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Senior friends dancing together at home

Increasingly, older adults are single and either have no children or live a considerable distance away from their grown children. They try to stay fit and take a more holistic approach to their health. They want to live independently as long as possible. At the same time, many are lonely.

All of this may explain why a growing number of seniors are choosing a relatively new lifestyle option: senior co-housing communities, a form of communal living that integrates common areas and private residences.

Sherry Cummings, associate dean and professor of social work at UT, along with Nancy Kropf, dean of Georgia State University’s Perimeter College, spent the summer and fall of 2018 on a research road trip, visiting 12 senior co-housing communities in six states and interviewing 76 people who lived in them. What they learned is chronicled in a new book, Senior Cohousing: A New Way Forward for Active Older Adults, which came out in August.

Cummings, who focuses much of her research on older adults, said while co-housing is not new—the first modern cohousing community was started in Denmark in 1972—it’s a style of living that’s gaining popularity among seniors. The first senior cohousing community (SCC) in the United States was built in 2005.

Cohousing.org lists 295 cohousing communities either operating or in formation across the United States. Of these, Cummings said 17 are senior co-housing communities, with another 28 SCCs in the works. In Knoxville, there is at least one senior cohousing community in the planning stages.

Cummings said SCCs are not assisted living facilities or a retirement communities, both of which tend to be developed by outside entities that market services and take charge of programming. SCCs are also not communes, where everyone is involved in income generation and property is collectively owned.

Rather, SCCs typically consist of 10 to 40 homes or condominium units joined by communal space. That shared space may include kitchen facilities for preparing a shared meal, rooms where overflow visitors can stay, a shared laundry, a library, and maybe even shared exercise or lawn equipment.

“What attracts older adults to senior cohousing is the desire for greater social engagement, for a ‘new old-fashioned neighborhood,’ as one member put it,” Cummings said. “They’re designed so people see each other a lot. They typically get together for several meals or activities each week. They help one another out with practical tasks, such as driving someone to the airport, and support each other through crisis situations.

“They work together to manage the property. SCCs enable people to have their own home but to easily engage with neighbors. Still, due to the combination of private space and communal areas, SCCs fit the needs well of both introverts and extroverts.”

Cummings said there are six principles of co-housing:

  • Residents develop and design the community.
  • The neighborhood design is configured to emphasize connection and sense of community.
  • There are some shared common facilities.
  • Residents create the governing policies and divide up community tasks.
  • There is consensus decision making.
  • The community does not exist to create an income stream for residents.

Cummings said SCCs usually have monthly meetings and members participate on teams that provide particular services for the entire group, such as gardening, maintenance, or putting together a community newsletter.

“Senior cohousing communities offer living arrangements which provide space and attention to the experience of growing older, including both the rewarding aspects and the challenges,” Cummings and Knopf write in their book.

One of the SCCs they visited—Glacier Circle in suburban Davis, California—was started in 2005 by a group of friends from the Unitarian Church. It includes eight townhouses and a community house, all encircling a garden.

“Because current members have aged-in-place and are older (current average age is 90), they have chosen to jointly hire outside help to handle the community’s finances, maintain the garden, and to cook communal dinners 4–5 times per week,” they wrote.

Among the issues surrounding SCCs are cost and diversity.

“There is the need to find and purchase land; hire developers, contractors, and architects; pay for all required building materials, permits, etc.; and furnish common areas. When these initial costs must be covered by a small group of potential members, many find participation beyond their reach,” the authors write.

Currently, most SCC residents are white, well educated, and affluent.

“Several people commented on their desire for greater diversity within the resident population, yet this was not something presently achieved in most communities,” they write.

“Senior co-housing is still a relatively new phenomenon in the United States. . . . The individuals who have built and live in these communities are the pioneers of the senior cohousing movement. They are experimenting with features and approaches and are laying the groundwork for the possible creation of more inclusive environments in the future.”

Contact:

Amy Blakely (ablakely@utk.edu, 865-974-5034)