Views from my deathbed: Cohousing taught me it’s okay to ask for help

hospital monitors

My robot care givers – monitors that check out how I was doing at any moment. In the cover photo, those are 1 pound weights on my walker that I struggled with lifting. I wondered what I was going to do with my grandfather’s bamboo cane – use it of course. The rubber bands were for physical therapy.

Here it is February 1, 2019. Five years ago today I returned home from the hospital and rehab after six weeks on my deathbed, losing 30 pounds (20 percent of my body weight), and surviving two surgeries.

I’m glad that my visit from the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come is behind me. It gave me a view of what the end of my life would be like and I better keep living it up while I can.

I made a documentary about my experience called “Aging Gratefully: The Power of Community” that’s available to watch.

During the ensuing five years, I’ve become Medicare-eligible and my memory isn’t the steel trap it used to be and I’ve learned to quit living in denial and ask for help.

My experience was so profound, I’m more than willing to talk to you or your community about the “why” part of cohousing.

When I moved into a senior cohousing community, I didn’t really know what that was about until I was unable to take care of myself. I knew I was aging, but didn’t think it would happen this fast!

In the cohousing community, we all own our own homes, and have agreed to be supportive of one another as good neighbors and chipping in on chores around the complex – it’s akin to running a family business and everyone lives on site.

Cohousing goes contrary to the American tenets of rugged individualism and self determination. In the non-cohousing world, asking for help is seen as a sign of weakness or a sign of superiority. In the cohousing world, it is neither. I have had to learn how to ask for help.

When I was in the hospital, I couldn’t walk and could barely lift my arms. I was fed gunk through a tube that flowed directly into my heart. I generally don’t speak in absolutes, but in this case, I had never felt so helpless in my life. I was left for dead until a laboratory at the University of Michigan figured out that I had an odd ball interstitial lung disease, some sort of fungal pneumonia, which was easily treatable with run-of-the-mill sulfa drugs. It’s the type of pneumonia AIDS patients and over-worked people like me get when the immune system gets beat to crap. Much of that was “out of network”, but I digress.

Go Wolverines!

I’m self-employed and have always been able to take care of all my assignments, except those that were due in January 2014. The last thing I thought I wanted was a lot of people knowing that I was flat on my back and unable to finish what I had committed to do.

As far as most people knew, I was fit as a fiddle. I needed help and I didn’t know how to ask for it, even in desperation.

I had a contract to travel around Wyoming and make tribute videos for the Wyoming Governor’s Art Award recipients. I liked the gig because it got me on the road and a chance to meet some interesting people. A friend and colleague, Michael,  stepped up to finish this job that entailed driving around Wyoming in the dead of winter.

There was a huge final report on a state of Wyoming film incentive grant for a movie project shot over the summer of 2013. Another friend and colleague, Barbara, finished counting all those beans for me.

Every year, I produce news coverage of the Boulder International Film Festival, which includes scheduling production crews. That turned out to be a bit of a debacle, the guy I lined up wasn’t as good at fast filmmaking and how to produce quick-turn-around news packages as I had hoped. Now, I’ve shared the responsibility with another guy, Glenn, who could easily pick up if I dropped out of sight.

I now come up with a  “plan B” for short term projects. Michael, Barbara and I collaborated on a short movie a few years back and want them to disassemble my business if I get too out of it. I still have to find someone to handle my baseball card collection.

When I returned home from rehab the day before Super Bowl XLVIII the community was very welcoming. I wheel chaired myself to the common house for the Super Bowl party, but had to leave at halftime since the tube sticking out of my abdomen started to leak (TMI).

My digestive system wasn’t quite ready for nachos. My septic ulcer repair wasn’t totally healed up.

For Broncos fans, it wasn’t much of a game, anyway, 43-8 Seattle.

I intellectually understood the “what” of cohousing, but didn’t get the “why” of cohousing until I was nearly dead.

Learning how to cram a cohousing  square peg into the rugged individualism round hole is by far the toughest aspect of living in what amounts to, a socialistic system where work is spread equally for the common good.

Asking for help is a constant in cohousing for the good of the whole.

We’re trying to keep the ship moving in the same direction and it’s tough to make that happen if crew members are off doing their own thing, don’t instinctively pick up any slack, or forget to perform a task – never ending reminder emails are a reality in a community of seniors with various stages of memory loss.

By the way, have you seen my keys?

In the outside world, people ask, to be polite, “Let me know if I can help.” In the cohousing world people ask, “What can I do to help you now?” being intentional about it. At my place, for example, we have a list of people who will contact caregivers, drive a neighbor to the doctor or hospital, at any moment. I look at it as paying it forward – You need a jump? I have cables. You’re in the hospital? I’ll stop by when I’m out today.

In my way of thinking, cohousing is very mission driven and best functions using the team approach. When I was in high school, there were the kids who had to be involved in every school activity and be on every page of the yearbook – drama club, 1,2,3,4; newspaper staff 1,2,3,4…

Clawing your way to the top in the outside world is the norm, but in cohousing, the norm is clawing your way to the middle. When I was younger, I was one of those chronic over achievers and have dialed that down.

My community has evolved to become more transparent. Every year, for example, everyone’s HOA dues are known. Intellectually, we strive for fairness, but any objective formula, while “equal” isn’t always subjectively “fair.”

We’re having very frank and open discussions about MONEY issues. It’s taken 10 years of community maturity, but everyone is letting loose of wanting control.

I don’t have much interest in Super Bowl LIII, but a soft spot for the Rams and three Broncos castoffs – Wade Phillips, Aqib Talib and CJ Anderson.

While I wouldn’t trade my stint in the ICU for anything, what I learned about myself was life changing, but I don’t recommend it as the best way to lose weight.

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Tiny House Cohousing?

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wee casa

WeeCasa is a tiny house resort in Lyon’

Seems everything has a cohousing reference to me these days. On a quick trip up to Estes Park last week, there’s a place to stay over in Lyon’s Colorado called WeeCasa. It’s a tiny house resort. They rent for the the night or extended stay. It’s laid out like an RV park with a community room.

Now that would be a place for cohousing secret sauce, but how realistic is a tiny house cohousing community?

A couple years ago, I was on the road in Wyoming and spent a night at the Green Creek Inn and RV park. If you’ve stayed in camping / RV parks there’s, generally, an area set aside for semi-permanent places for longer-stay RVers.

In Wyoming, they are seasonal park workers, oil and gas field workers, hard-core hunters and fishers.

green creek rv park

The Green Creek Inn and RV Park between Cody and Yellowstone offers a low cost housing option for RVers.

There’s been talk about low cost housing types for Millennials paying off student debt, seniors seeking nursing home alternatives and marginalized populations like homeless vets.

As housing cobfiguration alternatives come up, cooperative and collaborative approaches float to the surface. Tiny houses are low-cost to construct and lots of them can be crammed onto a piece of ground. As such, there are cities that are building tiny houses for the homeless population.

Tiny houses make some sense for an intentional community but developing one has more challenges than appear on the surface.

This is tiny house that is 21' by 8.5' in size with a fairly tall ceiling.

This is tiny house that is 21′ by 8.5′ in size with a fairly tall ceiling.

In a past life, I used to be a city planner in Wyoming and a member the Boulder Planning Board in Colorado, as well as the Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity of the St. Vrain Valley in Longmont. I studied ecological biology and environmental politics as an undergrad and grad student. How to live a balanced life in both the human and natural environments has always been an interest of mine and why I live in cohousing.

The cohousing idea is a little bit about the buildings, but it’s more about setting up an old fashioned sense of community in which residents participate in the design, character and culture of their neighborhoods. With an itinerant population like homeless people, creating a sense of community would be a challenge. I would think tiny house cohousing would have quite a bit of turnover, at any rate.

Cohousing originated in Scandanavia, which is a bit more communal and socialistic than in the US. Here, cohousing tries to adapt communal tenets into the “rugged individualism” of America. And the mobile American would fit this mold.

cohousing2

This is a 500 sq ft tiny house that has a 1-car garage and a balcony.

Over the past few years, interest in “tiny houses” has been growing. That is, people choosing to live in homes that are from 200 to 600 sq ft in size.

They are generally built on a “flat bed” and can be wheeled around from place to place, but also can be built on a foundation, but that kicks in an entirely different set of building requirements. Tiny houses on skids or wheels fall into the land use category of mobile homes or temporary housing. There’s technical jargon that defines a tiny house. In Boulder an accessory dwelling is nit is highly regulated so as to prevent a oo much density.

They are far different than your standard mobile home. Regular mobile homes can be the size of stick built houses that incorporate some space saving design features. Mobile homes are regulated and have design standards and have a strong lobbying presence. Tiny houses, if too popular infringe on the mobile home monopoly.

If you google “tiny house” lots of websites and images pop up. There are several cable TV shows dedicated to the topic. The host / developer and an innovative builder work with people to build their tiny house. The stories are about space saving innovations – steampunk trailers.

The biggest hurdles for traditional cohousing, as well as regular housing, for that matter, are government regulations and money. From a zoning code standpoint, tiny house communities will likely be a land use without a zoning designation.

Cohousing homes are houses with no lot lines with the development and individual houses

Cohousing homes are houses with no lot lines with the development and individual houses “designed” with input by the resident / community members. This home in Silver Sage Village recently sold for $750,000.

Money for land, money for the development are also typical impediments. Because cost is such a huge factor, stick built cohousing homes are constructed to maximize profit. This generally means expensive houses crammed onto a tiny space. How about the opposite – inexpensive houses crammed onto tiny spaces, that results in more open spaces?

Tiny houses cost anywhere from $20,000 to $60,000 and can be parked in friends’ back yards. They are often built with sweat equity. Check out one of the cable tv shows to get an idea about downsizing baby boomers, young couples and individuals making the move to drop out of the “bigger is better” society. Some tiny homeowners want to be more mobile, others are sedentary.

With tiny houses, a cohousing organizer wouldn’t need near as much space as a typical coho development. It would depend on the rules, but a tiny house development would likely be more transient. How to raise money? The organizational community structure could be a corporation or LLC, maybe an HOA if allowed by the state laws. It’s likely to be a commercial venture as opposed to residential, so may be more expensive.

It could be a subdivision with private lots that are sold, some may be rentals owned by the community. Is a tiny house a mobile home, an accessory dwelling unit? How do the uniform building codes apply?

Utilities could be “hook ups” like in an RV park. Decisions would have to be made, based on political jurisdiction about individual septic or a septic field or central wastewater collection; individual water cisterns or central water; city spec water and sewer.

I would think there would be some amenities like streets, sidewalks, open space, in addition to the common house.

This is the interior of a tiny house that through innovative design maximizes the space.

This is the interior of a tiny house that through innovative design maximizes the space.

At the typical RV park, the longer-stay “residents” have access to the common showers / restrooms, laundry, the little store and breakfast available to the overnight campers.

I can envision a common house that is more permanent, though. As a monetary hedge against potentially higher turnover rates, the common house could be mixed use with community amenities like the open dining area, kitchen, laundry facilities, TV room, guest rooms, with business tenants or owners like a convenience store, coffee shop, business offices, laundromat and the like.

Because tiny houses are small, neighbors would be more likely to frequent the common house, than in some traditional cohousing communities in which homes are the same as in suburbia with large living rooms, utility rooms, large kitchens. Cohousers go into their house and you don’t see them again.

Sarah Susanka says that buying a home strictly for

Sarah Susanka says that buying a home strictly for “resale” value isn’t the best choice.

There are the unfounded housing characteristics necessary for resale, as espoused by Sarah Susanka author of “Not So Big House.”

Susanka, who is also an architect, says that the sense of “home” has less to do with quantity and everything to do with quality. She points out that we feel “at home” in our houses when where we live reflects who we are in our hearts.

I heard her speak at Denver University a few years ago. The examples that stuck with me are those of the “den” and “dining room.” She asked the huge audience about who uses their den and who eats in the dining room. Not many hands went up. Dens and dining rooms, supposedly, increase resale value, but if nobody uses them, what’s the point.

I’d say that, for the most part, cities still have a bias AGAINST mobile home parks and hold the “trailer trash” stereotype. In a place like Boulder, there would be an uproar about this as a form of affordable housing. The best place to try this out would be where land is inexpensive and there is less of an elitist attitude.

beloved tiny home

The Beloved tiny house community organized by the Colorado Village Collaborative has been beset with zoning code problems.

Denver has a tiny house village called “Beloved” for homeless people. It has a common house and is self-governed. The community consists of 11 small houses and has met with some success. Beloved only had a six month temporary zoning permit for the current location and forced to move the entire village.

There’s the social stigma of housing for homeless people. Local mainstream cultures should be open to tiny houses for “regular” people. If the concept works here, why not in another setting? WeeCasa figured it out.

I’ll plant the seed, but it may take me developing the idea in order for me to make a documentary film about it. Anyone interested in organizing a tiny house cohousing community?

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This article was originally published in December 2014, updated again in 2017, in part due to a wordpress glitch that obliterated the story.

‘Beyond Heart Mountain’ book about Japanese in Downtown Cheyenne available Feb 19th

bhm 1-1What happened to the Japanese residents and businesses on West 17th Street in downtown Cheyenne, Wyoming?

It’s not just about the demise of the once vibrant Japanese community in a small town in Wyoming that thrived from the 1920s through the 1960s, but about how downtown areas can be revived by adding new life to them with people.

The story is a historical memoir told through the eyes of the author, a Sansei generation Baby Boomer Cheyenne native, Alan O’Hashi.

The story arose from a Cheyenne Historic Preservation Board decision to allow the demolition of 509 W. 17th St. with the condition a cultural and historical survey be done about the Japanese community that flourished in the 400 and 500 blocks of W. 17th St.

John and Jim Dinneen are constructing 12 townhouses in the Downtown Cheyenne neighborhood.

Check out a preview of the 50 page picture book by opening the YouTube link.

The release date is the “Day of Remembrance” on February 19th, which commemorates 77 years since President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that required internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry.