you are interested in:  

• Living in a large, social community in your own house.  

• Participating in the planning of your home.  

• Experiencing an alternative to institutionalized health care.  

Perhaps this is for you. We, a group of 20 families, all 55 years-of-age and older, are planning a housing development that addresses our needs for both community and private life. If this interests you, call about our next meeting.   

Karen and Paul attended the meeting. They met other people who expressed similar concerns and fears about aging and their current housing situations and heard zeal about the possibilities that other options could afford. The group’s goal was to build a housing development with a lively and positive social environment. They wanted a place where individuals would have a sense of belonging, where they would know people of all ages, and where they would grow old and continue to contribute productively.

In the months that followed, the group further defined their goals and began the process of turning their dream into reality. Some people dropped out and others joined. Two and a half years later, Karen and Paul moved into their new home — a community of clustered houses that share a large common house. By working together, these people had created the kind of neighborhood they wanted to live in. And in all probability they will live there for the rest of their lives. 

Senior Housing as Community

Cohousing provides the community support missing in previous homes. It downsizes liabilities and upsizes quality of life. Cohousing is a grassroots movement that grows directly out of people’s dissatisfaction with existing housing choices. Cohousing communities are unique in their extensive use of common facilities and — more importantly — in that they are organized, planned, and managed by the residents themselves. The great variety of cohousing community sizes, ownership structures, and designs illustrates the universality of the concept. And where cohousing has gone, so goes senior cohousing — each community has its own needs, and only the residents themselves know what is truly best for them.

After all, a home is more than a roof over one’s head or a financial investment. It affects the quality of a person’s general well-being, one’s confidence, relationships, and even one’s health. It can provide a sense of security and comfort, or elicit feelings of frustration, loneliness, and fear. A woman who worries about when to shop for groceries and get dinner on the table while taking care of an ailing spouse is often unable to concentrate on a job or reserve time to spend with friends or other family members — let alone take time for herself. Not all aspects of housing can be measured by cost, rates of return, or other traditional real estate assessments. While this book does discuss cohousing financing methods and market values, a more important concern for senior housing should be the people themselves, their emotional well-being, and the quality of their lives. Seniors are used to watching out for their future financial needs, especially when they see retirement on the horizon. “If I retire now, I’ll have this amount of money per month,” and so on. Cohousing affords them the opportunity to look out for their emotional well-being when kids have moved, friends have died, and spouses are infirmed or non-existent. I came to realize that seniors moving into senior cohousing are the ultra-responsibleones — they’re looking at all aspects of the horizon.

The men and women living in senior cohousing communities are perhaps the most honest and cleareyed people I have ever encountered. They completely accept the fact that they are aging. They admit they can’t do everything they once did. They know the slope is downhill. That’s life. But acknowledging this basic truth does not mean they are fatalistic. Rather, they have taken charge of their remaining years with the expressed intent of achieving the highest-quality life possible — for as long as possible. For them, this means choosing to build their own community where they live among people with whom they share a common bond of generation, circumstance, and outlook. And they have a great time doing it.

“Hey, we’re getting older, and we’re going to make the most of it. We’ve had a lot of experiences, and now we’re going to have some more.”

The Senior Predicament

“I’m getting old, and everything around me is getting old too,” said Margo Smith, the 70-year-old, whitehaired organizer of a Grey Panther meeting of six women and two men in Berkeley, California.

“I live in an older house, and just getting a leaky faucet fixed seems to take days of time — if I can find the money and someone to do it. I have to pay, pay, pay to have small things done. I am completely encumbered by my house and I’m not interested, or even willing, to encumber the lives of my children. They have their own families now, not to mention the careers I encouraged them to have.”

“My next door neighbors are a young family on one side, and a single guy on the other. When I drive to see others my own age, people get behind me and honk — it might be my neighbors, for all I know. Just because my reactions have gotten slow, which is why I drive slowly, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t spend time with others I have something in common with. But I do wish I had a community based more on proximity.”

Across the Atlantic, 71-year-old Else Skov lives in a large two bedroom apartment in a senior cohousing community in Denmark. She moved into her home some 15 years ago with her husband, who died two years later. She is not lonely, largely due to the community’s unique layout, which includes a common house where residents can meet with other residents after dinner to exchange stories and humor, or make plans to go to the opera together.

The difference between the two situations is cohousing. Senior cohousing offers a new approach to housing and, for many seniors, a new lease on life. Aside from a basic adherence to democratic principles, senior cohousing developments don’t tout a specific ideology beyond a desire for a more practical, social home environment.

Cohousing is not a commune, nor is it an intentional community; it is simply a functional neighborhood that works.

The Senior Cohousing Handbook reprinted with permission from Charles Durrett and published by New Society Publishers, 2009. 

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