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Independence through communal living: is cohousing the future?

Senior communal living (or cohousing). Many of us don’t know what it is, but this way of living has a lot of benefits!

Independence through communal living: is cohousing the future?

Cohousing, or communal living, could very well be in your future, as the trend of the last 40 years has been heading in this direction, and very much so. However, people still don’t know much about the subject and mistake cohousing or communal living for a hippy commune from the sixties! Were everybody holds hands and sings kumbaya around a campfire, which would be perfectly fine! But it’s not cohousing.

Nothing is further from the truth! Take a look at all the benefits we discuss in this article, look at the examples and think for yourself; could this lifestyle be for me? These are intergenerational communities – some are senior-only, but most of them have people of all ages living in the same cohousing community.

Think about what it used to be like to live in a neighbourhood – everyone knew each other and could easily help out by running an errand for someone who needed it. Someone would help you out by giving you a hot meal because you didn’t have time that day. Especially for seniors, communal living truly is a way of staying independent through communal living.

Take a look, this could be just what the doctor ordered!

Table of contents
What is communal living or cohousing?
What are the benefits for seniors?
Case studies: some examples from around the world
How to start your own (senior) living community


What is communal living or cohousing?

Vancouver Cohousing

Vancouver Cohousing

The definition of cohousing or communal living may vary depending on the source one uses, but it all comes down to the following: a group of people living together, but in their own private homes. It’s an intentional community consisting of a group of private houses that are gathered together around shared space.

That means you have your own private kitchen and bathroom – you have your own home, but share certain aspects of living. In other words, people live close to, but not with, each other. The Canadian Cohousing Network provides insight on which spaces are shared inside communal living:

Origins of modern communal living and what it is today

When we talk about modern communal living, it goes without saying that people have always lived in shared communes at every age.  However, we are going to look at the modern approach, the ideal that came to life during the 60s and 70s.

The Danish were the first to live together in modern intentional communes or cohousing structures, starting from around the end of the 1960s. The idea spread to Sweden and had arrived in the Netherlands by the 1970s. The 1960s was also the decade in which hippies started to set up communes and live together in harmony and peace. Hippies were groups of people who came together because of shared ideals or beliefs, which is not, however, necessarily the case when living in a modern communal setting or cohousing project, which makes a rather big difference.

The idea of cohousing like what we started to see in Northern Europe during the 60s and 70s started to arrive in the US in the early 1990s and had then moved to the UK by the end of the same decade.

What does modern (senior) cohousing look like today?

According to research done by the AARP, the following points define modern cohousing:

Cohousing is for everyone that wants to feel as if they are part of a community – communities like those that used to exist in neighbourhoods. People still want their own space and appreciate their privacy, but like the idea that other people are looking out for them and one another. Being able to have meals together, work in the garden together or go for a walk are important. Having someone to take you to the airport or helping out with each other’s (grand)children is, for many, a real blessing in life.

“The beauty of cohousing is that you have a private life and a community life, but only as much of each as you want.” Cohousing resident in Denmark

What do neighbourhoods look like?

What do Cohousing neighbourhoods in Canada look like?

Who is cohousing meant for?

There isn’t a list of characteristics one must have to be eligible to live communally. In theory, anyone can do it. When we look at current examples, what kinds of people do we usually find living in a communal way?

We will look at the many benefits of communal living for seniors further down this article. However, one of the biggest reasons for senior citizens to embrace cohousing is that it’s a great way to avoid going to a conventional senior housing facility like a nursing home. And of course, avoiding isolation and thus loneliness is a very important factor. Families, for example, look for more support when it comes to raising their children, as nowadays both parents usually have full time jobs. Single people, even though they often enjoy their independence, look for communal living to have a sense of support and/or community that they wouldn’t have when living alone. Eco-friendly people think about ways to reduce their footprint on the planet. When you live in a collaborative setting it’s only logical that the impact one has on the environment is significantly reduced, as a lot can be shared.

Whether living in an intergenerational or age-restricted cohousing community, older adults can benefit both socially and economically from the many opportunities to gather together, trade favours, and look after one another that this arrangement encourages.”

AARP Factsheet

Let’s watch and listen to the words of Dr. Erica Elliott who lives in a cohousing community. She lives in an intergenerational cohousing project:

As is the case with Dr. Erica Elliot, the biggest demographic living communally or in cohousing are baby boomers. As this generation has reached, or is almost reaching, the age of 65, they are thinking about their future living arrangements. Members of this generation are defined as being independent people who would not like the idea of spending their golden years in a traditional retirement/nursing home. They are therefore looking for more enriching ways of living, where they can keep their independence and combine it with social activity and security

What are the benefits for seniors?  

One of the most important benefits for seniors when living communally is the following:

Independence trough communal living

Maria Brenton from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation wrote a paper on senior cohousing communities in the UK. To have a better understanding of this way of living, let’s look at the components that make up Senior Cohousing;

It seems that communal living or cohousing is especially beneficial for seniors. We know that the current trend is for people to age in place. Senior cohousing is the perfect solution for many seniors out there, as it enables senior citizens to do exactly that. They can therefore live independently for much longer and avoid institutional care. As Dr. Erica Elliott explains, living in a communal setting is a major help, for example when someone is ill. Neighbours can be there to offer support around the house, to take care of the groceries or help with preparing meals.  When more specialised care is needed, for example with bathing and helping with dressing etc, a live-in caregiver can move into a guest room in the communal house.

The fact that the community is there reduces one of the most prevailing issues seniors face today – loneliness and isolation. The Village to Village network , which is an organisation that helps communities establish and manage their own senior cohousing, give the following three most important points:

3 main benefits of senior cohousing

Source : Village to Village Network

Case studies: some examples from around the world

Let’s look at some real-life examples. The first video is from the Canadian Cohousing Network and shows several communities and their residents talk about why they opted for Cohousing and what it’s like to life in a community. The second video is about the very first cohousing community in Denmark and an American cohousing community named Rocky Hill. These are intergenerational cohousing projects, meaning that people of all ages live there .

Look at how they live and share some of the facilities. Listen to Professor Lisa Berkman, Professor of Public Policy and Epidemiology at Harvard University, explain how this kind of community used to naturally dominate our societies:

The following video is an example of a Canadian Senior-Only Cohousing proposal in Harbourside. Let’s look at the ideas and motives the residents have, and the story they have to tell us:

From the examples we’ve seen, we can conclude that the main sentiment is without a doubt the joy of being surrounded by a community. What people seem to value most of all, is the help they get with day-to-day chores like having a meal together and the sense of connectivity that comes with it, as well as the absence of loneliness.

How to start your own (senior) living community

architects projecting a cohousing project

There is a surprising number of organisations that can help with providing advice for people who are interested in building a cohousing community. These organisations often involve residents of existing communities, who often offer advice and consultation when approached.

There is a lot of literature out there, both in book form and in the form of papers we can consult for free online. The following reading list should give you all the information you need to learn more about cohousing:

The non-profit Canadian Senior Cohousing Society offer courses and information for anyone who is interested in cohousing. Their website has a lot of information and we recommend you visit it, should you want to learn more about senior cohousing. For general cohousing consulting the Canadian Cohousing Network offers many services that you might find useful.

Some things to keep in mind

As we’ve seen, you do have your own private time, of course – you’re not living together in the same house – but there are certain aspects that you need to be responsible for once you make that commitment, as living in a community means that others are counting on you. Helping out with some of the communal chores that have previously been agreed on is an excellent example of this. It’s not all rainbows and unicorns – people do get upset with each other and sometimes conflicts do occur, as is only natural. Luckily, these kinds of conflicts usually stay bound to arguments over what kind of colour to paint a communal building, keeping dogs on a leash – yes or no, or what side of the grounds to hang the washing line on. Nothing major! But it’s important to keep in mind that cohousing is not an unrealistic utopia. It’s a group of human beings who will occasionally have problems, but who are looking for the best way to live together as a community and in peace.

The Cohousing Association of the United States have given the following 8 steps they recommend any group follows, if they are thinking about cohousing:

1: A vision/goals statement which defines the intentions and directions of the community.

2: A group decision and communications process.

3: A financial structure.

4: Form an LLC or incorporate.

5: Make bylaws.

6: Get a bank account.

7: Collect assessments from members.

8: Don’t reinvent the wheel.

Research, talk to others, go and visit other cohousing projects! There is a lot of information out there, and a lot of help as well. We hope we’ve provided you with a kick start, and who knows! Maybe cohousing is YOUR future.


Related articles:

Retiring off the grid: An alternative retirement plan
House of the future; a home designed for life
Age-friendly cities: What will they mean for seniors in the future?

Written by Stannah at 29-08-2019