Article by Charles Durrett and Lindy Sexton
The last nails are being hammered in. Fresh paint still clings to the damp air. In Port Townsend, Washington, residents of the newly-built Quimper Village Senior Cohousing eagerly await moving into the neighborhood that they co-designed. The neighborhood that not only symbolizes their desire to take an active role in their aging scenario, but also their commitment to supporting, listening to, and living in community with each other.
Communities like Quimper Village are cropping up around the world as older adults are discovering the value of taking control of their lives. Socially, financially, and environmentally it makes sense to live near people who care about you, but until you can work with others to create this scenario, it is just a good idea and nothing else. Senior cohousing communities, and groups inspired by cohousing, grow from that need to move things forward into a collective of organized and forward-thinking activists. The result far exceeds expectations, in many cases.
Being organized is being in control. While senior living facilities are taking steps to support their residents more than ever before, they still cannot offer what senior cohousing groups can. One way to begin this process is by taking Study Group 1, or SG1, (discussed below and in Chapter 7 of The Senior Cohousing Handbook: A Community Approach to Independent Living ). Participants recognize that they actually have a lot of say in their aging scenario and only in community can they express what they want in a proactive way. In SG1, facilitators take groups through various aspects of their “getting older” scenarios. In a period of 10 weeks, the group discusses how they, as a consortium, can be the solution, planning for their years ahead so when the time comes, they are supported by people they know and trust.
After SG1, senior cohousing groups go through a series of workshops which develop cohesiveness and clarity within, along with setting expectations and later co-designing the community of their dreams. It is important to note at this point that none of this can happen without the group being on the same page and out of denial. Cohousing communities aren’t created by one visionary, but by many who share in the vision and, through consensus and being prepared, can decide what is best for all.
What is Senior Cohousing
Senior cohousing communities like Quimper Village are being built across the U.S. The U.K., Europe, and Canada have also seen an upsurge in cohousing groups coming together, and other countries are not far behind. The concept originated in Denmark in the latter part of the 20th century as older adults began voicing their desire to live independently, in community. In the 1980s, Charles Durrett (Principal Architect, McCamant & Durrett Architects) and Kathryn McCamant (CoHousing Solutions) coined the name “cohousing” and popularized it in the U.S. with their book, Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves. Durrett later authored The Senior Cohousing Handbook: A Community Approach to Independent Living, a book that is used by many senior cohousing communities around the world, including those in Denmark. He has since designed about a dozen 55+ cohousing communities and has consulted on many more.
Senior cohousing is a type of community for adults 55 and older that are:
1. Co-created and co-managed;
2. Physical design and orientation that encourages community interaction and supports aging in place including extensive common facilities and private homes;
3. Regular common meals;
4. Mutual support systems that include interdependence during illness and convalescence;
5. Continued “saging” and embracing the aging process;
6. Decisions based on consensus;
7. No shared income and community is not a source of income for members.
From the outside, senior cohousing has many different shapes. Some are suburban while others are in high-density cities. For example, Oakcreek Cohousing in Stillwater, Oklahoma consists of 24 private homes on 7.5 acres, whereas Mountain View Cohousing, in Mountain View, California has 19 units on 0.9 acres. Each has unique qualities within the neighborhood, but all adhere to the proven criteria that make up senior cohousing—and for good reason.
While “cohousing-like” developments are being erected (developer-designed senior housing with common amenities is a common example,) these projects tend not to work as efficiently as cohousing, from a community standpoint. The cohousing process is one that requires the input of the group from the start. It has been developed over decades and has proven to be effective in creating trust and dependability within the group. This topic has gained a lot of traction lately as more people are preferring community models over single-family homes, which is why it is more important than ever that people know what works and what doesn’t. It is important to clearly define what cohousing is instead of reinventing the wheel if it is to continue to have the same positive results generation after generation.
In addition to sticking to principles, successful communities learn from experts who know what they’re doing. Though the product is a community that is co-designed and co-managed by its residents, consulting with experts during the process is also very important. Durrett and McCamant are recognized as the top experts in cohousing, not because they took a weekend course or dabbled in cohousing. They spent over a year studying with the experts in Denmark before they would take a penny from any group. As a result, they can work efficiently and effectively with groups to ensure that nothing is left out. Senior cohousing communities that work with cohousing professionals in all stages of the game result in getting their projects built on budget and on time.
Some of the natural results of going through the design process are that seniors learn to work together, to identify and advocate for their needs, and to listen to one another. On several occasions, senior cohousing residents take more active roles in their larger community, once they’ve completed their own senior cohousing projects. Pat Darlington of Oakcreek Cohousing, for example, has taken up a position in the city council. Needless to say, senior cohousing not only takes care of providing homes for older adults, it also inspires senior cohousing members to live life to the fullest.
With the number of people over 65 projected to double in the next 20 years, it is more important than ever to think ahead and plan for one’s own aging scenario. In addition, the needs and wants of seniors are changing, and societies across the globe must respond in ways that will support their needs.
Working together: what’s in it for me?
The phrase, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” rings strong for many, especially in the U.S. From an early age, we are taught to be strong and that independence equals success. While this can be useful in some cases, the more appropriate (or perhaps sustainable) life lesson is to live among those who you care about, those who listen to and learn from, and those who inspire you to be a better person.
When creating a cohousing community, no doubt members run into disagreements. Through mediation and consensus-based decision-making (techniques learned early on in the cohousing process,) the result will not only be a community that functions physically but socially as well because neighbors have space to voice their needs and wants without being ridiculed. That’s why being organized from the start is so important. Working together is at the core of senior cohousing. From idea to reality, the process is very involved and requires that everyone is up for thinking like a community.
The result of having a community that responds in-line with the values of each individual is success from a macro and micro point-of-view. Residents know they can trust one-another and that their voice is being heard. Furthermore, being included in something bigger increases self-efficacy and inspires each member to live more fully.
Fears and misconceptions
Many people fear getting older because they equate it with being alone and being rendered useless. In senior cohousing, you have a good balance of social time and privacy. It’s like being in the college dorms again, without the shared bathroom and bad food. Together with your community you have fun, share experiences, plan outings, support each other, and give each other space when needed. Fears can paralyze us or cower us into giving up control, which is why doing Study Group 1: Aging Successfully (SG1) is one of the first steps in getting the community of your dreams built.
Study Group 1: Aging Successfully
SG1 began in Denmark with senior cohousing communities recognizing that the barriers to entry often were held in a set of fears about the future. Through the course of 10 weekly sessions, these groups noticed that fears dissipated as people recognized the value of community in aging. Senior cohousing communities who do SG1 are more likely to get their projects done more quickly, with less difficulty than those who didn’t. Quimper Village is a great example of the positive impact that SG1 had on the residents, who are just about to move into the community of their dreams.
SG1 facilitators can be found in the U.S., Canada, and in South America, and the world could use more. What does it take to become an SG1 facilitator? McCamant & Durrett Architects invites those interested to attend Aging Successful: Study Group 1 Facilitator webinar, which runs each fall. Participants gain a clear vision for how to conduct Study Group 1 in their local area while getting the opportunity to talk with Durrett in a small group setting. This participatory webinar readies those with the passion to make a difference.
Where do I start?
The number one reason that senior cohousing has taken off in the U.S. like it has is that people are reading The Senior Cohousing Handbook: A Community Approach to Independent Living. (Durrett) Not only does the book give important information on how to create a senior cohousing community, it showcases inspiring stories of senior cohousing projects being built in Denmark, Canada, and the U.S.
Having the book is beneficial in two big ways. The book provides essentials on senior cohousing so those interested can make educated decisions on whether it is right for them. Having the book sitting out on your coffee table is also an unobtrusive way to tell others about it. How many times have you told your significant other about a great idea only to have them come up with the same idea, based on something they saw in the newspaper or heard from a friend? Sometimes good concepts have to simmer awhile before they are accepted.
Once you’ve got the book into the hands of a few keys figures in your area (potential members and city council for example) it’s time to have fun talking with your neighbors and others in your area who, like you, want to age-in-place in a community they know and support. Bring everyone together for an informal meeting where you discuss what your senior neighborhood looks like. Do an SG1 shortly after that. The main point is to keep the momentum high, you’ll find that most people don’t have time to waste. McCamant & Durrett Architects can assist in, finding SG1 facilitators in your area or prepare you to do it yourself.
How Do I Learn More?
McCamant & Durrett Architects has designed over 50 cohousing communities and the firm continues to be recognized as the leading architecture and design company for affordable and high-functioning cohousing.
CoHousing Solutions specializes in the development of cohousing communities. The company trains cohousing developers and works directly with cohousing groups.
SAGE Cohousing International is a non-profit organization dedicated to informing, coaching, and equipping people and groups who are interested in senior cohousing.