What Is Senior Cohousing?

If you've been researching senior living arrangements, either for yourself or a loved one, then chances are you're already thinking about the standard options – home care, retirement communities, or independent living. If you dig a bit deeper, you might find that another living option is becoming more popular. Cohousing is a concept that’s growing in appeal, especially for seniors or aging baby boomers.

Defining the Term Cohousing
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. 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.

But cohousing is more than simply a shared space. It’s an intentional community. Common values usually encompass living a healthy lifestyle, respect for the environment, lifelong learning, personal growth and positive contributions to society.

Growth of Cohousing
According to Cohousing.org, there are more than 290 cohousing communities in the U.S., some of which are still underway. While the majority of cohousing options welcome residents of all ages, some are designed specifically for those aged 50 and older. Baby boomers are driving much of this growth. They want to stay active in their larger neighborhoods, not be segregated in senior-only developments. Boomers are embracing cohousing as a tool for maintaining their independence, building community, and living light on the planet.

The Benefits of Cohousing

Cohousing’s strong sense of community makes these communities good investments. People who buy in cohousing communities are committed to maintaining a strong community, and often have the support of their neighbors during difficult times.

Sense of Community
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 privacy. 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. As social scientists confirm, we’re happier, healthier, longer living people with daily social interactions and connections.

Safety and Security
The benefits of the cohousing community 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. Many families worry about allowing their parents or grandparents to live alone because 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.

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 the author of The Senior Cohousing Handbook, an individual household can save as much as $70,000 (and gain a 4,500-square-foot common house) in a low-market, 20-unit cohousing community and $337,5000 in a high-market project. Of course, it depends on the location, condo, and amenities desired.

Environmentally Friendly
Cohousing is designed with the aim of being sustainable. One of the primary goals behind most cohousing communities is cutting down on waste and resource consumption by sharing resources. Fellowship for Intentional Community reported that cohousing residents in Nevada City, California have implemented solar panels on their properties – and are even able to use it as an income stream. If sustainability is an important value to you, cohousing will be an excellent choice.

Disadvantage of Cohousing

While there are many positive factors to consider 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.

The second drawback is that you’ll need to make some adjustments to living in such close quarters to your neighbors. In senior cohousing communities, your home is private. However, you’re expected to share common areas with other residents. Naturally, that could possibly lead to some disagreements as you learn to accommodate different personalities.

Admittedly, living in cohousing isn’t for everyone. You might not want the amount of work involved in going to meetings and taking care of common areas. Plus, it’s one thing to chat across the fence or loan your lawnmower, but it’s another thing entirely to share land and have dinner together every week.

Cohousing: A Resident-Managed Retirement Community?

Cohousing is most similar to retirement communities. In retirement communities, residents live in their own private spaces (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 meal preparation, and laundry service, and maintenance of community facilities.

In cohousing communities, residents buy in by purchasing their own condos or houses. This means they 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.

Taking the Next Step

If you’re interested in joining a cohousing development, check out the Cohousing Directory on the Coho/US website. You’ll find all the cohousing communities in the country, by state, including those just getting started. Each listing has basic information about the community, a link to its website, and contact information. There are also browse the site’s classified ads. They list homes for sale in existing cohousing communities throughout the country, as well as new cohousing communities seeking members. You can also find professional services for people interested in building a new cohousing community. As you evaluate the options, you’ll want to consider:

  • Do I have a specific or a preferred location in mind, or am I flexible?
  • Would I be more comfortable in a larger or a smaller community? Rural, or suburban, or college town?
  • What’s the proximity to shopping, dining and health care?
  • What kind of amenities are available?
  • What’s the access to local doctors and the cost of health care?
  • What’s the local climate?

Next, you’ll evaluate the community itself. Naturally, it’s important to feel comfortable with your future neighbors. You’ll want to think about:

  • Would you like most seniors as neighbors or a multi-generational community?
  • What kind of group decision-making process will I be most comfortable with?
  • Am I okay with their workshare and common meals policies?

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 choosing this vibrant and caring living option.

Cara Imperato
Senior Advice