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!