For active seniors, co-housing offers alternative to downsizing

SHARE For active seniors, co-housing offers alternative to downsizing

Carolyn Langenkamp, 68, helps serve the family-style dinner at her California co-housing dwelling.
| Heidi de Marco, Kaiser Health News, via USA TODAY

The 5-mile hikes, yoga classes and communal dinners are now routines for the residents at PDX Commons Cohousing in Portland, Ore. These 39 individuals (about half partnered but largely strangers at first) started forging relationships well before they moved in this summer to join a trend called co-housing.

“Here, you walk in and know every one of the people and you know them well,” said Steve Fisher, 63, a retired transportation planner who leads the weekly hikes. He and his wife moved from San Jose, Calif., to PDX Commons. “You greet them. They’re your friends. You do stuff with them. It’s the opposite of the isolation you sometimes get in the urban areas.”

It’s not a commune and there’s no sharing of income, though decision-making is by consensus. Co-housing bolsters sharing — a lawnmower, tools or an on-site laundromat, as well as guest quarters. Homes are private, clustered near a common space where homeowners meet to share meals and build community.

Of the nation’s 168 co-housing communities, almost all are intergenerational. But as increasing numbers of aging adults eschew the idea of institutional living, co-housing has become an attractive option.

In 2010, no U.S. co-housing communities were geared toward seniors. PDX Commons is now the nation’s 13th such community for the 55-and-older demographic. Two more are under construction and 13 more are in the early stages.

“Interest in co-housing has not only increased in general, but especially in the senior world,” said Karin Hoskin, executive director of Coho/US, the Cohousing Association of the United States, a non-profit that supports co-housing communities nationwide.

While groups of friends may discuss growing old together on common ground, in most co-housing communities, the residents start as strangers who plan to help each other for the rest of their lives. Fisher said part of the home-buying process includes months of getting-to-know-you activities.

“We are people who have the ability to live independently who intended to come together to form a community,” Fisher said of the group that ranges in age from 57 to 80. “We made it really clear: We’re not a care facility.”

Trudy Hussman, 68, bought into PDX Commons in June 2016 after retiring two years ago.

“I had been living alone for a long time and was feeling fairly isolated since I retired,” she said. “I started thinking that living in a community with other similar people would be an antidote.”

Clinical psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, of Chicago, agrees. Social support is critical to health and well-being, with countless studies showing those with social ties live longer, are physically healthier and happier and have less stress, she said — “it depends upon how open-minded and like-minded people are.”

Co-housing came to the U.S. after architects Charles Durrett, 62, and his wife, Kathryn McCamant, 57, learned about the concept in Denmark. The Nevada City, Calif., couple became advocates and have designed more than 55 such projects in the USA and consulted on others. The legal entity is usually a condo or homeowners association with monthly fees, generally between $100 and $350, Durrett said.

“Structurally, they’re infinitely different,” he said. “It needs to be designed from scratch for each group.”

At some senior projects, one of the guest rooms in the common house was designed for future caregivers to assist homeowners; however, the co-housing communities say they haven’t been used that way because anyone who might have needed such help hired someone privately.

The nation’s first senior co-housing community opened in December 2005 with eight homes and a dozen individuals at Glacier Circle in Davis, Calif., about 15 miles from Sacramento. Seven of the initial group remain.

“We’re declining and holding on and trying to be good to each other,” said Stan Dawson, 86, president of its homeowners association. “There’s no sense that anyone wants to move out to a nursing home yet.”

Among the newer senior projects is Village Hearth Cohousing in Durham, N.C., where construction is to begin in April and move-in is set for summer 2019. It’s an “LGBT and allies” community for age 55-plus, said Pat McAulay, 62.

“My wife and I actually started the group in 2015,” she said, based upon “dozens of beach trips with our friends — a bunch of women together in a house. We said ‘Let’s do this when we retire.’”

But none of those friends bought in, so they started looking for prospects in April 2015 and bought 15 acres in August of that year. So far, 11 households are sold.

Alan O’Hashi, 64, who moved to senior co-housing at Silver Sage Village in Boulder, Colo., in 2010, offers newbies some advice.

“The best thing about co-housing are neighbors and the worst thing about co-housing are the neighbors,” he said. “You’re putting up with everyone’s positives and negatives and striking a balance between being in community and being an individual.”

Lew Bowers, 65, said PDX Commons is learning that. “In consensus,” he said, “you have to think about what’s good for the group.”

Sharon Jayson, Kaiser Health News

Kaiser Health News, a non-profit health newsroom whose stories appear in news outlets nationwide, is an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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