Last week, I attended the Aging Better Together Cohousing Conference in Salt Lake City. Before the meeting, my knowledge and understanding of it was vague. The concept sounded intriguing and I looked forward to learning more. My assumptions of cohousing looked a lot like a senior independent living place that used a trendy name.
Initially, the idea of “another” housing option for adults, the kind where the retired lived a high life wasn’t compelling. However, in the ten years that I’ve spent in senior care, plus the time I helped my parents, I’ve learned that isolation and solitary comes with a price. If there’s something the aging needs, it involves companionship, connection, and human interaction.
The name, cohousing, is a bit deceiving. My mind conjured images of hippies living together, a free for all. Boy was that assessment off! After the first day, it struck me that referring to it as “housing” misses the mark. Frankly, it’s a healthy existence based on group principles and values.
The collaborative housing comes in all shapes and sizes, from single-family units to high-rises. The settings are varied too; ranging from downtown to suburban. There’s a cohousing development in Denver that’s appealing. Initially, it was a convent, and it’s close to the metro lines and downtown activities. That kind fits my unique preferences since suburbia seems too isolating, causing people to live alone and become inaccessible.
The U.S. Census surveys show that millions of Americans over 65 live alone, without a spouse, partner, or adult children. In Waco, where I live, 4,476 seniors, 65+, live alone and of those, 73% are female. Take a look at San Diego’s older population. 36,077 65+ live alone, and 68% of those are women. In Minneapolis, 36,077 65 and over live alone, of these, 68% are female. Shortly, you can view more city stats like these by visiting Seniorcare.com. Because isolation contributes to loneliness and depression, awhile back, I started a Facebook group for elder orphans, people like me living with no spouse, partner, or children.
Are we crying out for solitude and separation?
I think not. However, we do seek a balance of alone time with shared companionship. Take a look at Millennials; they’re proving that human behavior is social, not entirely isolated and self-reliant. The segment prefers to shop, eat, and make decisions in a group. And I believe it’s the same for the adults who approach retirement. At least for boomers, we want to create friendly villages.
Cohousing gives us the chance to reinvent a lifestyle of our choosing, not someone else’s vision of how we should live. Many adults enjoy solo living, but there is a distinction between living alone physically and living alone socially. Here are the disadvantages:
• Physical safety—as one grows older, we’re subject to falls. Conditions like hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease, may affect balance and physical strength. Other things that put us at risk are climbing stairs, using a step-stool, and ladder.
• Financial security—older adults are subject to fraud and scams. Phone callers fish for personal information that results in loss of life savings and personal identity. Having close friends nearby can help monitor scams.
• Nourishment--people who live alone are less likely to prepare nutritious meals than those who share meals with others. Instead, they opt for snacks and empty calories. Social interaction with other people makes it more appealing to sit down for a complete meal.
• Healthcare—people living alone often fail to recognize life-threatening medical conditions and get care. They ignore minor disorders until they become severe. Having friends who urge help early on mitigates the risk.
• Memory issues—recognizing decline in memory like failure to turn off the stove, and other household appliances can cause a house fire. Other problems with memory loss like bill paying and performing basic hygiene, and taking medications on time are concerns for memory-impaired people living alone.
Cohousing is an excellent remedy for the disadvantages. If one insists on privacy, the lifestyle allows for it. However, it looks to me that once a person acclimates to the life there; deeper relationships are the norm.
At the conference, I connected with several attendees who seek a life in community. Their answers give food for thought.
“Before the meeting, what was your interest in living in a cohousing community, and now that you know more, how motivated are you to make a move to one?”
Rhyena, CA, declares that her interest was high and, now, it’s very high,” and motivated by the feeling of being around “my peeps,” and she wants to be around them more when retired in about two years. Rhyena believes there are not enough detached homes in existing communities and hopes for the chance to realize real personal and collective transformation through the power of living and experiencing communal sharing.
Shelly, WA, has done a lot of research on Senior Living trends, which led her to cohousing. Once discovered, she dived right in and tried to learn as much as she could from the internet. Shelly visited Quimper Village because she heard they were doing a great job in building community and getting their project off the ground. Shelly loves cohousing as another option for boomers since they will demand choice and control. Cohousing gives both. The community piece will speak to boomers who are so independent and may now ask if there is a better way to live. However, Shelly believes that boomers might view it as losing privacy and independence.
Nancy, CA, has known about and studied intentional communities for the last few decades and her level of interest was an eight before, now it’s a 7. Her oldest brother was a leader in the intentional community lifestyle in the 60’s, and she knows that a “village” way of life is important but wants to explore all options. Attending the conference, she learned that cohousing requires much planning. The challenge is, “balancing the privacy that I like, and the shared aspect.” She hopes to live around the friends of her choosing!
Fran, CA, read Cohousing and Senior Cohousing before attending the conference and has been interested in the concept for 16 years. “I've followed the cohousing.org website since its inception and attended other meetings on the topic. There's not much happening in Southern CA. Her level of interest in an eight. Affordability and being able to find a place to share with a friend who has high care needs are the two driving factors. “I'm determined to age in community and will try to make that happen in cohousing.”
Lisa, TX, explored the topic online and read descriptions of the various communities and had followed a couple of them through development. “I was very interested in PDX Commons in Portland and even visited Portland and attended several events in March.” Her level of interest is high, ranging between levels 8 to 10; there are NO cohousing communities in Austin or the whole state of Texas! Lisa has friends in their 60s and early 70s interested in Intentional Community, and she picked up a lot of info at the conference, but not sure how to make it happen in Austin. “The city is expensive, and I learned it is very particular about zoning. For example, I have a friend who has a smaller older home on an acre in Central Austin and wondered if it could zone to accommodate cohousing. I suspect that is unlikely.” However, Lisa left the conference knowing there are different ways to create a similar lifestyle that does not involve building from scratch.
The wishes people have in shared living
When visiting with other participants, the one wish I heard most frequently is, “I wish the cities or state agencies would offer a financial incentive to make it easier to build, buy, or rent a unit or home." After much digging, I learned that several cities do indeed offer “affordable” housing options.
And for me, before Salt Lake City, my interest level was a 6. Today, it’s an 8. But as Lisa, TX, confirmed, “Seekers in the Lone Star state are plum outta luck.” Well, at least for the moment.
Carol Marak is an aging advocate, columnist, and editor at Seniorcare.com. Read her work at Huffington Post, About.com, Examiner, Homecare Magazine, American Society on Aging, VolunteerMatch.org, Health Technology Forum, and more! Connect with Carol on LinkedIn, Aboutme, and Twitter. If you’re aging alone, be sure to join the Elder Orphan Facebook group.