What’s in a dream?

There’s no doubt about;  I’m destined to be what they call an “elder orphan”: someone with no adult children, spouse, or companion to rely on for company or assistance.

I’m certainly not alone in this (not to put too much of a pun on it).  The data suggests that 29 percent of noninstitutionalized older people live  alone.  That’s approximately 13.3 million of us!  There’s even a Facebook page for elder orphans.

But, I argue, being independent has been a source of pride and pleasure for me, and I’ve manage quite well most of the time, thank you very much.  So why should it be any different now?

woman by window alone

Well, for starters, there are some pretty depressing stats on how loneliness affects older people:  50% higher mortality rate than non-lonely people.    Higher blood pressure.  Higher levels of functional decline.  More likely to suffer from depression.

That’s sobering.  I have spent a fair amount of time pondering what my financial well-being might be like in my senior years, calculating how long the money I have will last, how to budget, what’s the worst case scenario, etc.  But figuring out the future of my emotional well-being has not been much of a headline.

It’s time to get proactive.

What are the choices?

When it comes to housing choices for aging seniors, traditionally there have been three options:

  • Stay in your own home (and likely spend most of your time alone)
  • Move in with your children
  • Move into an institutional setting

It’s time to rethink this.  As a society and as individuals, we value independence.  Yet, typically, society sees old age as a time of dependence, when people will need assistance.  Certainly all of our assisted living places and programs attest to that.

But we boomers, dismayed by the experiences of our aging parents, are looking for new ways .  Maybe there is a place in between independence and dependence, a place of “interdependence.”  A way to remain independent in housing and be a part of a community that facilitates interdependence.  A way to live in a community where we could choose social interaction and still have all the privacy we want.

Oakcreek Community
Neighbors at Oakcreek Community, Stillwater, Oklahoma

That, in fact, is the vision of Oakcreek Community in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where people live in a cohousing community and look out for one another.

Oh no, not a commune!

Arial view of pocket neighborhoods in Denmark
Pocket neighborhoods in Denmark

For boomers, the very words “cohousing” and “community” may well conjure up images of communes from the sixties.  Actually, the concept of cohousing started in Denmark in 1972 and has been gradually growing in the U.S. The idea is that people live in a neighborhood that they create and run themselves, a community that is constructed to provide opportunities to connect.  Such as porches, walkways, gazebos, fire pits, a common house with a dining room, a reading room, a fireplace, etc.  It’s an “old-fashioned” neighborhood, if you will,  where people look in on one another and offer help when needed.

As a true introvert, I appreciate the way Anne P. Glass, professor and gerontology program coordinator at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, makes the case for cohousing:

“It turns out that a lot of help that older people really need is neighborly help rather than skilled care, per se . . .  Even people who are introverted are choosing cohousing. They realize that their tendency would be to become a hermit. They realize it’s important to have connections and that it was easier to do it this way and have people right outside your door that you could go to the movies with.”

Or as Carol Marak, editor at Seniorcare.com, puts it,

“There is a distinction between living alone physically and living alone socially . . . Cohousing gives us the chance to reinvent a lifestyle of our choosing, not someone else’s vision of how we should live.”

What does community look like?

Silver Sage Village
Silver Sage Village, Boulder, Colorado

Silver Sage Village is a senior cohousing community in Boulder, Colorado, with 16 houses arranged around a central courtyard.  They share a Common House, which contains an industrial kitchen, a dining room, a media room, a craft room, an exercise room, a meditation room, a guest room, storage spaces, and spaces used by local artists.

Sand River Cohousing
Sand River Cohousing, Santa Fe, New Mexico

The award-winning Sand River Cohousing group in New Mexico describes themselves as a “participatory community, grounded in the principles of conscious aging, decision making by consensus, environmental stewardship, and a connection to Place.”

Vashon Cohousing
Vashon Cohousing, Vashon Town, Washington

Vashon Cohousing in Washington consists of 18 households on 12 acres of land, which includes an orchard.  They have a common house where they share meals, host parties, and gather for meetings, and also provides three guestrooms.

Ulmatilla Hill Pocket Neighborhood, Port Townsend, Washington

The quaint Port Townsend pocket neighborhood of Ulmatilla Hill features 10 garden-court cottages, plus some small and medium-sized homes, covering 2 1/2 blocks.

Raleigh Cohousing
Raleigh Cohousing, Wake County, North Carolina

The people of Raleigh Cohousing in North Carolina describe themselves as “a group of caring cooperative adults [in] an eco-friendly village neighborhood of privately owned homes clustered around a community clubhouse.”

Greenwood Avenue Cottages
Greenwood Avenue Cottages, Shoreline, Washington

Greenwood Avenue Cottages in Washington is a pocket neighborhood, designed by Ross Chapin Architects, consisting of 8 houses around a common garden, with a common building,

But there’s a problem

Are you becoming more convinced that cohousing might hold a solution to some of the issues of aging?  But there is a problem:  Current cohousing communities can be as expensive as traditional housing.    The average ranges from $200,000 to $500,000.  Even the executive director of the Cohousing Association of the U.S. (Coho/US) says she has never lived in cohousing because of the cost!

Clearly, there has to be another way for people—like me—who just don’t have those kinds of resources.  The very communities that might benefit us most are seemingly out of reach.

I think that’s where . . . wait for it . . . TINY HOUSES come in.  Might it be possible to take the cohousing model and scale it down to an affordable option by building smaller houses (perhaps modular to bring the cost down)?  Not $500,000 for a house but $50,000?  And what if, instead of building a “McMansion” common house, a modest common place could be structured that could still host gatherings and offer a comfy chair in front of a fire?  What might be possible if a landowner, developer, and tiny home builder put their heads together to dream?

Here’s my dream

Take the tiny village model, such as the one for Mt. Hood Tiny Village:

Mt. Hood Tiny Village
Mt. Hood Tiny Village, Welches, Oregon

Swap out the tiny houses for modular prefab homes (on one level and made fully accessible, of course), maybe something along the lines of the Solo 40 by Altius Prefab:

Solo 40
Solo 40 by Altius Prefab

Add in universal design and wheelchair ramps:

Universal design in kitchen
Kitchen with universal design

Put it all a small community plan, such as the one that the people at Four Lights are contemplating:

Four Lights Village plan
Four Lights Village plan, Sonoma, California

The result?  An affordable, accessible, alternative community.

At the moment, there are only about a dozen elder cohousing options in the U.S. , but another dozen or so are in the planning stages.  And support is growing as well.  In 2017 Coho/US created a new “Aging in Cohousing Initiative” to help age-friendly cohousing communities.  Maybe there’s a way for my dream to come true.

What do you think?  Can you imagine yourself living in such a place?  If you’re interested in pursuing this conversation, especially in Illinois where I live, let me know.  This may well be up to us!

–  Marcia, host for Tiny Houses for Seniors

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The Senior Cohousing Handbook

The Senior Co-Housing Handbook by Charles Durrett





Coho/US: “Aging in Cohousing” Initiative

list of complete and in-process senior cohousing

Partnerships for Affordable Cohousing

Cohousing Directory

“Aging in Community: Inside the Cohousing Movement”

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