Intergenerational Cohousing: an excellent option for senior living
Today, more than ever, there are some excellent community living options available that take the wants and needs of older adults into consideration—from deliberate design, to resources, to long-term care solutions. For those without serious medical conditions, independent senior living facilities and assisted living are the most common.
Another perfectly viable option for this demographic is cohousing, which the Cohousing Association of the United States describes as “an intentional community of private homes clustered around shared space…households have independent incomes and private lives, but neighbors collaboratively plan and manage community activities and shared spaces.”
Incredibly enough, both attached or single family homes in these communities generally sell below private house market value. Homes feature traditional amenities in addition to shared spaces, typically a common house, “which may include a large kitchen and dining area, laundry, and recreational spaces. Shared outdoor space may include parking, walkways, open space, and gardens.”
Renting is another option. There is some difference in the by-laws concerning financial decisions for renters and owners (the legal structure is typically an HOA, Condo Association, or Housing Cooperative), but in all other ways there is no separation—renters remain an integral part of the community.
Generally speaking, these are communities of somewhere between 20 to 30 highly-involved households, which may give the introverts among us pause.
Amy-Beth Fischoff, M.S., who lives within a cohousing community in Boulder, CO, is often met by skeptics who question living so intimately with others. Their hesitation is only furthered by the misconception that cohousing is a commune of sorts. “In truth,” says Fischoff, “there are no requirements of belief or behavior except the desire to be here. Participation in shared events is an expectation but not a requirement. However, it quickly becomes clear that the community operates best when the individuals living in it take responsibility for it’s well-being.”
“I do not feel any restrictions on my independence—nobody tells me what to do, EVER,” insists Fischoff, addressing those who fear cohousing might impose a threat to autonomy. “However, I have come to value interdependence even more than the sacred bounds of my individuality, and am so grateful to have found a group of like-minded individuals, especially at this time of my life.”
Fischoff sits at the upper end of the community’s age range, which spans from two years old to over 80. While there are cohousing set-ups that cater just to seniors, there is a good case to be made for the joys of intergenerational living.
The Case for Aging:
Even some traditional senior facilities are recognizing the benefits of having mixed-age groups together. That’s the approach taken by Deerfield, a Lifespace retirement community in Urbandale, Iowa. The community sought a partnership with a nearby university in order to create a new sense of vibrancy within the community and actively engage residents in a unique partnership. Deerfield’s executive director, James Robinson, says the partnership has been beneficial for residents and staff members alike, and is an important part of aging normally.
In some cases, having intergenerational connections is more than enriching—it’s a matter of life and death.
“One of our older members is 77, and was a founding member of the community, says Fischoff. “It became clear last year that she was suffering from some dementia, was not attending to her self-care properly, and had some major financial woes. The community rallied. One of our members, a financial planner, got her a reverse mortgage so she could continue to live in her home. Another neighbor updated years of back taxes. She has renters in her home that are now alerted to see that she eats and takes her medication. People look in on her and make sure she comes to community meals and events, so that she is not just in her flat watching endless T.V.”
“She has recently been diagnosed with cancer,” Fischoff adds, “and neighbors drive her back and forth for radiation treatments, another form of welcome contact.”
The Case for Amenity:
Community members are often eager to share their talents, whether it be cooking community meals, keeping the pedways clear of ice and snow so our elders do not slip and fall, or organizing social events like parties, games, or movie nights for the more extroverted.
A wide variety of skilled labor—health care professionals, chefs, writers, contractors, computer and tech wizards—makes for a highly efficient cohousing set-up, and members will usually go to each other first when something is needed.
Some cohousing settlements even feature a farm on the premises, to which members individually subscribe each year with a combination of money and labor. Farms can provide for months of organically and lovingly grown vegetables and fruits that are economically advantageous compared with local health store prices. In Boulder, during the winter months, Fischoff enjoys homemade soups from Farmer Lara, who keeps the community fed year round.
As the single mother of a young child who, oftentimes, feels isolated as a result, Fischoff describes the convenience of cohousing when forming clubs, organizing child and elder care, and carpooling.
“Having no family here in Colorado, there were a ton of parents of variously aged children that became the proverbial ‘Aunties’ and ‘Uncles’ to my daughter,” remarks Fischoff. “Having run out of funds and needing to resume my work life, I had no worries when I left my daughter for periods of time. Alerting my neighbors, or depositing her at a house only a few steps away in one of the many households with kids her age, was enough for each of us to feel safe.”
“Whatever I need, whether it be as major as a temporary loan or as minor as ingredients missing from a meal I am preparing—even an ice scraper for my car as my memory of where I stored the one I had is suddenly blank—I can somehow always find what I need.”
The Case for Mental Health:
“A Community is a group of people who are bound together by gifts. The reason why Community is so hard to come by is because we’ve set up a system where we don’t need each other’s gifts, or we think we don’t. Where, in a sense, we don’t matter to each other. In my suburban neighborhood, no matter how many potlucks we had, the fact was nobody needed each other. If the person next door dies and stops producing whatever he produces, it doesn’t affect me because I source everything in my life from remote strangers; food, shelter, clothes, medicine, transportation, entertainment. An actual Community sources these gifts, or most of them, from each other so that the people in it are interdependent on each other for their wellbeing.” ~Charles Eisenstein (paraphrased).
In that regard, Community is so much more than the exchange of goods and services. It’s about belonging. A cohousing community has the privilege of knowing each other deeply, and members can really count on one another for the unique experience and spirit each has to offer. While it may take months to years to make solid connections, the payoff is more than worthwhile—it’s imperative for senior living.
“Social isolation and loneliness are associated with increased mortality in older adults,” says Liz Seeger, topic editor on aging for the Association of Health Care Journalists. “Social isolation also has been linked to other adverse health effects, including dementia, increased risk for hospital readmission, and increased risk of falls. However, research consistently shows that feeling connected and involved benefits both mental and physical health.”
Fischoff has found that her life-long tendency to cycles of melancholy and depression are no longer an issue. “Perhaps a change in hormones (or rather lack, thereof) have helped, but mostly I think it is the security of having so many loving and caring hearts around me,” reflects Fischoff. “And it is not only about what I can get, but what I can give. Knowing that my presence in the community makes a difference to others is a huge boost to my sense of self-worth.”