by Diana Leafe Christian, Earthaven Ecovillage
“I feel a little intimidated to say this,” the attractive older woman began hesitantly, “but living in senior cohousing next to Songaia was what drew me here in the first place. I don’t want to live in a community where children are the main focus. I do want this to be senior cohousing.”
“Does anyone else resonate with this view?” I asked. “May we see a show of hands?”
A sea of arms rose in the room. It was October 2007 and I was doing a Mission and Purpose consultation/workshop for New Earth Song Cohousing a forming group of mostly over-50 people, four of whom already lived at Songaia Cohousing in Bothell WA. New Earth Song grew out of Songaia, in fact. Several Songaia members were acquiring adjoining properties in order to create sister cohousing communities to share in Songaia's abundant resources, such as its exceptionally large common house and bulk-buying food program.
Senior Cohousing Focus
Senior cohousing had been the focus of New Earth Song all along. It sent two members to Chuck Durrett's week-long "Aging in Place Successfully” training in 2007. The two later presented the material to Songaia and New Earth Song members via a 10-week course, going deeply into many of the topics.
But back to that night in October. “Any other views on what kind of community you’d like this to be?” I asked the group.
“Well I do want children here in the community,” replied a man in his late 30s. “I am totally devoted to my son — I wouldn't want to live in any community that didn't feel the same way about their own children. I don’t want it to be for seniors only!”
"Does anyone else resonate with this view?" I asked for another show of hands. The father raised his hand, but he was the only one. People looked anxious. You could feel the tension in the group.
“Well, it looks like we have at least two different visions for what this community will be,” I said. “Perhaps two different potential communities.” I had learned earlier that these opposing views were a big issue for the group, but no one had wanted to say so for fear of hurting feelings or triggering conflict. The father, who lived across the street on the property that New Earth Song hoped to buy, participated in Songaia's shared meals at least two nights a week. He was already a part of Songaia's wider social community.
“This is actually really good news,” I continued. “It’s much better to find out you may have two potentially different communities at this stage of the community-forming process . . . before you’ve bought your property and sunk all your hopes and dreams and life savings into it!”
“If a group has two differing potentials for a community mission and," I said, "they might find a way to all live in the same community under a kind of ‘umbrella’ mission and purpose. Or, they might decide to have two different communities. Or to start the community based on what most people want, and everyone would still be friends and the other people could still come over for dinner.” Some people began to relax.
“It doesn’t say anywhere that if most people in the group want one thing and others want something else they can't start two different communities and all stay friends, right?” A few people nodded their heads. Then the young father took the step I was hoping he would take to resolve the group’s dilemma.
“You know, I think I should withdraw from attending New Earth Song meetings,” he said. “I’m realizing that while it’s really important for me to live in a community with children, I don’t have to stop knowing any of you if I don’t join New Earth Song. I’ll still be part of the wider community; I’ll still see you all.” An almost palpable wave of relief seemed to go through the group. And he added with humor that he actually had to leave right at that moment to pick up his son. And he left, with hugs and goodbyes.
People were beaming. But there was more. As various members spoke about what had just happened, and how they had really wanted the father to withdraw for this reason, but hadn’t wanted to say so, and how conflicted they had felt in previous meetings, a new theme began to emerge. Perhaps because so many had felt uneasy about the idea of a multigenerational community and all that implied with children, it had loomed too large for anyone to see the next piece. But now the energy of creativity and new possibilities bubbled to the surface again.
“You know,” one man said. “I really would like to be in a community with children. I love children. I just don’t want them to be the main focus.”
Others agreed. The ensuing discussion revealed that people wanted to be in community with people of all ages, not just seniors. They wanted to enjoy watching children play and have fun. They wanted child friends and to be part of their growing-up process, to engage the physical and mental zest of younger people, including young parents, the stimulation and diversity of all generations.
At the same time, Songaia members recalled times when a sacred circle or serious one-on-one conversation was halted abruptly by a parent suddenly shifting his or her full attention to the child who had rushed up to show their new drawing. And at least one older couple at Songaia withdrew from the community’s shared meals and food program because the children’s noise and chaos frequently overwhelmed everything else in the dining room. Songaians also talked about "free-range children," where kids gambol in any Songaia member's garden or yell happily just outside an older person's bedroom window when the older person might be trying to take a nap.
The words “adult” and “adult conversation” came up. The group talked about how senior cohousing is sometimes described as including being able to hang out in the dining room long after dinner just to bask in the pleasure of fine conversation. People seeking senior cohousing want uninterrupted discussions, intellectual explorations. How nice it might be to play chess after dinner, or bridge. To have a Great Books discussion group. To have more quiet, to be free from the sudden yowls of delight or rage from the little ones off in the playroom, or, right next to one’s ear, shrieking at piercing, conversation-stopping decibels. But the New Earth Song group didn’t want to be a retirement community either.
“A multigenerational community would be great, but one that respects the needs of older people and values their contributions,” someone said. “Yes,” another agreed, “elder-honoring.” They explained that elder-honoring is a relatively new but growing grassroots movement to appreciate and ceremonially recognize the accomplishments of older adults in a group. To bring back the concept of an elder in a real, wisdom-keeper sense, as is the case in more traditional and indigenous cultures. In fact, one of the older Songaia members, Fred Lanphear, had recently been ceremonially honored and inducted into the status of Songaia Elder by a group of younger men in the community. Everyone loved the ritual and Fred’s new wisdom-keeper status, including Fred.
I began to see what the New Earth Song core group wanted, and didn’t want, as people talked animatedly about the various pieces of community interaction they didn’t enjoy, and those they did enjoy and wanted more of.
“So . . . ” I said, speaking rather slowly as I attempted to summarize what I was hearing. “It sounds like you do want a multigenerational community, because you’d like people of all ages and children. . . . But you don’t want a child-centered community. You want it to be adult-centered. . . . And, you want to recognize and honor the elders in your midst. . . . Is that right?”
It was, they said, and they talked more about what such a community would be like. Finally the phrase “multigenerational, adult-centered rather than child-centered, and elder-honoring” was used as a kind of shorthand for the community they wanted to live in. “My gosh,” I finally blurted out. “I think you’re inventing a whole new kind of cohousing, tonight, right here in this room.”
I certainly was familiar with the greater cohousing movement, which has always been multigenerational and, given the popular trend toward child-centered parenting, is often de facto child-centered as well. And I was familiar with architect Chuck Durrett’s impassioned campaign to create senior cohousing communities for over-50 cohousers. But I’d never heard of the kind of community New Earth Song had just described. I was impressed!
Several months later when I had the chance to tell this story to Chuck over dinner, he told me it was not a brand new idea, as there had been discussion that a new project, Washington Village Cohousing in Boulder CO might become an adult-centered multigenerational community. And two other forming multigenerational projects in California were de facto adult-centered as they had so few children: Grass Valley Cohousing, with 32 units and only two children, and Fresno Cohousing with 28 units and only four children. Westside Cohousing, a young forming group in Santa Monica, has also adopted the idea.
A rendering of Boulder CO’s Washington Village: another community that may opt for adult cohousing.
Still, a “multigenerational, adult-centered, elder-honoring” community was a wholly new idea for New Earth Song members that night in October. They are willing to pioneer a "custom" cohousing community—a kind they hadn’t heard of before—which will meet their desires and preferences specifically. My hat's off to them.
Diana Leafe Christian is a consultant and workshop leader for cohousing and other kinds of communities on “structural conflict” issues in community and how to resolve them, and as well as on how to start successful new communities. She is author of Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities, where she first introduced the idea of “structural conflict,” and Finding Community: How to Join an Ecovillage or Intentional Community. She is publisher/editor of a free bimonthly online newsletter, "Ecovillages,” and is former editor of Communities magazine.