Is Co-Housing the Right Option for Seniors?

The co-housing movement is beginning to gather steam across the United States. At present, there are almost 170 such communities in the United States, and as the baby boomer generation retires en-masse, co-housing is beginning to look a lot more attractive than downsizing.

What is Co-Housing?

A co-housing community tends to be comprised of anywhere from 15 to 35 individual and private homes built around a ‘common area.’ The entire purpose of co-housing is to encourage interaction with your neighbors; a welcome removal from the modern day situation where people often don’t know the names of the people next-door.

As a resident, you will plan community activities with your fellow residents, and you also plan meals and share spaces. Virtually all co-housing communities have a common house with a kitchen and meeting space while others have hot tubs, pools and a garden. Remember, when neighbors know one another rather well, it is easy to ask for, receive, and give, a helping hand.

What is the Appeal of Co-Housing For Seniors?

The co-housing movement has been slow to catch on amongst seniors but that’s set to change. In 2010, there wasn’t a single community created specifically for seniors in the entire U.S. At the time of writing, there are 13 communities for 55+ residents with another 15 in the works.

Co-housing is extremely popular in Denmark (up to 8% of the nation’s population live in one of these communities) and there are signs that it may ‘take off’ in the United States. Among the most appealing aspects of co-housing are the sustainability and sense of community.

How often have you lived in a neighborhood and felt as if you have no control over what is going on? With co-housing, you are literally purchasing decision making power. For example, members have monthly meetings to discuss the burning issues of the community including construction plans. If you plan to ‘live green’, there are several eco-friendly locations where the residents believe in car sharing and electric vehicles for example.

In senior co-housing developments, individual homes tend to have a smaller square footage but amenities are geared to the needs of older adults. Typically, a common area will contain a guest room where residents can meet with their family members who visit.

It is a chance to surround yourself with people who are like-minded or, if you prefer, you can look for a more diverse community. If you need assistance with anything, you can call on your neighbors for help. With so many seniors living alone, co-housing enables them to truly enjoy their golden years as they have the opportunity to pursue an active life filled with entertainment if they wish.

Also, overall costs tend to be lower than expected when you factor in group entertainment, shared meals, energy savings and transportation. Since everyone lives in the vicinity, there is also a sense of safety which is invaluable for seniors. The idea is that residents can live independently and avoid the need for nursing home care for as long as possible.

What Are The Drawbacks?

The best thing about co-housing is also the worst; the neighbors! In most cases, you’ve probably never met these people before so you have no idea if you’ll become friends or get on one another’s nerves. Once you’re locked into a co-housing property, you’re stuck with that irritating individual! Of course, you can always bring up their poor behavior in the next community meeting.

Perhaps the most surprising issue with co-housing is the lack of diversity thus far. According to a study conducted in 2011:

  • 95% of co-housing residents are white.
  • 82% of residents are Democrats.
  • 66% of residents hold a graduate degree.

To be fair, the study was conducted six years ago, and dozens more co-housing communities have been built since. However, there is little to suggest that the demographics have changed in the intervening period.

One of the major issues is the initial cost since most projects begin from scratch. The first step involves finding like-minded people; then you have to find and purchase the land, identify a construction company and put up the money. As a consequence, it isn’t unusual for units to cost up to $500,000.

There are ways and means around this issue, however. For example, Prairie Hill in Iowa City benefited from tax credit funding and the development was able to create 15 units for less than $200,000 apiece. While there will always be expensive developments, research shows that there is an increasing number of units available for little more than $170,000.

Final Thoughts on Co-Housing

While there is no doubt that co-housing is not for everyone, it has the potential to grow into an important option for seniors in search of a better quality of life. The cost of co-housing units continue to fall, and within a few years, there could be thousands of communities to choose from.