If you've been researching senior living arrangements, either for you or a loved one, then chances are you're already thinking about the standard options. In-home care, retirement communities, assisted living communities, nursing homes: these are typically the four major categories of elder living or long-term senior care. If you dig a bit deeper, though, you might see that another living option is becoming both more frequent and more prominent. That option is cohousing, a concept that could feasibly appeal to individuals, couples, or families of any age, but especially for seniors or aging baby boomers.
Defining the Term "Co-housing"
Cohousing.org, run by the Cohousing Association of the United States, defines cohousing as "an intentional community of private homes clustered around a shared space." In a cohousing community, residents live privately in condos or attached homes, but share certain properties or amenities with other residents.
The shared space can vary from cohousing community to cohousing community. Generally, there is a common house that includes a kitchen, a dining room, living room, and several benefits. The kitchen is used for preparing community meals, the dining room and living room are used for regular resident gatherings, and the bedrooms are meant for guests or caregivers if needed. Some cohousing common spaces might also include fitness facilities, pools, media centers, and more.
The Benefits of Cohousing
The main idea behind cohousing-and the biggest advantage of the living arrangement-is that it balances privacy with a community atmosphere. Residents still live in their own homes or condos, and can still get plenty of time to themselves. However, the community is also there as an ever-present support system. Communal meals or activities are common, a social benefit that seniors will appreciate. In addition, the residents of a cohousing community are in constant communication with one another, making it easy to plan group trips to go watch movies, go out to dinner, or go to the grocery store.
The benefits of the cohousing community angle aren't exclusively social, either. The Cohousing Association of the United States describes the community aspect as "neighbors commit[ing] to being part of a community for everyone's mutual benefit." Said another way, residents in cohousing developments are always looking out for one another. If one resident is out of town visiting relatives, for instance, their neighbors would happily watch their house, take care of their pets, water their plants, and more.
In elder cohousing neighborhoods, the "mutual benefits" of the living arrangement are even more pronounced. If a senior in one of these communities is struggling with mobility, memory issues, or other signs of declining health, his or her neighbors would notice and speak up. What worries many families about allowing their parents or grandparents to live alone past a certain point is the belief that, if something happens, no one will be there to help or even notice. In the community environment of cohousing, everyone is looking out for one another, providing peace of mind that isn't always there with other independent senior living options.
Finally, cohousing is designed, in part, with the aim of being sustainable and affordable. One of the big goals behind most cohousing communities is cutting down on waste and resource consumption by sharing resources. Through the sharing of food, energy, maintenance upkeep costs, and other expenses, residents of cohousing communities can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars over what they would pay for comparable senior living arrangements elsewhere. According to a report from Fellowship for Intentional Community, cohousing residents in Nevada City, California have even implemented solar panels on their properties and are even able to use it as an income stream.
Cohousing: A Resident-Managed Retirement Community?
On the list of available senior living arrangements, cohousing is undoubtedly most similar to retirement communities. In retirement communities, residents live in their own private spaces (be they condos, townhomes, villas, or apartments), but there is also a very social, community-driven feel. Retirement communities feature common areas as well - such as community dining rooms, fitness facilities, and more-as well as organized social activities.
The big difference with cohousing, of course, is that these communities are owned and operated by the residents themselves. In retirement communities, seniors might purchase their own residential spaces, but the community is owned and operated by a non-resident company. This professional management company and their staff members provide a variety of services (such as community meal preparation and laundry service), maintain community facilities, and more.
In cohousing communities, residents buy in by purchasing their own condos or houses. They then also own a portion of the shared house and joint spaces. In addition to social gatherings, cohousing residents will also have more formal meetings where they discuss the management of the community. Responsibilities might include establishing a budget for property management, making decisions on community maintenance and upkeep, or planning gatherings and events.
The Disadvantage of Cohousing
While there are many praiseworthy factors to consider when talking about cohousing, there is also one fairly notable drawback. While cohousing is a growing trend, it is still a relatively rare and niche living option. As a result, cohousing communities can be markedly harder to find than retirement communities or assisted living facilities. If you live in a relatively small town, there's a chance that you won't be able to find existing cohousing developments anywhere close to where you live currently. And while there is interest in these types of communities, if you really want to get one started near your current location, you might need to share in the construction costs.
With that said, if you do live in an area where cohousing options are available, and you are looking for a community-based senior living option that still affords plenty of privacy and independence, then give it a try. Within the next ten years or so, cohousing will probably become more and more commonplace, and you or a loved one could be ahead of the curve for experiencing this vibrant and caring living option.