The following are highlights from the book: The Senior Cohousing Handbook: A Community Approach to Independent Living, by Charles Durrett
Cohousing is an intentional community of private homes clustered around shared space. Each attached or single family home has traditional amenities, including a private kitchen. Shared spaces typically feature 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. Neighbors also share resources like tools and lawnmowers.
Common dinner in a senior cohousing community is prepared in turn, usually by one cook and one assistant. However, its significance goes far beyond sharing food and effort. Such dinners are the heart of cohousing, for they are the catalyst for many other social activities. Breaking bread together is a timeless community building experience. Just as important, it is over dinner that you might decide to go bird watching together on Saturday, or to take a walk after eating.
In other words, dinner is the number one place where relationships are built — not necessarily at the dinner table itself, but from all the activities that stem from dinner conversations. The common house is also the place where people drink coffee and play chess on a Sunday afternoon. It is inviting and friendly to the point where residents feel as if they are in their own space.
Features of cohousing:
- Participatory Process: Residents help organize and participate in the planning and design process for the housing development, and they are responsible as a group for final decisions. 2. Deliberate Neighborhood Design: The physical design encourages a strong sense of community. 3. Extensive Common Facilities: Common areas are an integral part of the community, designed for daily use and to supplement private living areas. 4. Complete Resident Management: Residents manage the development, making decisions of common concern at community meetings. 5. Non-Hierarchical Structure: There are not really leadership roles. The responsibilities for the decisions are shared by the community’s adults. 6. Separate Income Sources: Residents have their own primary incomes; the community does not generate income.
Senior cohousing is similar to the mixed-generational cohousing model, with the following modifications: • Careful agreements among residents about co-care and its limits. • Design considerations appropriate for seniors. • Size limitations (a maximum of 30 living units, usually 15-25).
One of the things that people forget is that children do tire of caring for an older person — then it’s off to the institution. Bill Thomas describes a nursing home as a marriage between a hospital and a prison. Although nursing homes have figured out the “care” part, what people hate most about being older is boredom, lack of purpose, and helplessness. None of that is addressed in a nursing home “care” scenario.
Broadly speaking, senior cohousing groups look for people over 50 who enjoy good health. Sometimes a group will set an upper limit of 65 or 69 at move-in. But the range can be 50-75. Physical health and chronological age often do not correlate, and there are exceptions to every rule.
As long as at least six members participate at any given time (post site selection), turnover does not seem to affect the final success of a project. The backbone of the project is the organizing group and the participatory culture it creates. The momentum of the people committed to it, because they intend to live there, carries the day. While people are in the group (even those who later move on), they contribute to it and each member in turn helps to build the community — a community responsive to real people’s needs because real people were involved to solve real-life issues.
If I seem to focus more on encouraging the social side of senior cohousing versus the protection of privacy, it is because American architects and developers are conditioned to put privacy above all other social concerns. Groups that create a senior cohousing community must, in effect, break the old habits of all involved to give community as much consideration as privacy.
It’s worth noting that the hundreds of cohousing residents we’ve interviewed almost never complained about the lack of privacy in their community, yet many readily pointed out design features that discouraged sociability. Community design should encourage social interaction and at the same time allow residents to choose whether to be with others or to be alone. When you walk into cohousing, you should always feel that you have the choice between as much privacy as you want and as much community as you want. In typical suburban neighborhoods you feel as if you have the choice of as much privacy as you want — and little opportunity for community.
People know that everyone has their own lives — it’s natural and accepted,” explained a resident. Body language readily signals approachability. One resident told us that some people might not be approachable for months because of how things are going on in their lives, but soon enough they will open up again.
“People in cohousing tend to be very honest with each other,” said a cohousing resident of sixteen years. “In my old house, when a neighbor used to ask to borrow a tool, I felt obliged to loan it, even if I felt uncomfortable doing so. In what might be a rare contact, I didn’t want to come off as un-neighborly. Here if someone wants to talk, or have coffee, or borrow a tool, and I don’t feel like it, I don’t hesitate to say no. They know me, and there is less likelihood that they will be put off by my honesty. In fact, it’s a sign of respect and intimacy to be able to say no.
All residents have to participate in common work tasks for a certain number of hours each year. Residents who work more than they are supposed to, get their extra hours saved in the time bank. For those who work less, they accumulate a deficit. The hours can then be bought or residents can pay them back by working more hours the next year. This system allows people to save up hours for their senior years while they still have the reserves of energy. Or it can simply allow people to pay the community for their absence when they don’t have the time to participate in the common work.
Overall, the system of time banking has been successful, so much so that other senior cohousing groups have created interesting variations on it that are wholly germane to the sensibilities of their own community. For example, in another senior cohousing community, residents start out with a requirement to perform 20 hours per month of common work (including common dinners). This amount then decreases to zero hours per month after 20 years of residency.
There are generally three stages at which legal agreements need to be drawn up, reflecting the needs of each development phase. These agreements are: 1. An initial pre-site acquisition agreement (partnership). 2. A “building association” or development partnership (LLC). 3. A definition of the final ownership structure and management association (Home Owners Association/HOA DOCS). The initial agreement, drawn up before the group is ready to purchase a site, generally outlines the group’s purpose, decision-making procedures, membership recruitment methods and limitations, and fees to cover operating expenses and consulting services.
Prospective members usually pool their equity and form a Limited Liability Corporation, or LLC. The LLC assumes the role of developer, negotiates with the lender, buys the land, and hires the architect. When the project is completed, each individual resident then “buys” their house from the LLC, and assumes responsibility for their own mortgage.
Most cohousing groups, at some point in their discussions, bring up the possibility of organizing their community as a cooperative. In this ownership structure, the entire community is owned by all of the residents as a nonprofit corporation, and each household buys a share in the corporation equivalent to the price of their home. Philosophically, a cooperative seems to be an ideal structure for a cohousing community. As one resident put it, “In a sense, I own everybody’s unit. I’m responsible for everyone’s unit working. It has a different feeling.”
Although cooperatives are a proven form of home ownership, American banks are generally wary of financing them. Even the National Cooperative Bank (NCB), which was created to support cooperatives, will not provide complete construction financing and offers only a limited range of loans. As a result, most cohousing projects have been set up as condominiums, a structure that banks and city officials already understand. Structuring the project as a condominium development doesn’t seem to have any effect — negative or positive — on the success or failure of community building. Most groups meet twice a month for about a year to develop the project.
In the early stages, monetary cost is not at issue. Time is the issue. Specifically, time spent in meetings for the group to come to consensus over any given issue. Since community consensus is a cornerstone of the cohousing concept (and is often a new concept to all involved), it is no surprise that the number one concern about cohousing has to do with meeting time. This is perfectly understandable. People, from their own experience, know that achieving consensus is difficult enough in a single household. But a community of 20 households who are just getting to know each other? How is that even possible? First and foremost, each household or individual must understand that when meetings take too long, the value of the community diminishes. Each must learn not to make a mountain out of a molehill, and to trust others to do things without requiring the involvement of the entire group.
Committees ebb and flow as required. If something needs to be done, a few people get together and do it and call themselves a committee. When no longer needed, they dissolve. Some form of this is engaged throughout the development process on into residence. Fundamental to all cohousing is the concept that everyone who wishes to participate in making a decision can do so. In other words, everyone has a say in the business at hand, if they so desire. Thus, a clear decision-making process, based on consensus, is the first step in ensuring the complete involvement of all. When everyone is involved, people get to know each other quite well, and this fosters community. (Later, key items for the group to agree on include everything from when to meet, how often and when to eat together, etc.)
In urban and suburban areas, sites are often expensive and hard to find, and competition for appropriate sites can be fierce. Core groups consisting of just a few households have to compete with experienced developers; and developers who are familiar with the steps involved in securing land can act quickly to make decisions and put up option money. In rural areas, zoning, septic system requirements, and the cost of off-site infrastructure improvements can rule out many otherwise ideal sites. All these challenges make finding and securing a site a watershed moment in the cohousing development process.
The Municipality. Be it within a city’s limits or in unincorporated land, once a senior cohousing group identifies a potential site for their community, it’s time to get local officials involved. The local municipality plays an important role early on in the process in terms of accommodating for zoning regulations, public service availability, cost feasibility considerations, and more. Misconceptions about cohousing persist; people often think that “cohousing” is another name for “hippie commune,” straight out of the 1970s. It is important that the municipality gets a realistic picture of what senior cohousing actually is.
If you can get a slate of key local officials “sold” on the idea of the project early on, both already committed and potential residents will feel more secure going forward. It is a comfort to know that local officials won’t hold up, pick apart, drive the costs up, or block a project before it really even starts. While it is extremely useful to have all the bureaucrats on board, it is not absolutely essential. Too often they are the last people to “get” it. Luckily, in our private enterprise system, one can propose anything, and — with enough tenacity and public support — champion it through. It’s not unusual to be voted down 2-3 at the first hearing or two, only to win 5-0 by the third hearing.
A detailed design program is important. New members to the group (joining after the design program is finished) will be able to see how thorough the group has been and won’t be tempted to backtrack. For instance, when Larry, the new participant, asks, “Did you consider how big the front porches should be?” Sandra, who was there when the issue was discussed, can reply, “Yes, let’s look at the program to see what decision was made.” A membership committee should be charged with the very important task of carefully walking new members through the decisions that already have been agreed to. It’s not enough just to hand them the program. It’s best to take them out for coffee and walk them through each line item.
The architectural design starts with the design of the overall site, determining where to place buildings, identifying areas to keep open, locating the common house, orienting the buildings. We address the site plan first because its configuration relates to key questions about feasibility and design, and it will be required for the city planning approval process. The site plan will show the location of the potential common amenities, the number and type of houses, the number of parking places, and so forth, and costs can be explored. Once the site is laid out, we proceed to the specifics for the design of the common house.
It is extremely helpful to have the common house design precede the design of the individual private houses because once group members understand the amenities featured in the common house, they will be able to see how the common house will supplement and become an extension of the private houses. People are much more comfortable with smaller private houses once they see that the common house will contain guest rooms or suites, laundry facilities, entertainment rooms, a sewing room, and other amenities, as well as a gourmet kitchen and large dining/living space that will accommodate a twice-a-year party or family gathering as well as community dinners several times a week. Once the common house is designed, the private house discussions typically go quite smoothly and rapidly.
The most effective participatory design processes recognize both the value of resident input and where it should be limited. How much influence residents want over the design, and where they should step back, is the art of the process. The group should, of course, be involved in the establishment of design criteria. Many past participants, however, recommend leaving most technical and aesthetic decisions to the architect, since it is almost impossible for most groups to agree among themselves on these more subjective issues, and the architect must be kept solely on the hook for the technical solutions.
Brainstorm, discuss, and decide on the activities between the houses that facilitate community and individual goals (sitting and talking, gardening, washing the car, playing games, hanging out the clothes, drinking a pot of tea, laughing, etc.). • Establish which activities require their own place (e.g. parking lot, gathering nodes, common terrace, clothesline, swimming pool, bocce ball court, common garden, private front porch, private front yard, or private backyard). • Establish where activities occur that don’t need their own place (e.g. car washing at the car park, basketball court at the overflow car park). •
Create clear design criteria for each place (e.g. for the garden: fruit trees and raised beds, a watering feature, compost, greenhouse, tool shed, south facing, gathering place, picnic table). More specific decisions are usually established later by a committee; the type and quantities of fruit trees, for example, would be a gardening committee decision. • Establish the character of each space, where each space is located in relation to other places, and the details of each place. • Establish optimal distances between houses (front door to front door). • Use wooden blocks to represent houses on a scaled survey of the site to locate houses, parking, garden, picnic area, bocce ball, etc., based on the above criteria.
Circulation to the individual houses from the parking areas and the main pedestrian entrances into the development should be centralized along a limited number of paths in order to increase the chances for neighbors to pass one another and to help maintain privacy on the back sides of the houses. Site plans with the clarity of a central street or courtyard work particularly well at promoting such encounters. When houses are scattered around the site, connected by a multitude of small pathways, no single route gets used enough to ensure that people will actually meet other people. With centralized circulation, life unfolds between the houses.
Car access and parking have a major impact on every site plan and are often the first aspects considered in an architectural design. Almost without exception, cohousing developments are pedestrian-oriented, with the parking relegated to the periphery of the site. Car-free pedestrian lanes and courts are essential to creating places where everyone can move about relaxed and worry-free. Clustering the parking also frees up the orientation of the houses, allowing them to optimally relate to people, the sun, and the terrain.
A few cohousing communities in cold climates have enclosed interior streets and courts, and the transition area between dwellings and common space, though reduced, still plays an important role. Not having to worry about putting on shoes or warmer clothing in order to go outside their home, people can move more casually from private to common areas. Private entrances can be set back from a covered street to provide vestibules for storing shoes and other outdoor clothing.
Casual sitting areas along the street are well used all day long. A private outdoor space is usually provided in the rear of the house, although even here there has proved to be little need for barriers such as fences or hedges. Usually, once residents get to know their neighbors, they find it unnecessary to define territory with fences. Visual privacy can be provided with plantings, and if at some point later residents feel the need to install fences, they will have a better idea of where and how high they should be.
Typical Common House Kitchen Characteristics
A. If there is a happy interface, a warm and inviting space open to, but not within the kitchen activity, then this will be the most utilized place on the entire site. It makes for a more open kitchen where people will come to talk to the cook, but not go into the kitchen and get in the way.
B. The countertop is open and unencumbered, making room for dishes ready to go out to dining and dirty dishes coming back to the kitchen. This eliminates unnecessary walking around the bar, especially when two people are working together. One person puts things on the bar, and another puts them on the table.
C. A cart takes things to the table and brings them back efficiently. Clean dishes go from the dishwasher to the cart, ready to go directly to the table the next day. There is no extra motion of putting the dishes onto the shelves, only to take them out again. No shelves, no wasted motion.
D. The four activity triangles (prep, cook 1, cook 2, clean) should not overlap; separating these areas makes the kitchen safer and more efficient.
E. A central island brings people and activities together — it facilitates community. You’ll find folks there drinking coffee ’til the wee hours if the kitchen is warm and cozy and attracts people. You’ll find the lights on there when they are out everywhere else (except maybe the sitting room). Common kitchens are designed to be centripetal, that is to bring people together, to make cooking social and fun.
F. Open cabinets: If there are no doors on the upper cabinets and if most utensils can be seen, working in the kitchen is much easier. We have stayed in the guest rooms of many common houses. In half of them, you could always tell when it was 4 p.m., because you could hear the noise as people went through the cabinets, trying to remind themselves where everything is because the last time they cooked was a month ago. Having things open and accessible, with a French utensil bar, pot rack over the island, or pullout shelves facilitates a j.i.t. kitchen (j.i.t. means “just-in-time,” in manufacturing parlance).
G. Floor drain: This saves the cook or assistant 15 minutes at the end of the evening — just when one needs it most. The last thing done is mopping the floor. The floor drain makes that a lot easier, and therefore helps keep the kitchen sanitary, too.
H. Industrial appliances: This is important. When it’s a quarter to six, you’re expecting 50 people for dinner, and the pasta water is not boiling, that “wooff ” of the 15,000 btu/hr burner is music to your ears. The dishwasher needs to take less than three minutes to get 20 dishes spotless, etc. But this in no way implies that the kitchen needs to feel cafeteria-like or institutional.
I. Refrigerator is near the entrance to the kitchen, so it is easily accessible to cooks as well as to people who want to access the refrigerator (to see if that orange drink they left there yesterday is still there, for example). Accessing the refrigerator will be the number one reason a non-cook/assistant will enter the kitchen. Non-cooks/assistants walking around the kitchen can be dangerous (sharp knives, hot pots, etc). Keeping them out of the cooks’ way is important. ☛
J. Wet bar to keep the thirsty out of the kitchen. Grabbing a glass is the second most common reason someone will wander through the kitchen. Placing glasses and drinking water just outside the kitchen, but close to the refrigerator and the dishwasher, is the most efficient solution.
K. Storage above the work areas for less frequently accessed items like salad and punch bowls.
L. Phone and cook books at hand.
M. Plate rack over the door to store and display large platters.
N. Probably most important is a cozy feel. People will want to be in an extraordinary space — and it is essential to the success of the kitchen that people will fundamentally want to be there. To accomplish this, the kitchen should be: 1. Open: To see and be seen. The pleasant distraction of saying hello to a passer-by. To be appreciated: “It sure smells good.” The cooks need to see folks and folks need to see them. Seeing them will attract other activities. Not seeing them facilitates an otherwise empty common house.
When cooking in an open kitchen, the cooks feel like the heroes for the day. In a closed kitchen, they feel like the servants. 2. Warm: Lots of natural wood; rounded wood edging at the countertop; wood cabinets (upper and lower). Besides the custom upper cabinets, I recommend a shaker lower, of which there are many reasonable manufacturers on the market; a deep, rich-colored linoleum for the floor; natural finish at the door to the pantry; wood baseboard; and other warm aesthetic touches.
3. Light: Natural light and supplementary lighting. Lighting needs to be strong at the task sites (100 foot candles) and softer for general lighting (50 foot candles). No ceiling-mounted fluorescents. 4. Gourmet in feel: “Wow, what a great kitchen,” — like you would find in a nice house, never commercial. Commercial kitchens are designed to keep everyone separated and task focused. Cohousing kitchens are designed to bring people together, to make cooking fun — like a French country kitchen — yet also very efficient.
The relationship between the sitting and dining areas is also important. Although these spaces should be within hearing distance from each other, they need to be separate enough so that people have a place to relax before or after dinner. With this in mind, sometimes people use the common lounge to get away from people, or as a place to stretch or practice a musical instrument. The common house can be a place to go when one needs to “get out of the house.
Guest rooms in senior common houses are usually larger than guest rooms in intergenerational cohousing. They are designed to allow for a family to have an extended stay, or even for caregivers to live in. They are more like suites, with their own bathroom and, with full use of the common kitchen, sitting room, laundry, and other amenities, they can feel like luxurious accommodations. Sometimes common houses have several guest units, some for guests and others for caregivers. Caregivers might move in to assist a resident in a typical caregiver capacity (dressing, showers, etc.) for, say, ten hours per week at first. Meanwhile, they might have a full-time or part-time job elsewhere, or they might be a student who needs the part-time employment and inexpensive housing.
When located in the common house, laundry facilities generate the second highest number of people-hours spent in that place (the only more-utilized space is the dining/kitchen area). As a result, this lonely chore instead becomes an opportunity to socialize, be it for a few minutes or an entire afternoon. You don’t have much of a community unless you have things in common, and like the washing rock by the river, common laundry machines help achieve that sense of community. In terms of economics, it’s more cost effective for a group to purchase a bank of machines than it is for each household to purchase its own set. Fewer machines purchased means less money spent, not to mention the per-household savings in construction costs.
Common washers are also a cost-effective way to collect gray water for irrigation purposes and conserve water. As well, the highest quality biodegradable detergents are affordable only when purchased in bulk (I’ve only seen these used when laundry facilities were located primarily in the common house). Laundry machines generate heat, and it’s more difficult for each household to eliminate (or cut down on its) air conditioner usage when washer-dryer heat is generated inside. Finally, the sound of a washer-dryer in your house is like a diesel truck idling in your living room, whereas the noise can easily be isolated in the common house. All of this is not to say that individual households in a senior cohousing community can’t have their own washer-dryer; many communities have made laundry hook-ups an option in the private residences. However, a truly usable, readily available, common laundry maximizes use of space while fostering community and ecological goals.
One of the primary problems with conventional senior housing today is its monotonous and impersonal feel. Designing cohousing with the future residents is the only way to produce a meaningful community. It’s also the fastest way to do it. While this deliberate sharply focused private house programming process can lead to heated discussions, if done right, it avoids any serious acrimony and eliminates backtracking. Cohousing communities can save money by limiting the number of floor plans to one for each house size and by keeping finish options (flooring, cabinets, bathroom tiles, etc.) to a manageable number.
Residents may be able to accept such limitations if the units are initially designed so they can be easily expanded or customized later. New senior cohousing communities usually agree together on four to six different house plans for residents to choose from, and those who prefer a specific model work with the architect to refine that design. Individual households often make additional changes (by selecting options and upgrades such as flooring and appliances), so that in the end, every house is slightly different. Being realistic about what the future may hold, senior cohousers can choose which features to include at construction and which may be added later. The design should be readily adaptable for sudden and unexpected needs of residents, including the possibility that residents can easily swap units. While it is not essential to make every unit conform to the highest accessibility standards from the beginning, it is important that there be contingency plans.
A truly effective way to keep prices down is for residents to consciously limit the number of custom features incorporated into the design of their individual houses. The price of a custom house is substantially higher than that of production housing, where a few floor plans are repeated over and over. As one contractor explains, “If the builders have to think too much about what they are doing and keep track of what goes where and in which house, they charge more.” If not carefully planned for, “individualizing” can add considerably to construction costs. Undisciplined design efforts have been known to increase unit costs beyond some people’s reach.
Unfortunately, some cohousing groups have only discovered this the hard way. Minor custom touches such as an extra wall or different bathroom fixtures, though relatively inexpensive when viewed one-by-one, have a cumulative effect that can increase the cost of construction exponentially for everyone, since they effect larger design considerations and construction timelines. Several communities that allowed residents to incorporate numerous additions and changes into the design were shocked in the end by a construction price $5,000 to $10,000 higher than they had anticipated. Residents later calculated they would have been much better off if they had kept to standard designs, even if every household had later customized with its own contractors. Once construction begins, any subsequent changes, no matter how minor they appear, will increase the final price of the units.
Cohousing participation and co-care:
Membership of the committees is not fixed; members can move from one committee to another. This is a good way they found to split up their work: The Basic Committees: • The Outside Committee Responsible for: • Maintaining the outdoor areas: lawn mowing, hedge cutting, pruning and planting. • Upkeep of the driveway and parking lot. • Sweeping the flagstones on the footpath and the square. • Buying sand for the sandboxes and gravel for the road. • Cleaning the duck pond and the hedge around it. • Clearing snow. • Buying and maintaining the garden tools. •
The Garbage Room Committee Responsible for: • Cleaning the garbage room: removing old newspapers, cardboard boxes, sweeping the floor. • Ensuring that the garbage truck has clear access each week. • The Vegetable Garden Committee Responsible for: • Sowing, planting, weeding, harvesting of vegetables and flowers. • Beekeeping. • The Shopping Committee Responsible for: • Pricing and ordering of supplies, including beer and soda. • Keeping supplies in order, maintaining accounts • Cleaning and maintaining the common refrigerator and freezer. •
The Kitchen Committee Responsible for: • Buying and maintaining the service machines and cleaning supplies for kitchen and basement. • The Common Living Room Committee Responsible for: • Maintaining the hall and common rooms. • Washing sofa covers. • Keeping flowers and decorations in the common rooms. • Maintaining the furniture, lamps, and plants. • The Laundry Committee Responsible for: • Maintaining the machines and clotheslines. • Purchasing detergent. • Keeping the laundry and drying rooms clean. • The Social Committee Responsible for: • Organizing common parties and get-togethers, Christmas parties, etc. •
The Workshop Committee Responsible for: • Creating and maintaining a workshop for the residents of the cohousing community. • Maintenance of the common tools. • Assigning a resident to be responsible for overseeing the cleaning. • Cleaning Rules. • All common rooms, on the ground floor and basement must be cleaned every Sunday morning. • The cleaning team makes sure that everything has been cleaned thoroughly, including the kitchen, tables, floors, and window sills in the common living room, the staircase, and the bathroom in the hall. •
Kitchen Rules The cooks: • Decide the menu and post it on the kitchen message board as early as possible. The cooks shop for, cook, and serve the meal, and keep receipts for reimbursement. • Set the tables. • Clean and do the dishes; put crockery and cutlery back into place. • Ensure that the dining room is cleaned up, floor swept, and tables wiped clean. The cooks put buckets of soapy water out on the tables, and the residents clean their own tables. The chairs are put back after the floor has been swept. Empty beer and soda bottles are put in boxes under the kitchen table, and wine bottles are put in the bottle containers. • Toss out the leftovers, if none of the residents want them. Feed for the chicken must be put in their respective bowls and taken out to them. • Clean the kitchen floor, and the big trash bag must always be taken to the trash room.
It is not quite as necessary to absolutely fix the level of cooperation ahead of time, provided all members of the community can agree on a plan for working out issues in an ad hoc fashion, whenever problems arise. A smart list (an agreed-on plan) covers basic issues like who maintains what and when and who belongs to which committees (finance, social, kitchen, etc.). What agreements the Danes do have, they hold close and dear: “You have to cook dinner every six weeks; you have to belong to a management committee; you have to participate in four work days per year. In other words, once it’s agreed to, we adhere to it — and if there are any exceptions at all, we have agreed to those as well.
Some of the issues about eventual co-care that might be addressed are: • What are the extents and limits to care that residents should be expected to provide to other residents? At what point can an individual say, “No, I can’t do that”? • How are the costs of outside caregivers shared? • When residents become seriously ill, under what circumstances should they move out? • What amount of work (chores, etc.) should be required of each resident.
Should it be dependant on age? Length of residence in the community? (Often it averages about 20 hours a year of required time.) Usually, everyone can do — and enjoys doing — something, from telephone reminder calls, to shopping, to physical work. If residents can’t do all of their hours, can they pay an hourly fee, and if so, how much? • How often can ill residents expect to have people checking in on them? • What are the rules for new residents entering senior cohousing? Are there age limits? Health requirements? • How does the money work (dinners, supplies, insurance, guests, etc.)? • Who pays for the rental unit that one person’s caregiver has occupied for two months?
These are examples of the kinds of issues to address. Residents should consider enough scenarios to feel comfortable. That said, I often argue that people who are new to the cohousing concept should just take a deep breath and relax. After they experience the upside of living in a cohousing community, they often discover that, in retrospect, they worried too much about these issues. But, since it takes time to get a project built, talking over these items gives an excuse to get together. Planning for Acute Disability If the group wants to, it is sometimes helpful to consider hypothetical cases based on plausible “fourth quarter” scenarios.
For example, consider Joe Smith, a previously healthy 60-year-old in a senior cohousing community, who has a sudden stroke. With his right side paralyzed, he can’t dress himself. He may not be able to talk coherently for a while. He cannot do anything that requires the coordination of both hands. All maintenance tasks are out for him, perhaps permanently. How do the routine tasks that he was happily performing get shifted around to other seniors? Must Joe hire an outsider to mow the lawn?
Of course, these are minor issues compared to Joe’s healthcare needs. But when Joe gets out of the hospital and wishes to return home, does co-care in senior cohousing include requesting, or assigning, another person or two to help him to dress in the morning and undress in the evening? Can Joe make it to the common house for dinner? Can he cook for himself? Who might bring him three meals a day, or stock his fridge with microwaveable frozen dinners as a fallback? Who will take charge of installing the extra safety bars for the shower? Does he need a wheelchair?
Who is going to take him to physical therapy sessions at the medical clinic two or three times per week, perhaps for months? Maybe it will be someone from the group or maybe not. While it’s key to avoid overburdening the individuals within the group, it is encouraging to see how in a village, it’s just natural to help out. While the questions are many, the answer is straightforward: yes, cohousing residents can be counted on to do some of these tasks — which ones depends on the agreement. Most likely, the cohousers will take care of a couple of tasks; relatives and friends will do others; insurance will take care of a couple; some will be hired out.