Cohousing For Seniors: A Solution for Today

Charles Durrett is busy. He has been designing, teaching and building cohousing communities in the United States since he brought the concept here from Denmark with Kathryn McCamant some three decades ago, but this year things are different. “Instead of working on demonstrating the value of cohousing, our firm is occupied keeping pace with a number of communities under development. I’m also just completing a new book to help others initiate their own cohousing community.” observes, Durrett.

Cohousing is just now really hitting its stride in the United States. The US Cohousing Association reports that there are currently 165 established cohousing communities with another 140 forming. Durrett himself is working on a dozen projects in the United States and Canada in different stages of development.

Cohousing is a planned community consisting of private homes clustered around shared space. While each attached or single family home has traditional amenities, including a private kitchen, there are shared spaces that reflect each community—often with shared community kitchen, lodge house, gardens and outdoor spaces. The legal structure is typically a homeowner association or housing cooperative. McCamant & Durrett Architects (MDA) designed the first US cohousing community in Davis, California, completed in 1991.

Affordable living and sustainable housing concerns are major issues confronting every age group in America today. Healthy, educated, proactive adults want to live in a social and environmentally responsible community. They also seek to maintain a quality lifestyle while stretching their dollars further into the future. Millennials looking for homes are finding traditional single family homes out of reach. Durrett is seeing family and specific populations building their own lifestyle-based housing, like LGBT Senior Cohousing in Village Hearth Cohousing in Durham, North Carolina, a community Durrett has helped initiate. This will be the first LGBT senior cohousing project in the US, and maybe anywhere.

Village Hearth Cohousing celebrated their groundbreaking. Photography by Luke Hirst.

Village Hearth Cohousing celebrated their groundbreaking. Photography by Luke Hirst.


Writer Pamela Biery caught up with Durrett and quizzed him on the “hows and whys” of 50+ cohousing.




Q: What are some of the unique characteristics of 50+ cohousing communities?
A: One word: proactive. These communities are filled with individuals who are choosing to take control of their destinies through planning, not leaving things up to chance. For instance, accommodations are made for shared caregivers to live on site and long-term mobility and access issues are examined. Just the process of thinking things through as a group changes cohousing participants, preparing them with realistic views of their future.

Q: What are some mature adult cohousing benefits?


A: Emotional well being, saving money through shared services and community and maintaining independence for much longer than is commonly possible. Today, more Americans live alone in their later years, a significant health concern. This is a reflection of our culture, and one that we have the power to change. New York University sociology professor Eric Klinenberg notes that social attitudes need to progress so older people can stay connected as they age.

Our society is evolving quickly, but probably not quickly enough.
— Klinenberg, in a post concerning end of life issues.


The biggest cohousing benefit for any community is living with kindred and having a number of close friendships. But it cannot be overlooked that cohousing costs significantly less than other senior facilities and gives the longest possible independent lifestyle—good for living a full life and conserving financial resources.


Q: How does cohousing reduce an individual’s carbon footprint?


A: Cohousing takes an individual out of the single home mindset. Top of mind: better lifestyle, greener lifestyle. Seniors realize that it’s really okay to leave their ranchette and move closer to town knowing they will be living with people they are comfortable with and that they are creating a home they can easily maintain for the next 20+ years.

Americans drive some 5 billion miles caring for seniors in their homes (Meals on Wheels, Whistle Stop Nurses, and so on). In our small, semi-rural county in the Sierra foothills, on-demand buses alone has made 60,000 trips in massive, lumbering, polluting vans-buses – usually carrying only one senior at a time – schlepping a couple thousand seniors total over hill and dale to doctor’s appointments, to pick up medicine, or to see friends. 

In our cohousing community of 21 seniors, I have never seen a single on-demand bus in the driveway. In cohousing it happens organically by caring neighbors: “Can I catch a ride with you?” or “Are you headed to the drug store?”

This alternative is much more fun and inexpensive for all involved, and much less damaging to the environment. Site location that allows for walkable lifestyles is a large factor, as well. Wolf Creek Lodge, a senior cohousing community with 30 units, built on 1 acre, is within walking distance of downtown Grass Valley, population 12,000. Nevada City Cohousing is also a short stroll to the downtown historic district.

Cohousing is a mind shift that is not just greener—it makes a better life.

Residents at Wolf Creek Lodge celebrate birthdays with one another!

Residents at Wolf Creek Lodge celebrate birthdays with one another!


Q: How would cohousing affect my retirement planning?


A: Cohousing is a proactive, realistic way of addressing issues. It's an ultra-responsible approach to assessing how to provide for one’s own future. Everyone in the process is dealing with understanding that mortality is real and that aging successfully means examining the whole person benefits—economic, emotional and physical well being.

Cohousers choose to place themselves in a fun, life-affirming and embracing community. The big thing here is that by living independently longer, money is saved at every juncture, so by taking control, resources can go much further. Turns out that an independent, quality life costs less than facilitated retirement.



Q: What kind of start-up process is involved?


A: First off, contact a cohousing company. They will find out what considerations and requirement are needed for your specific area. They will also be able to guide you in forming a group.

Next, read the book. Then start talking to friends. Host a presentation in your town, secure a site. You may already know some of your new cohousing neighbors.

—Charles Durrett



Learn More About Cohousing

Hear Charles Durrett Speak at The National Cohousing Conference May 30-June 2, 2019 at the Downtown Portland Hilton.

Watch for his new book, profiling the successful development of Quimper Village Cohousing in Port Townsend, Washington and see other cohousing books here.

Cohousing events and speaking engagements, along with news on developing communities, can be found here.

Sign up for Cohousing Co. news and occasional updates, including the new book release, with the working title, Quimper Village Cohousing: How 40 Seniors Made A New Neighborhood to Suite Their Real Needs.

Growing Up in Cohousing

Lindy Sexton sat down with Joy Castro-Wehr in 2016, who was at the time a senior in high school and lived in Nevada City Cohousing with her family. She is a social activist and a worldly-thinker, and contributes much of this to living in cohousing.

Frog Song Cohousing in Cotati, CA. Architecture by McCamant & Durrett Architects

Frog Song Cohousing in Cotati, CA. Architecture by McCamant & Durrett Architects

 

Lindy: How long have you lived in cohousing?

 

Joy: Since I was 8. My family was aware of cohousing and had a cohousing-esque relationship with neighbors in Oakland; we took down the property fence, had a common space, and shared things. We moved to Nevada City when I was 4 because of public Waldorf school. And lived on a large property in Nevada City. When we moved into cohousing, I initially missed my big backyard, but soon realized that I used the cohousing acreage behind the houses much more than my old backyard because I had more friends to share it with.

 

Lindy: What do you like about living in cohousing?

 

Joy: In cohousing, I am so filled with love, there is no room for anything else. Challenges do exist, but it is easier to deal with these challenges because of support from cohousers. Just as my neighbors have influenced me with their worldly perspectives, they also have taught me how to have opinions and ways to voice those so others aren’t offended. Most people living in cohousing are there because they share the same interest in and desire to contribute to community. Otherwise, why live in cohousing? Relationship building is much easier because of proximity in cohousing. It’s a lot less work to say “hi” because my neighbors are right across the sidewalk.

 

Lindy: How do you contribute to the community in your cohousing?

 

Joy: Every person in the community has an aspect of cohousing that they connect through. For some, it’s gardening. For others, it’s going on skiing trips with neighbors. The dinner table is my family’s “place of connection”. So common meals are how we become close to others around us. In fact, just the other night, I had a deep and inspiring conversation with some neighbors at a common meal.

 

I also know that the kids look up to me. I babysit for many of my neighbors and know the kids in my neighborhood like they were family. I am accountable for how I act around the three-year old that lives next to me, which is one of the reason’s I choose not to do drugs and get drunk.

 

Lindy: Do you still experience challenges outside of your community, for instance, peer pressure at school?

 

Joy: (sigh) Outside of our cohousing community, I deal with the same peer pressure that all teens deal with. Because of my family and cohousing, I feel that I am not missing anything in my life. I’ve learned to ignore the peer pressure I know is not good. I simply do not have time to pursue something that alters my sense of being.

I never needed to look beyond my community because there was always someone, some experience to fill the gap. People often get pressured into drugs and abuse alcohol because they are “lacking” in something. It’s like Play-Doh, filling holes in someone’s life, and Play-Doh doesn’t last for long. Cohousing fills in some of those holes. And community is more resilient.

 That said, cohousers like to have social time and have parties. There is a group of cohousers that like to brew beer in our cohousing. They get together and play pool and try their new brews. And every once in awhile, someone will bring a nice bottle of wine to a common meal and shares it with others. Treating alcohol like a social treat, rather than a crutch teaches kids that it’s okay to appreciate every once in awhile.

 

Nevada City Cohousing in Nevada City, CA. Architecture by McCamant & Durrett Architects

Nevada City Cohousing in Nevada City, CA. Architecture by McCamant & Durrett Architects

Lindy: Why has cohousing made such an impact on your life?

 

Joy: I treat many of them like my own grandparents and relatives, but it’s a lot less work to say “hi” because they’re right across the sidewalk. This also means that I have gotten so many different perspectives on life – politics, culture, family, etc. Rather than believing everything my parents’ believed, I had other people to draw experiences from. I was surrounded by different perspectives of people who respected each other’s opinions.

Thanks to Joy for her insight in the abundance of cohousing! If you or someone you know has been influenced by cohousing and you’d like to share it with us, please let us know!

How Cohousing Adds To The Collective Good

Written by Jessie Durrett, daughter of cohousing experts and authors Charles Durrett and Katie McCamant.

In this very insightful essay, originally written in 2017, Jessie describes how growing up in cohousing positively influenced how she relates in the larger world. Thank you Jessie, for sharing your childhood experience with readers.

Nevada City Cohousing, Nevada City, CA

Nevada City Cohousing, Nevada City, CA

I am a big-picture thinker who contemplates how intersecting issues and policies affect real people, whether they share my office or are caught in a civil war on another continent. I take an inquisitive, enterprising, and collaborative approach to solving problems in my own life, broader community, and work.

I largely attribute my intellectual curiosity and prioritization of the collective good to my upbringing in cohousing (an intentional, intergenerational neighborhood of clustered private homes where people share meals and amenities). From an early age, I was participating in lively discussions about the Iraq War and cooking dinner for forty of my neighbors. Joining finance and landscaping committee meetings showed me the challenges and opportunities of building consensus and participatory decision-making. As a twelve-year-old, I advocated for community meal times that accommodated my athletic practice schedule and the needs of families with toddlers. My neighbors encouraged me to explore my interests, taught me about their careers, and invited me to their churches. Cohousing provided an exceptional venue for me to nurture my aspirations to effect positive change locally and globally.

Nevada City Cohousing, Nevada City, CA

Nevada City Cohousing, Nevada City, CA

Beyond living in cohousing, my parents dedicated their careers to designing, developing, and championing this type of multifamily housing. With them, I visited construction sites, attended planning commission meetings, and spent time with cohousing groups in Denmark, Japan, New Zealand, Austria, and Canada. Working in my parents’ office in high school, I compiled media stories and promoted cohousing to policymakers. Realizing the benefits that cohousing provided to me, I now lead workshops at national cohousing conferences on how to create a culture in which children can thrive. Community was the foundation of my upbringing, which explains the value I put on interpersonal skills and my conviction to advance the public good.

My desire to build community transcends personal, professional, and educational settings. As a Student Senator and Resident Advisor in college, I led efforts to improve the health services available on campus, arranged service projects, and worked to create inclusive learning and living environments. I have also become a leader within the ultimate frisbee community. After captaining my college team and playing for a club team in Washington, DC, I co-founded and captained a new women’s club team. We started from scratch in 2015 and quickly sold our vision to coaching staff and the hundreds of players who tryout each season. Today, we are ranked 27th in the country. I take pride in our collective drive and contributions to the national women’s ultimate scene. I have also fostered local community while thinking globally as chair of the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy’s gender discussion group in Washington, which analyzes gendered implications of conflict and informal mining in West Africa, among other topics.

The values and skills I learned through my unique upbringing in cohousing help me take on complex challenges in both personal and professional situations. As I advance my career in foreign policy, my deep-seated dedication to community will continue to inform my interests and decisions.

Original post from Alice Alexander can be found by following this link.

Village Hearth Cohousing Ground Breaking

On Monday, October 29, 2018, Village Hearth Cohousing made monumental progress for the future of older adults in the LGBT community. They broke ground on their cohousing project, which means more than simply building a house. When built Village Hearth Cohousing will signify the success of a group of people who, together, designed the neighborhood of their dreams, one that is supportive and fun, where they know and trust each other. A community where they can be themselves.

Image courtesy of Village Hearth Cohousing

Image courtesy of Village Hearth Cohousing

In celebration of the event, Charles Durrett, Principal Architect of McCamant & Durrett Architects had some words to say. McCamant & Durrett Architects was the architecture firm hired by Village Hearth Cohousing.

“On this occasion, one can be encouraged by the trajectory cast. That is especially true when those that you have learned to appreciate and to work with have set their sights on goals and are steadily making deliberate progress in that direction. In the case of Village Hearth, it seems that the only way that one can possibly predict the future is to in fact create it.  

“Village Heath is well on its way. As the architect whose job it was to synthesize the needs, wants and desires of this group of discerning and capable co-creators, I’m happy to see each step move forward on the path to fruition.  And I’m proud to be a part of it.” - Charles Durrett.

This is a Hot Topic

Written by Charles Durrett

I know for a fact that if you have to have air conditioning, you have to have it—it’s a cultural thing.  It’s our habit or as cultural anthropologist Robert Bellah puts it, it’s a “Habit of the Heart”, and if your house is designed poorly, it’s physiological.  So, I’m not going to try to talk anyone out of air conditioning, we’ll do air conditioning if the group wants it—but I’m happy to report that most groups that don’t really need it have chosen to not have it installed and challenge us to accomplish cool houses through passive cooling (inherent in the building) which we embrace.

A.C. contributes to climate change. In countries like Bangladesh (shown here) flash floods caused by climate change leave people displaced and without proper resources.

A.C. contributes to climate change. In countries like Bangladesh (shown here) flash floods caused by climate change leave people displaced and without proper resources.

Time magazine just reported that air conditioning has become the number one cause of global warming world-wide, greater than transportation, greater than house warming, greater than industry.  Ironically, of the 2.8 billion people along the equator, those that need it the most, only 8% have air conditioning.  The rest of us, in the U.S. and Japan, for example—about 90% have it.  The good news is that cohousing groups get to create their own houses and therefore respond to their own priorities.  That’s why those houses perform so well from a passive cooling point of view. 

We, for example, make sure to use enough mass so that if the night temperature gets down to 70 degrees Fahrenheit the house gets to 71 degrees Fahrenheit or 72 degrees Fahrenheit by morning and that the high temperatures of the day, even when it’s 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside the interior of the house doesn’t get above 76 degrees Fahrenheit in the late afternoon.

 

There are hundreds of tricks to achieve passive cooling and we employ them all, because of all the clients that we work with, no one wants to walk their eco talk more than cohousers—to a point.  In other words, it has to work.  And if it doesn’t then there has to be a back-up like an entirely interior A.C. that you can put in your bedroom at night but keeps the white noise (a hum) internal to the house so that neighbors can simply keep their windows open (and uses less than 10% as much energy.)

Examples of passive cooling include sparse pavement/more lawn, shaded gathering nodes, shade trees, and porches with well-designed overhangs. All of these contribute to a more enjoyable experience in one's private home and the common space.

To give you some idea of how cultural it is, we rented a house while our current state-of-the-art, passively cooled cohousing was being built.  We didn’t turn on the air conditioning until our daughters 15th birthday party on August 2nd.  A dozen 14, 15, and 16-year old young ladies showed, so, we turned on the air conditioning.  Jessie, our daughter, said “Hey, I didn’t know we had an air conditioner”, the air conditioner went on every day after that, although she never complained about the heat before.  It’s so easy to flip a switch.  Before that we’d sit on the front porch in the evening, and let the rocking motion create a breeze, or the porch ceiling fan cooled us, amongst other things like a glass of iced tea.

 

I’ve yet to read an essay or any rationalization as to why it’s ok to cool our house to warm the planet.  Invariably someone will invoke the plight of the Bangladesh people and them standing in waist-high water in the downtown streets after a routine storm.  And, of course, the more the planet warms, the more that happens and the more we need A.C.  And it’s not just Bangladesh, it could be Quebec, where more than 70 heat related deaths have occurred this summer. 

 

08-22-2018.jpg

Our cohousing 34 houses were built with zero air conditioning (in a part of California where nothing is built without air conditioning).  But it’s not just a conscious design decision it is a series of conscious life style issues.  Passive cooling comes up at least once a week at common dinner in the summer.  When do I close my windows?  When do I close the shades? Which window shades?   When do I turn on the whole house fan?  For how long?  When do I use the ceiling fan (whenever you’re in the room)?  When do I turn it off (whenever you’re not in the room)?  Yes, it’s a topic, an easy one, which gets you in touch with your neighbor and your climate.  We do have air conditioning in the common house, and once (in 12 years) 21 folks spent the day there.  This was the year that a heat wave killed 35 Californians (2/3 of whom had air conditioning but were too fried to turn it on).  I know that it could possibly cramp your style to work and play in the common house for one day out of 12 years—but not if you can imagine what the rest of the world is giving up to make A.C. so convenient for us. 

 

I find that you can’t be righteous about this stuff, but that you don’t have to be.  When you watch cohousing groups work this stuff out, you believe that they are willing to imagine that it can be worked out and that’s the beginning of getting the job done. 

Indirect lighting, efficient insulation, high ceilings, and an open floor plan contribute to passive cooling in the Common House.

Indirect lighting, efficient insulation, high ceilings, and an open floor plan contribute to passive cooling in the Common House.

 

In some cases, groups don’t want to take the risk and put in a mini-split or similar, but I’m happy to report that many folks, like some in Fresno, California, say that they still haven’t used their air conditioning in ten years.  A.C. is an increasing problem, but I love working with people who want to be at least part of the solution.

Large efficient windows let light in without heating the space.

Large efficient windows let light in without heating the space.

 

If we can’t get cohousers to scale back their air conditioning usage then we’re toast!  But my experience is that we can.

 

Katie's Insights on "The Cycle of Life" as seen through the lens of cohousing

From CoHousing Solutions' newsletter published Dec 2017.

Advent Circle, Nevada City Cohousing

Advent Circle, Nevada City Cohousing

As we approach the Winter Solstice, I’ve been thinking of the full cycle of life we get to experience here in my intergenerational community, Nevada City Cohousing. I suspect that I am not the only one that finds this to be one of the more profound appreciations for living in community, for ourselves and for our children. 

The Winter Solstice Spiral is a beloved tradition at Nevada City Cohousing that inspires contemplation on every stage of life...

In the last weeks my community has been holding so much love for so many. For one neighbor who recently died, too young as she was just in her early 50’s, the community has been there to support her and her family in any way we can. And in return she shared and taught us so much. Another neighbor mentioned that her mother, who lives a few blocks away, had become close with this woman, and that sharing her passing has opened up an opportunity to talk with her mother about death. “What a gift (our neighbor) has given me,” she tells me. 

On a recent Saturday night, another neighbor held his 46th birthday party in the common house with a rock-and-roll band made up of his fellow junior high teachers. Softening us up, he fed the community tacos and his new home-brew, made from hops grown here and brewed in the common house. Can’t get much more local than that! And that also helped to soften any complaints about the rock and roll band later…good technique.

Breaking bread together is at the heart of cohousing.

Breaking bread together is at the heart of cohousing.

And then Sunday afternoon, all the women of the community, from 3 to 80, gathered in the common house to celebrate another neighbor’s pregnancy. We are all so excited to have a new baby coming! We shared stories, wishes, cake and tea. One neighbor is coordinating our community quilt for the baby. Another neighbor is knitting blankets for the new baby, and the baby’s older brother, while she worries about her husband’s cancer returning. 

In cohousing, all of these major life events can happen at home with much more support from the community.

Written by Katie McCamant of CoHousing Solutions

Cohousing in Great Britain - a tipping point

Charles Durrett is a leading expert in cohousing, not only because he knows and understands the process, but because he has the experience to back it up. With over three decades of experience, Chuck lives the cohousing process and can work with others to realize it in themselves. His impact is worldwide, reaching far across the Big Pond, where cohousing is being embraced. 

Watch this video featuring OWCH.

In 2010, Chuck and Katie went to Britain and energized what is now a strong and supported cohousing movement. Old Women’s Co-Housing (OWCH). OWCH had been trying to get started for almost ten years and were dangerously close to giving up. Sarah Berger, and the UK Cohousing Network organized to have Katie and Chuck meet with OWCH and Hanover Housing Association, the involved parties. They worked through the nitty-gritty details—two hours of which was spent on trust alone—and in the end, they were able to move forward with the project, knowing that each side was going to uphold their side of the agreement. They walked up the ladder until finally a contract was signed, the project designed, and, at last, built.                                                                                           

In total, Katie and Chuck spent eight days in the UK, which included giving five public presentations. These presentations helped OWCH and other groups gather more members and move forward with their projects. The process that OWCH used and most of the new groups use is outlined in The Senior Cohousing Handbook: A Community Approach to Independent Living. Their efforts stimulated over 20 projects, to date, to be built in the UK, many with the support of a government and society who knows the value of community.

Since then, resources like SAGE Cohousing International (SCI) have been introduced to North America to provide resources to seniors interested in senior cohousing. SCI is a nonprofit organization whose board is comprised of experts in gerontology, cohousing, development, and team management. For more information on SCI, click below. 

OWCH members realized that they must be proactive about their future and what a bright future they have! It goes to show that, if you follow the cohousing process that is outlined already, getting your cohousing neighborhood designed and built is possible and much less work than reinventing the wheel. It is hard work, a thrilling ride, but the result is well worth the journey and it lasts for years to come.