Can A Cohousing Model Save The Senior Living Industry From Obsolescence?
EcoVillage in Ithaca (EVI), New York is a cohousing community that has thrived since its founding in 1992. Co-housing communities attract all ages and in the last decade a large handful of them have been developed solely for adults over 60. EVI is multigenerational and operates a farm that helps to support its residents. There are over 200 cohousing communities in the U.S. and many more on the drawing boards.
Last year, Rocky Corner failed. Rocky corner is a Connecticut cohousing development that had been in the works for over 10 years. It was the end of a dream for the 20+ people who had put their heart and soul into the project, believing in the principles and practices that drive cohousing communities across the U.S. and parts of Europe. There have been very few Cohousing developments that have failed and it is heartbreaking when it happens, but they are grass-roots developments and sometimes bad decisions are made because of a lack of knowledge (or a crystal ball) and the money runs out.
So, why mention it here in a blog that focuses on aging, retirement, and senior living? Because cohousing is such an interesting and (I think) viable model for boomers who are trying to figure out where to live as they move into a stage of life in which they will likely need some help and support.
Aging in place is a popular mantra for those in their late 70s, 80s and 90s for a variety of reasons: it doesn’t require any dramatic change to a person’s day-by-day routine, it doesn’t require getting to know new people, it doesn’t require selling and downsizing, and (I think, most importantly) it doesn’t require giving up any perceived freedoms. However, what happens in the majority of cases is people wait too long to acknowledge that some changes have to be made, and for many older adults it comes on the heels of a medical crisis and they end up in places they never would have chosen had they done some better planning when they were a bit younger.
Relatively few people in the U.S. even know about cohousing communities. When mentioned, many people can relate to it only by imagining they are relics of old hippie communes of the 1960s. Without further understanding, many people think that joining a cohousing community means they will have to give up all worldly wealth and have their every decision dictated by the community. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
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Cohousing comes under the heading of “intentional community,” which means that residents agree on certain broad principles of how they want to live. These generally include a dedication to practices that are earth-friendly, inclusive and respectful of all inhabitants of the earth, and a communication style that respects all opinions. I’m guessing quite a large percentage of boomers would subscribe to those principles, in theory, and might be intrigued by a chance to put them into practice with a group of like-minded others.
The people I know who live in cohousing love their communities and they reported feeling far less isolated during the pandemic than their counterparts in single-family and condos in which they knew few of their neighbors.
What would it take to get boomers to not make the same mistakes as their parents? I have to say, I’m not sure at this time. That’s because the professionals in the senior living industry are dragging their feet about making the changes necessary to attract boomers. They think they are making progress by updating old tired units with contemporary kitchen designs and new paint. They are holding conferences to determine what kind of engagement residents will want. They are hiring top chefs to design menus that will have appeal to vegetarians and to foodies who won’t want to give up their occasional Wagyu beef. Some are even attempting to give residents more of a say in decision making about policies and practices in the community. These things are all important and valuable, but it doesn’t address the devotion many boomers have to their work, their communities, their causes and projects, and their families – the exact kind of interests of people in cohousing.
At Rocky Corner, the failure of the project came late in the game. Many of the homes are almost finished, almost livable. In fact, some have flooring and appliances, courtesy of the hopeful future residents who had sunk much of their savings into the project and were ready to move in. I hope there is a senior living company out there with enough vision to breathe life into this project and turn this almost-finished development into a thriving senior – or maybe multi-generational – community. It could be a leap into a new kind of housing that combines the resources and know-how of the senior living industry with the community-mindedness and heart of cohousing.