Building a more cohesive community
Remember television’s “Cheers,” the bar where everybody knew your name? What if you lived in an entire community where everyone knew your name? That’s one of the principles behind the growing interest in a concept known as cohousing.
The concept of cohousing was first pioneered in Denmark in the early 70s as a multigenerational community that would foster close ties among families with children who would support and connect with each other throughout the phases of life.
In 1988, architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett introduced the term to North America in a book they published after visiting several such communities.
In Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, the husband-and-wife team defined cohousing as an “intentional community” in which residents help organize and participate in the planning and design of a housing development, and are responsible as a group for final decisions. That heightened cooperation is the strength of senior cohousing communities.
Later, the couple wrote a handbook on senior cohousing, showing how the concept could become a solution to the challenges of isolation among older adults.
“The senior cohousing concept re-establishes many of the advantages of traditional villages within the context of 21st-century life,” Durrett wrote in The Senior Cohousing Handbook.
In cohousing communities in general, for example, private homes are generally strategically situated around a common area so that neighbors have more opportunities for social interaction.
While each family generally lives independently in their own home, a “common house” is typically used for meals that are shared on a regular basis.
However, residents in cohousing communities have their own primary incomes, and the community does not generate any income of its own. Furthermore, residents reflect a variety of religious and political beliefs: they’re not like the “communes” of the 1960s.
From D.C. to greener acres
A few years ago, architect Mike Binder and his wife, Martha Wetherholt, wanted to move from Washington, D.C., to a small university town. More importantly, though, they wanted to live in harmony with nature — and other people.
Fortunately, Binder and Wetherholt found a small group of people who were planning a 19-acre, mostly 55+ cohousing community in Shepherdstown, W. Va., with 30 units designed for aging in place. Together they all planned the development, called Shepherd Village, which will be completed in July.
“We all have our hand in creating the community,” said Binder, who is the architect of record for the site’s private homes. “Most of the people here are retired, but everybody is still active.”
Binder moved in last February, and by this summer, all of his neighbors will be moved in, sharing meals in the common house several times a week.
“People are really engaged with the process and want to create a great community,” he said. “It’s about having an active life as you get older and being able to support each other when we need help.”
With one-quarter of older Americans falling into the category of “elder orphans” (meaning they have no spouse, significant other, children or other support system nearby), experts are paying increasing attention to how we will take care of ourselves during the period between healthy aging and the end of life. Senior cohousing may be part of the solution.
Currently, there are only 13 senior cohousing communities in the country, but a dozen more are being formed, according to the Cohousing Association of the United States.
Neighbors with strong bonds
Several intergenerational cohousing communities have taken root in Maryland, including Liberty Village in Frederick and Eastern Village Cohousing in Silver Spring.
In Washington, D.C., Takoma Village Cohousing was established two decades ago and is open to all ages.
Ann Zabaldo is one of the original residents of Takoma Village Cohousing, which welcomed its first residents in 2000. Zabaldo, who is active in several cohousing organizations, is enthusiastic about her community.
“Where else could I live where everybody knows my name and I know everybody else, even down to their extended family and their pets?” she said. “We have very strong social connections and bonds. What a way to live!”
With Takoma Village and Shepherd Village as models, a group in Baltimore has been working for the past five years to establish a similar community specifically for older adults.
“More and more people are excited about the prospect,” said Mike Dennis, speaking for Cohousing of Greater Baltimore (CGB), which currently has 20 members who are part of the organizational process.
“We started [the group] to develop a community focused on the needs of older people and to enhance our social connections and support base as we age,” said Dennis. The group’s current plan is to remain somewhat flexible in making room for younger families or individuals, he added.
According to Dennis, the biggest challenge in getting the project off the ground is finding a suitable site within Baltimore City or County. “In this area, there isn’t much available land,” he said.
The group is looking for about five acres in a safe location for the construction of individual homes (or a multi-unit dwelling, depending on space available) and common facilities.
While the search for the right-sized property and a developer continues, Dennis’ group continues to meet and pursue its mission to create an alternative to traditional aging options.
They hope they’ll be able to establish such a community within the next two or three years. The goal is to provide affordable housing for those with limited financial resources, with three or four styles and sizes of homes that will meet a variety of needs.
Cohousing communities can be as small as eight to 10 households or as large as 60 or more individual dwellings. CGB is hoping to limit its size to 25 to 30 households.
Their higher goal, of course, is to create a true home for its residents. As Durrett put it in Senior Cohousing, the older adults he has observed in senior cohousing communities have chosen “to build their own community where they live among people with whom they share a common bond of generation, circumstance and outlook. And they have a great time doing it.”
For more information on cohousing in the Mid-Atlantic region, visit midatlanticcohousing.org.