Now that I’m past 70, I get weekly invitations to visit local assisted-living residences. I throw them out with a wistful feeling that I may need to visit one day. Recently, one of the invites had two words written in small print—“Resident Run.” That was all the hint I got that this was a co-housing facility and not an ordinary assisted-living community.

Just a few years ago, the concept of co-housing, which offers private ownership with a twist, would never have been considered as a type of assisted living.

Co-housing originated in Denmark in the 1960s. It was designed with joint amenities, shared spaces and communal dining. If you remember the ’60s, you understand the vibe—social equality and a light materialistic footprint, yet with private ownership rights…something like a middle-class commune where everyone pays and everyone participates. It was a young, idealistic person’s lifestyle.

But now…with the children of the ’60s all grown and aging, co-housing is back and being offered for retirees.

Co-housing locations can be a single building or a small contained neighborhood. They usually are built with under 25 units, but this can vary widely. The big differentiators for co-housing communities are that upkeep and maintenance responsibilities are shared by the owner/occupants and there is a real sense of “all for one, one for all.” Increasingly, co-housing communities include the obligation for residents to provide nonskilled care to aging fellow residents, similar to what family members might provide, in terms of dressing, feeding, bathing and taking loved ones to medical appointments. And, as in the invitation I received, some co-houses are full-blown medical models for folks who already need assistance. The co-housing residents jointly choose professional caregivers, activity directors and make decisions with regard to food and transportation. These services usually are the residents’ responsibility, through communal kitchen and shared driving, or sometimes they hire service providers.

So what’s retirement got to do with it?

Co-housing in the US was introduced by architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett almost simultaneously with the introduction of the Del Webb style of planned over-55 communities. At that time, retiring Americans were more captivated by the desire for a private residence with leisure amenities such as tennis and golf than by a thirst for shared values and shared meals. Today, there’s a renewed interest in co-housing among retirees for two reasons…

#1. Cost. Boomers recognize their longevity and the potential that they may one day need unskilled caregiving that may not be available from family members and close-knit communities. As our longevity increases, caregiving becomes more inevitable and more expensive. Co-housers feel they have an answer. Communities may share the cost of hiring paid home health-aids or purchasing Carebots, as well as personally and jointlysharing the care.

#2. Community. We hunger for the sense of community that has disintegrated since our parents’ time. In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam laments the deficits we suffer as neighborhoods change, friends move away and we enclose our porches, build fences around our property and communicate mainly through social media, leaving seniors alone and isolated.

Intentional Communities

Co-housing projects are called Intentional Communities, to emphasize that design, structure, management and operation are planned to support the purpose and values of the residents…to form self-determined communities.

There are community responsibilities and expectations for each resident/owner. “Jobs” can include meal preparation and service, transportation, housekeeping, maintenance and caregiving. Besides giving individuals a sense of purpose and the satisfaction of contributing to the community, individual obligations also allow residents to rapidly become deeply connected to and accepted by those in the community.

Critical to acceptance into the community is the proper attitude and a general feeling of comradery. Contrarily, people may move away from intentional communities if they feel that the values and goals of others don’t match theirs.

The cost and design of co-housing take many forms. Some co-housing looks like a traditional over-55 community, offering leisure amenities that range from square dance space and horse-riding facilities to a private theatre. Others are simple two-family homes that two couples might buy or rent to share amenities and provides services for each other.

The Urban Cohousing Association lists communities such as Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing in Seattle. Capitol Hill is a nine-apartment intergenerational building, with residents that include people in their 60s and younger families with children. It is designed for long-term rental, not ownership. Yes, it is owned by the landlord, but the rights and responsibilities are with the renters.

By contrast, Santa Fe’s Sand River Community boasts 28 single-family homes, restricted to 55+ owners who pay around $285,000 to purchase a 1,085-square foot two-bedroom one-bathroom stand-alone home.

Co-housing communities are as varied as anyone can imagine, including location, size, amenities, cost, community personality and more. You can research co-housing communities throughout the US and read their profiles at Foundation for Intentional Communities.

Or you can build a community yourself. A general contractor friend of mine is working with six families who bought six individual homes on a gentrifying block. They will create their own operating agreement, which requires 100% consensus to change the rules. Everyone, regardless of how much they paid for a home, gets an equal vote. Contrast this to a co-op or condo board that gets elected and dictates the rules…or an HOA where buyers are handed a book of rules to which they must adhere.

In addition to governance, there are other distinctions and similarities between co-housing and other purpose-built retirement communities…

Differences

  • Co-planned by residents versus developed by a builder such as Toll Brothers or Del Webb. If you move in after the agreements are set, you must abide by them, but you have an equal vote when rule change issues come up.
  • Co-designed by residents versus design based on the developer’s and builder’s brand.
  • Co-organized by residents versus organized by professional management.
  • Common elements are chosen and operated by residents versus the builder’s/developer’s choice.
  • Resident-managed versus professionally managed.
  • No decision-making hierarchy versus an elected board or HOA that makes decisions.
  • Increased social interaction.

Similarities

  • Residents are economically independent. Neither co-housing nor retirement communities are communes. Neither pools residents’ funds or shares personal income They all pay an equal HOA-type fee for upkeep, taxes and maintenance.
  • Designed for community interaction, as also found in many traditional developments.

Is Co-Housing Right for You?

Ask yourself…

  • Would I like living in a community where consensus is required and I must spend my time and efforts to run the operation?
  • Do I want someone to share maintenance tasks if it means that I must share responsibilities, too?
  • Am I willing to trade a degree of privacy for ready companionship?
  • Am I prepared for a group rather than independent decisions on design, lifestyle and amenities?
  • Do I want to live with neighbors who agree with my principles, life goals and political views and values?
  • Do I like the cost savings and value of sharing “things” of communal living? For example, there often is one car, one communal TV and/or one garden for the community.

What’s Next for Co-Housing?

As co-housing evolves and grows, it very likely may track the innovations of assisted-living and even nursing homes, which are pulling away from feeling like medical facilities to feeling more like a gracious hotel with wellness and lifestyle programs. The newest focus of co-housing includes…

  • Age tech. Sharing the cost of computing systems such as See-You-Link services for brain games, medication management, personal safety, fall alerts response systems, blood pressure monitoring, robots, and digital health systems that integrate individual health statistics with a medical office.
  • Cooperative buying. Accessible van, cooperative food buying, delivery services, buying clubs for reduced rates in services like at-home massage, rolfing, yoga classes and Pilates.
  • Green building. Although green is a trend with many types of building today, it often is more complete in co-housing. For example, residents may require materials be not only green in themselves but created in green environments.
  • Entrepreneurship and shared office space for those residents who are still working and have their own businesses.

If you have been thinking of these unique and evolving residential styles, consider joining Cohousing.org to keep up with advancements, communities and issues. You can also start by reading some of the numerous books on co-housing. And bring a book to your book group to share your thoughts.