Elder cohousing - How viable is cohousing for an aging population?

John Lightburn
"Cohousing is a great place to live and a great place to die" says John Lightburn, 85, a founding resident of Harmony Village Cohousing in Golden, CO. (Photo by Evangeline Welch)

Scan the vision statements of cohousing communities and you'll notice touchstone words such as neighborly, safe, close-knit, diverse, tolerant, nurturing and supportive. Independence and interdependence are highlighted as the mortar that cements these elements together. "What can I give to the community?" not "What can the group do for me?" provides the bedrock for vibrant and resilient cohousing.

Enter, however, the inevitable. No, not death and taxes, but aging. With the oldest cohousing communities in the U.S. celebrating their 17-year anniversaries in 2006, and with the growing attention on cohousing as a possible alternative to institutional retirement facilities, the question emerges, "Just how viable is cohousing for an aging population?"

Historically, cohousing communities comprise predominantly 30-to 50-year-old singles, couples and families. We know that cohousing is a great place to raise kids or, as a single person, to find a built-in social life. But how about being an ideal setting to age-in-place and, eventually, die peacefully among friends? Can cohousing communities offer a mecca for aging baby boomers not wanting to be managed or warehoused? Or will the cohousing vision of diversity and conviviality end at infirmity and frailness?

Discussing the issues that come with age

In the U.S. we do not like to talk about the possibility of infirmity in our later years. In the case of cohousing, by not discussing the issues that come with age, we run the risk of inadvertently excluding and not meeting the needs of some of our most cherished community members as they grow older.

The 2003 National Cohousing Conference featured a presentation on seniors in cohousing, during which cohousing residents examined the pros and cons of living in traditional cohousing communities open to all ages versus age-specific cohousing communities designed for residents 55 and older.

Recent conversations with a sampling of aging cohousers (60 years and older) brought to light that many homes (and some common houses) in traditional cohousing communities are not accessible to the frail or handicapped. Research by the Elder Cohousing Network based in Boulder, CO, also showed that, within individual communities, almost no discussions have taken place about how to handle the changing physical and sometimes mental abilities of older residents, nor about the effect aging has on decision-making, hearing well in meetings, workdays, cooking responsibilities or increasing needs for assistance from neighbors.

"Cohousing is a great place to live and a great place to die," said John Lightburn, an 85-year-old founding resident of Harmony Village Cohousing in Golden, CO, during a recent elder cohousing workshop tour. Residents of all ages agree to the former. What to do about the latter - aging in cohousing - in the last phase of life remains a burning question.
Now in her 80s, Yvonne moved into the Commons on the Alameda in Santa Fe, NM, as a founding member 11 years ago. Though the Commons was geared toward families and not actively soliciting older members, Yvonne decided she wanted them, and moved in. Though in her 70s at that time, she helped establish the community garden and create the main courtyard. She served on planning and work committees and logged long hours on workdays.

The community had a lot of turnover, and now, with an influx of young families, very few neighbors remember the service she has given or who have a connection to her as a community elder. Instead they complain that she can't hold up her end on workdays. Yvonne says that the three other retired people in the community are not interested in talking about aging issues. Instead of the close-knit and supportive community she hoped to grow older in, Yvonne feels less visible and less involved. She still plans to live out her life at the Commons, and has talked to her community about needing their help not to feel so isolated as she ages. She said she received an offer to cook for her and an offer to clean, but no real plans were ever put into place. She has made outside arrangements for her own care with friends.

Sylvia, 77, and Audrey, 70, both live in Pioneer Valley in Amherst, MA. Their 10-year-old community has been very stable, and is now getting older. They both see a need for new, younger families who can take on some of the heavier work. But even in an older neighborhood and as the elders of their community, both women say they feel socially isolated. They are concerned that the homes at Pioneer Valley were not built with older community members in mind, and won't be accessible to them as they age. This, they both fear, may lead to further isolation. Still, neither of them can imagine not living there. Audrey plans to physically alter her home so that others (possibly live-in caretakers) can share it with her and help. Both women wish their community would engage with issues of aging, but feel no one is interested.

Kim, 81, has lived in the urban-based Cambridge Cohousing in Cambridge, MA, for seven and a half years. He is one of approximately 20 seniors in a community of about 70 residents. Although he is an introvert, Kim says he does not feel isolated or separated. Cambridge offers stimulating talks and events, and while older residents attend most often, everyone socializes together. He feels respected in his community, and loves being in an age-diverse setting. While one senior in the community has died and another 86-year-old has been in and out of the hospital, the community has not talked about plans for their growing senior population. They are all just working it out as it goes along, Kim says.

Barbara, 61, and her husband Ted, 68, moved into Pleasant Hill Cohousing (CA) three years ago as founding members. They are active and, like the other 10 Pleasant Hill residents in their 60s, are not yet thinking about the coming years. The oldest resident is 70 but, Barbara shrugs, she's still working. The town homes there are accessible with ground-floor entrances and no thresholds. The community dealt with accessibility with a teen resident who was handicapped, having to replace an eco-friendly, decomposed granite walkway with a hard surface for his wheelchair. And her own home? "Well," Barbara laughs, "we converted the first-floor bedroom into an office, so I guess we'll have to get one of those stairway elevators if we need it one day." Barbara does wonder about older residents who are single and do not have the financial means to hire help. She acknowledged that there needs to be a conversation about the needs of older residents, but adds that right now their community is still dealing with issues of moving in.

At 12-year-old Nyland Cohousing in Lafayette, CO, residents are facing aging more head-on. Ruth, 77, and Victor, 82, recently have begun to deal with Victor's Alzheimer's disease. Ruth was 63 and Victor was 68 when they first moved into Nyland. They both knew then that they didn't want to move to a retirement community. They wanted families and activity around them. When Victor was diagnosed, Ruth began plans to move someplace else where she could get help caring for him. To her surprise, the neighbors wouldn't hear of it. "We'll do whatever it takes to keep you here," was their response, and they have, driving to the hospital at midnight and visiting with Victor so Ruth can get away for Bridge Club. Ruth now says they'll stay until it becomes apparent to everyone that it can no longer work. Perhaps that day will never come.

Introducing elder cohousing

An emerging form of age-targeted cohousing will allow residents to confront the issues of aging in a new way. Called elder or senior cohousing, this model came about in the U.S. in response to a need for more creative and supportive housing for a growing senior population of aging baby boomers. Residents are moving into two elder cohousing communities: the ElderSpirit Community in Abingdon, VA, and Glacier Circle Senior Community in Davis, CA. A third, Silver Sage Village, plans to start construction in 2006. Silver Sage is in Boulder, right next to the multigenerational Wild Sage Cohousing. Four of Silver Sage's members are coming from an existing cohousing community, Nyland Cohousing in Lafayette. They are drawn by the age-awareness and appeal of active-adult cohousing, and want to live in a more urban setting where they can "age in community."

The idea of creating elder cohousing in close proximity to multigenerational cohousing has led to a major success in Denmark, the original home of the cohousing movement. Chuck Durrett, author of the newly-published handbook, Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living, notes that of the last 25 cohousing projects in Denmark, 20 have been age-targeted.

Active seniors like the idea of planning and managing their neighborhood and their own care, living with others of like mind, being close to old friends, and knowing that physical and social needs will be met in their last quadrant of life. Denmark also has an excellent socialized medical system that meets their health needs.

Here in the U.S., Zev Paiss, and his wife, Neshama Abraham, formed the Elder Cohousing Network, and offered the first "Getting Started" workshop in March 2005. Their website (ElderCohousing.org) has been visited by 6,000 aging and housing professionals and future residents interested in this new industry, which can provide a respectful and autonomous model for housing our aging population. Neshama believes that it is time for multigenerational cohousing communities to focus on the issues of aging. She thinks some older cohousing residents may be ready to join an elder cohousing community like Silver Sage or the dozen other projects around the U.S. in the early stages of development "Some people who originally were drawn to the age-targeted approach at the elder cohousing training discovered that they want to age in a community with people of all ages," she says. Either way, she adds, "Cohousing has the potential to transform the way we age in this country so that our elders are treated with respect and their contribution is honored through their last breath."