From Cohabitation to Cohousing: Older Baby Boomers Create Living Arrangements To Suit New Needs

Yves here. The cohousing concept is likely to become more popular since marriage rates are lower among the young, provided members continue to be successful in finding the like-minded. But the effort and cost of setting one up is a considerable barrier.

By Nancy P. Kropf, Dean, Perimeter College & Professor, Social Work, Georgia State University, and Sherry Cummings, Associate Dean and Professor of Social Work, University of Tennessee. Originally published at The Conversation

One of the major questions of growing older is, “where do I want to live as I age?” For many baby boomers, an important goal is staying independent as long as possible. Many in this generation desire to age in their homes and make their own choices as long as possible.

Living preferences are changing, as are relationship patterns, such as greater numbers of mid- and late-life adults who are single, childless, or live at a distance from adult children. “Senior cohousing communities,” or SCCs, are a form of communal living that integrates common areas and private residences. They promote choice and independence, which are particularly important for the aging baby boom generation.

As academic social workers and gerontologists, we have studied numerous issues of later life. Professionally, we wanted to see how these communities promote health and well-being.

Personally, we are both baby boomers and are exploring options for our retirement years. We both have had a parent who lived in a long-term care setting. Our caregiving experience prompted us to consider where we like to live, and where we see ourselves aging.

Shared Values, Shared Lifestyles

Cohousing is a relatively new type of living arrangement. The first modern cohousing community was developed in Denmark in 1972. In the U.S., senior cohousing, started in the early 2000s. There are now 17 such communities, and 28 are currently in formation or under construction.

Cohousing communities bring people together who choose to live cooperatively based upon shared values. Examples are the desire to promote environmental sustainability or social justice, or a shared spirituality. Common elements include a community vision statement that articulates important principles along with a hierarchical governance and decision-making structure.

Residents live in individual homes but share some spaces, such a common building with a kitchen, library and exercise room. Patios and gardens are positioned in a way to promote interaction. As a result, residents engage in communal meals and other activities.

These new arrangements differ from traditional over-55 residential communities, which are planned and managed by a developer. These places are often large and provide organized activities for those who live there.

SCCs, however, are typically small and are planned, developed and operated by the residents themselves. The whole idea is to promote community, social engagement and active aging.

Life in a Shared Community

To experience life in the shared living communities, we visited 12 of them in six states and interviewed 76 people during the summer and fall of 2018. The smallest included 10 individual homes, while the largest consisted of 41 condo units. Some communities were in rural areas, while others were in cities.

In a few places, we spent the night and participated in some of the activities, such as shared meals, happy hours, vespers and soaking in a hot tub. The ages of the residents ranged from the mid-50s to the mid-90s. Our book, “Senior Cohousing: A New Way Forward for Active Older Adults,” describes our visits and interviews.

The communities were quite different. Some had individual housing units, while others were condominiums. All had a common house with a kitchen area and spaces for meetings and socializing, and some had elevators to accommodate those who couldn’t manage stairs. Many had a guest room, where prospective residents could stay for a few nights.

Several themes emerged from our interviews and conversations with the residents.

A major reason that people choose to move to a shared housing community is social engagement. This is a critical issue since 1 in 3 people over age 45 are lonely. Being part of a community that offers mutual support has a positive impact on health status, connection and quality of life during later years.

The residents we interviewed reported that they enjoy the common activities, such as shared meals, parties and discussion groups, along with the opportunity for spontaneous interactions. Caring relationships develop among the residents, and many described the support received after major events such as a hospitalization or significant loss, and also for smaller tasks such as a ride to the airport or pet sitting.

In addition, being a source of assistance was important and engendered feelings of being worthwhile and needed. However, those interviewed were also clear that there is a difference between offering assistance and being a caregiver for others, which was not a role that people expected within the shared communities.

We were surprised to find many in these communities are introverts, as several residents had taken personality inventories. One of the women offered an explanation: “For introverts it’s perfect, because you go in your house and you can be in there as much as you want, but when you come out, you don’t even have to go make friends somewhere.”

There were many norms around interactions to manage the public-private spaces. In one community, for example, sitting on the front porch meant that you were available for conversation. If you sat on your back porch, however, others did not bother you. The opportunity to have close relationships with others, but also have individual space, is an important element of SCCs.

Living and Learning

From our time at the shared communities, it was clear that living in a shared governance, communal housing arrangement provided opportunities for growth. People described being more patient, open to new learning, having vitality and valuing multiple perspectives. These experiences are consistent with the gerotranscendence theory of aging. This theory suggests that as a person grows older, it is possible to “transcend” or move beyond previous understandings and gain new perspectives on fundamental existential issues, the meaning and importance of relationships, and definitions of self.

This type of community is not for everyone, though. Although some shared community units are moderately priced, with a one-bedroom home for under $100,000, many are very costly, with some well over a half a million dollars. Also, a person must be willing to work, as the shared areas require maintenance. And, residents are expected to serve on governance committees.

Like all living arrangements, these communities have their promoters and detractors. But for those who value community and may be interested, current senior cohousers recommend that you don’t hesitate – do your research, and go visit one for a few days.

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  1. sd

    I lived for 15 years in a community loft building of artists and musicians. Ages were mixed though common denominator were singles or couples with no children still living with them. Bathrooms were shared, there was a community garden, laundry rooms and lending library as well as a “free pile” where things could get repurposed or reused by someone else. There was a building manager who collected rent and who handled repairs. There were house rules, no loud music or parties on a “school night” for instance, that occasionally got updated typically when something started getting out of hand. Overall, it was a great experience and the basis of enduring friendships.

    The units were rentals, not purchase. So the one concern I have about the models being described is the need to “buy in” to the community. That’s a barrier that seems intended to exclude rather than include.

    1. Carla

      I became aware some years ago that an apartment building or condominium with about 60 percent of its residents being over 60 years of age is called a NORC: a naturally occurring retirement community. I have a close friend who lives in a NORC near me.

      Critical reasons people choose to down-size from their single-family homes and move to that building include these: elevators (believe it or not, not common in apartment buildings in this older suburb); an underground, heated garage with a 24-hour attendant; apartments in a variety of sizes and layouts; air conditioning; laundry rooms on each floor; reasonable rents; a really good super; and a lovely patio/garden area with an in-ground pool that’s open from May to September.

      The residents get together for weekly pot-luck suppers and the younger-elders tend to help and look after the older-elders. It’s a really nice place; actually, a community!

    2. diptherio

      The requirement for a buy-in is, in my experience, one of necessity, not of exclusion. We’re trying to get something along these lines started in rural Montana and the major obstacle is funding (surprise, surprise). Affordability for people living on <$1000/month SS income is our major goal, but the need to capitalize the project means that we're going to have to get some kind of buy-in from residents (or prospective residents, at this point). Trying to come up with money for the project, while also keeping it affordable for all of us is a major puzzle, and one that we have yet to adequately solve.

  2. Ook

    This is a formalized and artificial (dare I say, corporatized) attempt at creating community, but otherwise nothing much new here. My mother, who is in her late 90s and lives alone has a myriad sharing arrangements with neighbors she’s known anywhere between 6 months and 60 years.

  3. The Rev Kev

    A coupla weeks ago was the anniversary of the Woodstock festival and most of us saw film clips of the hundreds of thousands of young people that turned up. Maybe you saw some of the documentaries aired about then. Lots were college kids but I suppose a fair share were living in communes at the time. Thus I wonder how many of these aged baby boomers going to live in a shared community actually started out in their lives living in a hippy commune for a while when young. How many would be recognizing the same rules and the same problems that they faced back in the 70s in these new shared communities?
    In any case it does sound like a good solution even though it is in a way a transit station for most people living there. But sooner or later living in a place like that gets to much for them as they age and they cannot go out as they lose their mobility. Another problem is that their health breaks down and they become more susceptible to injuries. They may stubbornly insist that they can still manage by them selves but they cannot. I saw this with my own mother. So yes, these shared communities are an excellent idea but the are in all likelihood not a permanent solution.

  4. Arizona Slim

    Oh, boy. Here we go again. The glowing stories about cohousing return.

    Before I bought the Arizona Slim ranch, I considered a cohousing community that was forming here. In June 2001, I went to my first meeting. Things sounded wonderful.

    Well, that was the first of many, many, MANY meetings. And I distinctly recall going to one meeting that was about the conduct of the meetings.

    After five months, I couldn’t take it anymore.

    Since I’d put some money into this venture, my status changed from prospective member to investor. I was promised the return of all my money, plus 8% interest per annum.

    Well, that was in November 2001.

    Several years passed with no communication from the cohousing people. But I did find an unlikely source of information, Kathy the Hairdresser. Her sister and brother-in-law were planning to move into this community. During my hair appointments, Kathy kept me apprised of the progress of construction (slow due to issues with the sewer connection) and sales of the units.

    Construction was completed in late 2004/early 2005, and the members moved in shortly thereafter. In mid-2005, the money I was promised arrived in the form of a check. And I put those funds toward window replacement at the Arizona Slim Ranch.

    In his comment, The Rev Kev brought up the idea of a transit station. That’s what this cohousing community proved to be for Kathy the Hairdresser’s brother-in-law. He developed Alzheimer’s and he and Kathy’s sister had to move elsewhere.

    And, finally, one last point: This is Tucson, Arizona, which is a liberal oasis in an otherwise conservative state. There are three cohousing communities here, and the one I just described is the last one built here.

    Recall that the construction was completed around 15 years ago. I haven’t heard a thing about any other cohousing communities forming here since then.

  5. meadows

    The continuous meetings would drive me nuts. I went to a high school called The Meeting School… hoo boy. But glad to hear it works for many.

    1. The Rev Kev

      People seem to love their meetings in the States. A coupla times I have seen American grid iron football games and I have noticed that in the middle of all that carnage and mayhem, each team will from time to time huddle together in a circle – and have a meeting!

      1. Anon

        Meetings also occur during American baseball. A guy will waddle out from a covered bench area and discuss things with a few on-field players. They meet on a small hill. Sometimes the discussion seems to go bad and one of the players stomps off toward the covered bench. Meetings are simply American.

  6. meadows

    One of the great pleasures of retirement (among many) is not going to meetings where colliding opinions require resolution. Many people believe opinions are facts. “Lifestyle choices” are all over the map and the mutual agreements necessary to sustain an intentional community can change like the weather. How is community itself defined? The word itself is subjective, commonly used and abused, a cliche heard every day on the telly, tubes and papers.

  7. JohnnySacks

    I know too many lazy cheats to blindly accept any role in one of those places. My mom had a plot in a community garden years ago and she won best gardener a few years in a row. The how and why – she stayed with the basic maintenance and support required long after the allure wore off for the others early in the season. I see my role in those places as the guy who would provide opportunity for others to pop up out of the woodwork to feast on properly cared for heirloom tomatoes and vegetables at harvest season.

    Not to say egalitarian societies haven’t worked before, or this style of communal living doesn’t work for some, but they are light years away from what the Shakers were back in the day.

    1. Arizona Slim

      Funny you should mention this, JohnnySacks.

      After I moved into the Arizona Slim Ranch, I became interested in water harvesting. Well, lo and behold, a community organization was holding a water harvesting how-to event at …

      … That Cohousing Community.

      It’s 2006, and I’m curious as to what my investment money helped fund. So, I signed up.

      Interesting thing about that multi-weekend event: The participants did NOT come from That Cohousing Community. Other than the handful of residents who were preparing lunches for us, the cohousers didn’t lift a finger to help with things like the digging of pipeline trenches, planting low water use trees and shrubs, and mulching the ground.

      I thought that was quite interesting.

      You would think that, if you lived at this place and there was an event where you could learn something useful, you’d be there with bells on. And while some of the work was strenuous, a good bit of it was not.

      So, Johnny and everyone else, after that event ended, I truly had enough of That Cohousing Community. And, from what Kathy the Hairdresser told me, my decision not to move in there was the correct one. ISTR that even before her brother-in-law’s health issues, Kathy’s sister reported that things weren’t so rosy there.

      1. JohnnySacks

        Digging, planting, mulching, etc. I’m no stranger to back-breaking labor and in moderation, don’t even mind it, beats going to the gym and has a positive outcome, it’s even therapeutic in a way. But if you’ve never done it, or done it and hate it enough to take steps to avoid it, and our (alleged) communal situation may require us to do it, so long, I’m outta here. And I don’t even want to know you or ever hear from you again.

        There’s a reason I mentioned the Shakers, they’re probably the most historically successful example of a communal egalitarian society in history. I’m not a fan of what masquerades as religion in the current evangelical affect on our politics and society, but there’s something about the Shakers take on it that’s truly inspirational. The Shakers

        1. Whoa

          Digging planting mulching is often no longer an option once people reach mid-70s. (Not true for all, but many.)

          After Backs, knees and shoulders tear or break a well equipped Gym is a Godsend.

  8. dougie

    My wife and I are actively considering this as an option for a fifty acre “farm” we bought twenty years ago. Rather than buy a bigger, better, moremoremore upscale house, way back in the day, we still live in a starter home we bought 30 years ago, bought a weekend cabin, and added the land (which is cheep in rural Va), over time. We just spent five seeks there, and this topic came up several times, as we ponder our “next chapter”.

    We have resources, and we want to “share”, but don’t want to end up in a situation where “we can share what we got of yours, cause we done shared all of mine”, to quote the old song lyric.

    I despise politics, in any form, and the thought of having committee meetings turn my stomach. I saw enough of commune life in the 60’s and 70’s, from a distance, to not really want to go with the “senior” commune, which strike me as kind of like a regular commune, without the drugs and sex.

    I have no idea what we will do, but it’s nice to see this article. We are not in a position to have to do anything, one way or the other, but we were raised to share our good fortune with others. We shall see how things unfold.

      1. Oregoncharles

        Nobody told me.

        This, in the article: ” In fact, pretty much the only members of today’s senior set that ever formally learned about STDs and the need for condoms received that education as soldiers,” – is silly. You didn’t get through that era without learning about STDs, often the hard way. (Come to think, a lot of the statistics might be people who married young and never fully experienced the 60s. Now they’ve lost their partners and are making up for lost time. Could be.)

    1. Oregoncharles

      I think you’d want good legal arrangements, so responsibilities are clear and enforceable. I suspect materials on cohousing discuss that at length. Not going to get you out of meetings altogether, but you might be able to present the plan on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, so you only get people who like your plan.

      Aside from Twin Oaks, the Skinnerian commune, which might even still exist, this is an aspect communes mostly neglected.

  9. Oregoncharles

    Several friends live in Co-Housing here, and we’ve held events there. My business partner, a permaculturist, was involved in planning the grounds. So my knowledge is strictly second hand, but from all I can see, it’s worked out well for the members. It isn’t explicitly a place for seniors, but to my knowledge it’s worked out that way. For one thing, they’re the ones with the necessary funds, since it amounts to buying a house; and they’re also the ones downsizing. That’s something my own household will have to consider.

    On a couple of factors mentioned above: yes, it requires significant funds, since it’s based on purchase. That’s one of the factors that give it enough stability. The other is that it’s a legal relationship, like a condominium; and those, in turn, are the differences from hippie era communes. The relationship is also much less intense – cohousing members have their own homes. Those differences might well reflect earlier experience, second hand if not direct.

    There were hopes, early on, that it represented a housing model with broad application – it is cheaper, because of the shared facilities. But I think the initial investment and long organizational time have proved to be barriers, rather as Arizona Slim and Diptherio imply.

    Perhaps ironically, there is an actual commune of sorts literally around the corner from Co-Housing. My stepson lived there at one point – it includes rentals, hence a wider range of ages. By reputation, it’s a bit of a matriarchy. I’ve met her. She struck me as subtly scary, but maybe that’s just me. Both places are part of the lefty network here.

  10. Whoa (was whoamolly)

    The article did not mention HUD, and govt supported multi-family homes. There are many such in our semi rural area. They are clean, safe, within walking distance of shopping, and have bus stops.

    Private Co-housing works well as long as there is a strong shared interest, often in a particular lifestyle. And as long as there is a respected “leader” who can act as tie breaker in disputes.

    Once people age, get sick, or start questioning the lifestyle things start to fall apart.

    The authors assertion that people transcend their pettiness as they age may be true on a superficial level but it only takes one person who descends instead of transcends to poison group relationships.

    The euphoric hot tub, sharing, and community stories are all true in early years of the endeavor, or when guests arrive. Later, not so much. I was personally put off by the evangelizing tone of the article.

    The only “co housing’ or community schemes Ive seen that work are:
    – HUD housing complexes
    – A group of individually owned paid-for modular (cheap) homes on adjacent (cheap) lots in a rural area
    – Subsidized apartments (downtown Portland for one)
    – Wealthy adult-only communities
    – Religious retreat centers with year round residents (for example Amish, Buddhist)
    – Small farm towns (Midwest US in the 50’s)

    Bottom line seems to be finding some way of getting a paid for house, and a way to be useful to a group of people that you like and respect. This is not easy and it’s more difficult the later in life one starts, but it can be done.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I suspect there is a big tradeoff with size. I can see it being easier to get 15-20 like minded people than 50, but the economics of 15-20 are more precarious, and when one dies or needs to go to a nursing home, how do you find a like-minded replacement? You’d need a big reserve to cover waiting it out to find a suitable replacement.

      1. Whoa

        Bringing in new people is a huge problem. Especially as everyone gets older and comfortable in their routines.

  11. Whoa

    Re: bottom line is getting a paid for house

    We started with parking an elderly $800 travel trailer on an empty $12K lot in the country. Not pretty but it worked

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