2014 Senior Cohousing – How’s it working

2014 Senior Cohousing – How’s it working – 9/26/2014

By Jim Leach

Senior Cohousing is based on the successful cooperative senior housing models in Denmark, and was introduced to the United States by architect Charles Durrett in his book The Senior Cohousing Handbook.  Silver Sage Village in Boulder, Colorado is one of the first three Senior Cohousing communities in the US. It was completed in 2007 by Wonderland Hill Development Company with design by Charles Durrett.  My wife Brownie and I are now in our mid-seventies and have lived in Silver Sage for the past seven years.  This is my current take on senior living in cohousing.  Some of it was first written in 2009 and has been edited from those earlier observations.

Most of us seniors want to have maximum control over our lives, and we want to be smart about getting the most out of life as we age. We want to efficiently live healthy, engaged, and creative lives, and to continue to build on relationships, ideas, and places and things that have special meaning to us. At the same time we also want to simplify our lives and try to get rid of some of the clutter that distracts us from living a more fulfilled life.

Our housing can play an important role in our quest for both more simplicity and more engagement in things which interest and stimulate us. This is where cohousing offers a lifestyle option that is much more than just a change to more suitable housing.  With shared common facilities and well-designed compact living units it provides the advantages that come from having a new and better suited place to live.  But, it also provides an opportunity for a deeper more stimulating and healthier social environment. It does this better then nearly any other housing alternative for downsizing and aging households.  For seniors cohousing is really retirement housing for those who don’t want to ever retire from living a proactive, meaningful and mindful life.

Cohousing is an intentionally cooperative neighborhood where common facilities are creatively shared, yet where each household owns their home and has maximum control over their privacy and involvement in the neighborhood community.  In a cohousing neighborhood there is significant value added through the synergy of a group of individuals with diverse life experiences coming together around a common vision for their community, and then working together to creatively implement that vision.  This community based and intentionally cooperative housing model has proven in Europe and now in the US to offer economic, social, health, and security benefits that are especially important to older residents.

From my experience the value lies in the opportunity to efficiently deepen and get more out of our everyday lives through our relationships with a diverse group of interesting and proactive neighbors.  Much of this is accomplished by living in a closely connected, relatively well organized neighborhood with common assets to share and to manage.  Having common assets, sets up the reason to be organized for the benefit of the residents and the good of the whole neighborhood.  Valuable social capital is created through the process, leading to benefits which include: more friends and an enriched lifestyle; greater security as we age in place; economies of sharing with neighbors; and, a more environmentally, economically and socially sustainable lifestyle.

From the time when we moved into Silver Sage we have shared really good dinners with our neighbors twice a week in our beautiful common house, court yard and gardens.  We daily chat with neighbors who have become good friends and often go to events together, share rides and shop with or for each other.  We share our collective wisdom in everything from gardening and crafts to health and mindful wellbeing.  We also govern the community ourselves with monthly community meetings and team meetings where we share responsibility for managing and maintaining our community.  Individual neighbors do many things that add value based on their interest and skills, things like gardening, arts and crafts, and gourmet cooking for the community.    Our diversity of interests, expertise, and energy enriches our lives, and makes us a closer connected group of neighbors.

We have recently completed our seventh summer at Silver Sage, our homes are surrounded by beautiful outdoor spaces with a variety of flowers, community garden beds, and fruit trees thanks to neighbors that have a passion for gardening.  This beautiful landscape generates a real sense of place that enriches our lives in a way that would not happen without a community based neighborhood where the creative gardening and landscape energy and expertise among neighbors was supported by good community design and process.  This is social capital in action, creating real value for everyone.

Cohousing residents and professionals like to say that the typical American neighborhood tries to offer only privacy, but with cohousing you get to choose between privacy and community; and can have as much of each as you want and need.  At Silver Sage community members respect each other’s privacy because they know each other and have developed protocol.  I have found that there is a natural flow of neighbor to neighbor connection that occurs.

Brownie and I have always tended to be more introverted in our relationships with friends and neighbors.   At Silver Sage we definitely see and communicate with our neighbors more often than we ever did in the neighborhood we previously lived in for 35 years, but there seems to be an organic and purposeful flow to the social interaction that both brings us out and goes well with our more introverted nature.

Everybody loves a party, celebrations, small events and traditions that make life more enjoyable, until we introverts get tired and want to go home.  In cohousing, parties are often spontaneous, (as is walking away from them).  Nearly everybody needs and likes engagement at some level.  The trick is to understand your level and tolerance for it and play the game in the way which is best for you while also supporting the vision of the community.  Generally, neighbors who have worked together in a cohousing group seem to understand that time is precious and there are precious times, when to communicate efficiently and when to linger and enjoy the moment.

Many of the issues important to seniors are inherent in the lifestyle of the cohousing neighborhood including: convenience and security, healthy social interaction, sharing life experiences, efficient use of time and money resources, and knowing that neighbors are ready and willing to help in most any situation.  Being closer to neighbors generates an enriched life that is especially important to us in later life.  This social enrichment promotes a healthier lifestyle as we age together.  Being able to walk out your door and see friendly neighbors, and in a few steps to be in the common grounds and the common house all add convenience and a certain social satisfaction and benefit to everyone.

After experiencing seven years of living and practicing senior cohousing I have been trying to verbalize the experience in a way that might be helpful to others who are considering or already involved in the option.  It is of course like about everything else in life.  You have to get beyond being just a spectator and participate in the day to day aspects of a cohousing neighborhood to really get it.  Connecting in community brings out our basic human nature finding fulfilment through; creating together; laughing together; and even complaining together.

I like the analogy of comparing a community like cohousing to a living organic creature.  Each community seems to have a life of its own and to experience the many pleasures and pains that come with life.  For the individual participant being part of the community deepens and enriches their life experiences both through their social experiences, and through the satisfaction they get from contributing to the growth and wellbeing of the community and the betterment of all.

So all of this sounds great at least from an academic standpoint, but what about the trials and tribulations of seniors in cohousing, the problems of a group of ageing people trying to manage shared buildings and grounds and live harmoniously in a community.  My cohousing neighbors talk about this a lot, often voicing it as a concern about how will get the work done and for some it seems to be a worry some issue.

I feel that the idea that we are all getting older and feebler together and therefore there will be nobody to do the important work to keep the place up and the community going is a bit of a myth.  If you think of the community as organic and capable of transcending any of the individuals in it just like our bodies transcend the cells in them, you begin to realize that as long as the community is reasonably healthy and attractive to new members it will survive and prosper long after we are gone, or at least until the real estate becomes worthless.

This concept seems to be playing out true to form at Silver Sage.  In our ten plus years since our community’s founding and seven years since we moved into our homes we have lost several valuable members for one reason or another and have gained some very valuable new members, yet the community has continued to grow and prosper through it all, and is in my opinion stronger and healthier than it has ever been.

Yes, with cohousing there are challenges, and irritations, and commitments of time and energy, all things that we may consider undesirable and not want to deal with in our senior years when we want to kick back and enjoy what we have left of life and when we may also be distracted by the usual assortment of failing health and other aging related challenges.  Of course cohousing isn’t for everybody, but it does offer real advantages for seniors who want to age in a stimulating place and are willing to invest time and energy in it.

From a business and marketing standpoint cohousing can be identified as a sticky product.  It may be a slow sale and take time for the customer to get really attracted to it, but when they are the loyalty builds and is not easily left behind for the next attractive idea or product.  Similarly communities like cohousing depend on the glue that keeps the community together and sticks people to a goal of continuing to build the health of the community and fulfilling it’s vision.

Cohousing depends on its own version of the glue that keeps a community together and healthy.  One that is sticky but not too bonding such that members of the community are loyal to it and will contribute to it, but do not feel so obligated that it overly restricts their freedom of lifestyle choice. Not too bonding but just sticky enough that people want to stay and work and play together.  In a healthy community this stickiness is accomplished through various combinations of social bonding, feelings of accomplishment and contribution, loyalty to the community vision, and good consensus based decision making process.  At Wonderland we have a whole book, “Head, Heart. And Hands,” devoted to helping cohousing communities develop these bonding attributes.

One of the more interesting cohousing observations for me has been what I think of as the un-branding of people and personalities that seem to occur in starts and fits as neighbors get to know each other at greater depths.  As much as we may try to think of ourselves otherwise, we all participate to some extent in the act of branding people based on our initial impressions of their words, actions, general personalities and sometimes even appearance, stereotyping their personalities as being shallow, ego driven, lower class, or maybe witty, intelligent, generous and kind; thus branding them with one or more attributes.  But, real participation together in a community like cohousing works to un-brand and equalize all participants, and in general move all personalities toward the more socially positive attributes.   It is interesting not only to observe and participate in the enriching of relationships which occur as we better understand our differences, but also to see the real value that is created for all who participate in the un-branding process.

Character and characters evolve out of community and enrich the experiences for all in the community in their own inimitable way– a thousand clowns, some not taken too seriously, yet enjoyed by all.  Individuals with personalities or attitudes different from yours and that can sometimes have an abrasive effect on you become interesting characters in your life as your relationships with them deepens and you are able to develop respect for each other’s contributions to the community.

Built in to the vision for a cohousing neighborhood is the expectation of creating greater good for those residing in the neighborhood and for the benefit of all.  I call these tendencies of goodness.  A tendency toward goodness promotes a culture of cooperation even when friction and conflict inevitably occurs, and of course as in all deepening human relationships between diverse personalities conflict does occur.  Some people need a measure of friction real or contrived to feel alive.  Others can barely tolerate any of it.  But, an underlying culture of goodness has ways of prevailing and undermining negativity that arises out of the deepening of relationships.

The connection between community and spirituality, in its broadest sense, fascinates me, and at some level seems to be present in cohousing.  Spirituality leads to compassion, forgiveness, faith, hope, and joy, all valuable attributes of community.  Both spirituality and community are in our bones as humans, creatures on earth.  They are in our essence and in the essence of the universe.  I have come to believe that community is a living thing, organic in nature and operating on universal life sustaining terms.

Both spirituality and community seem to operate and grow out of a spiral concept.  What is attractive from a single minded standpoint gets replaced by more complex thought and practice which leads to deeper understanding and commitment to the original attraction, and around the spiral they go again building deeper understanding and commitment.  Spirituality and community are both continuous, never ending processes of human development.

Thomas Moore has described the fundamental psychological problem of contemporary life as a lack of “soul.” As Moore understands the problem, “soul” is not exclusively a religious term but rather “a quality or a dimension of experiencing life and ourselves. It has to do with depth, value, relatedness, heart, and personal substance.”

Robert Zeuner in his paper: “Community as a spiritual act” writes that “Community as true spiritual experience possesses at least three distinguishing characteristics: (1) it forces a deeper look at ourselves, (2) it offers a sense of belonging to others, and (3) it promotes a positive vision of things”

As we age, spirituality in its broadest sense can seem to underlie most everything and to move us back toward simple things that we were taught were most important but were often lost in the commotion of living our lives, things like the beauty of a garden and the joy of sharing an exceptional feast with good neighbors.

Web sites for more information on Senior Cohousing: www.whdc.com; www.Cohousing.org; www.cohousingpartners.com;

“The next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community; a community practicing understanding and loving kindness, a community practicing mindful living. This maGIB 2y be the most important thing we can do for the survival of the Earth.” – By Thich Nhat Hanh

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