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!

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.

The value of thinking about the "things"

Village Hearth Cohousing recently completed the Design Development and Prioritization Workshops (Workshops 5 and 6) with McCamant & Durrett Architects. Through the years, groups often ask me, “why do the workshops matter?” My answer is simple: Cohousing isn’t about reinventing the wheel. As you read on, you’ll see how the later workshops are just as important as the earlier ones and why each plays an integral role in the success of a cohousing community– in making it theirs, the one that fits like a glove, one that they own, emotionally. They are where trust it built. These participatory design workshops are where the community is built, not brick-by-brick but decision-by-decision.


Design Development:

At the surface, the Design Development Workshop (Workshop 5) is focused on stuff: hundreds of commercial products. The details and even the “stuff” have a profound impact on the success of communities, right alongside large-scale decisions like the site plan and common house design.

For example, consider your windows. A typical homebuilder in your area might select one window brand, while we might select another. There are many other reasons we have selected this window, but ease of operation and clarity of view alone make it ideal for senior cohousing; as you walk home and see a neighbor at the sink doing some dishes, you can wave to them, they can easily and quickly open the window, and you can chat or make a date to meet up at the common house. Altogether, the ensemble of products will form a tapestry that makes your house and your community feel like home.

This workshop is also important for the success of a community in the context of the development process. The Design Development Workshop is not just about energy efficiency, but that’s a big part of it. The process we facilitate -- based on years of experience and researching specifics to your region -- will enable you as a group to arrive at high-quality decisions by making effective use of your time and effort.



This workshop is where costs that are perceived to be potentially above the budget are prioritized. Amenities are prioritized based on lifestyle, sustainability, facilitating community and all of the other goals and values of the group. Some amenities can be offered as options on a household-by-household basis (e.g. washing machines hook-ups, etc.) and others omitted completely (and others added.) The workshop process ensures that all members’ input is included and evaluated, at the same time, with all the necessary information on the table, using a very deliberate process.

The Prioritization Workshop is a very values-laden workshop. While reconciling little creature comforts, it will be important and sometimes challenging to keep the big picture in mind (community, cost, aesthetics). Though these little creature comforts are equally important because if we’re going to make community real, we have to make it even more comfortable than typical homes—which turns out to be very easy to do.

Both Design Development and Prioritization Workshops symbolize a huge step forward to getting a cohousing community built, including maintain a control on budget and finding what works for the entire community. This structured and intentional process allows groups to arrive at high-quality decisions in a matter of months, rather than other communities we have watched arrive at lower-quality decision after years of wasted time and energy, too much acrimony, and too many people dropping out of the group as a result.


If you’re interested in learning more about how the design workshops can influence the creation of your community, let’s talk.