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

Featured

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.

Collaborative Communities 101 and Lincoln Court

Boulder Senior Cohousing Communities

Click on the image of Lindy Cook and Alan O’Hashi and join the Lincoln Court facebook page. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post)

Baby Boomers have kicked the birdies out of their nests and downsizing from years of accumulating the detritus of life.

Millennials are finding it increasingly difficult to find low cost housing for themselves.

One lifestyle that’s getting some traction is that of living in a community whether it being a traditional retirement village or having housemates which are well known alternatives or in not-so-well known communities like cohousing.

While cohousing is far from mainstream, there is growing interest in intentional neighborhoods. Architects Chuck Durrett and Katie McCamant studied in Denmark and coined the term “cohousing.”

What if the six characteristics of cohousing were applied to an urban community consisting of not only housing but a mix of businesses and public uses?

A small group of cohousing, mixed use visionaries, including myself have started a 20 acre project on the urban fringe of Cheyenne, Wyoming called the Lincoln Court. We’re laying cohousing approaches over a high density, mixed use community anchored by a city owned and operated indoor ice rink and a proposed indoor sports complex. It’s a grassroots project that will come about as a result of a high degree of consensus among the future community denizens:

back-40-subdivisionCollaborative neighborhood process. Future Lincoln Court denizens will have a chance to participate in the design of the community so that it meets their needs. There will be a series of meetings as the project progresses to define them. Some collaborative communities are initiated or driven by a developer.  The Lincoln Court Collaborative Community is a combination of both with the developer playing more of a technical role making the community member vision real. This collaboration will result in a well-designed, pedestrian-oriented community that integrates with the adjacent West Edge community, as outlined in the city of Cheyenne Missile Drive Corridor Plan.

ssv-coho-alan-boulder

Collaborative neighborhood design. Rather than a top-down approach with planners, architects driving the design, the physical layout and orientation of the buildings will be initially determined by a “focus group” of people who attend various informational meetings. The design process encourages a sense of community and facilitates social interactions from the get-go. For example, the private residences will likely be clustered on the site, leaving more shared open space; compatible businesses are planned to co-locate in the common house or on other common spaces. The goal: create a strong sense of community using physical design choices – walk-ability, live / work artist spaces, community and private spaces for public and private performance and art exhibits and classes, co-working spaces for residents.

garden-dayCollaborative common spaces. Common facilities will be designed for daily use, and for special community activities. They are an integral part of the collaborative community, and complementary to the private residences and businesses. The extent to which the private businesses and studio spaces are public will be determined. There will likely be an expectation that community uses and activities will be a part of the private business spaces. Participating in community life is optional – denizens may have as much community as or as little community as they want.  Since the buildings are clustered, the Lincoln Court may retain several or many acres of undeveloped shared open space for future expansion.

henry-facilitatingCollaborative management. Lincoln Court denizens will manage, to a great extent, the business of the collaborative community, and also perform much of the work required to maintain the property. The cohousing sub-communities participate in the preparation of common meals, and meet regularly to solve problems and develop policies for the community. A master Community Association may be formed to deal with issues concerning common spaces of the entire collaborative community, such as snow removal, open space maintenance, and managing community business relations.

ssv-sharing-circleCollaborative consensus. Leadership roles will evolve and based on how and when community members join Lincoln Court. However, no one person (or persons) has authority over others. As individuals, families, businesses and organizations join the collaboration, each take on one or more roles consistent with their skills, abilities or interests. Lincoln Court will make decisions by consensus or similar forms of consensus decision-making. Although likely will have a policy for majority-rules voting if the group cannot reach consensus (nuclear option).

cr-art-showCollaborative community economy. The community is not a source of income for its individual members. However, in the Lincoln Court, rental income from businesses, use of performance / exhibition space, studio / co-working spaces would accrue back to the community at-large to decrease homeowner / community owner association fees / reserve funds. It is possible that the master association or a sub-associations could contract with a resident / tenant to perform a specific task for compensation, but more typically the work will be considered that member’s contribution to the shared responsibilities. It is possible that community residents will earn income from rented studio or business location.

CFD-Production-5948Collaborative higher purpose. The envisioned community “higher purpose” is around arts, culture and fostering creative thinking in the day-to-day community functionality. The site has a great story. The original site was a part of a Homestead Act land grant at the turn of the 20th century. Historic Highway 30, also known as the Lincoln Highway spanned coast to coast in the 1930s. The Lincoln Court was built as a motor hotel which later evolved into the Hitching Post Inn. The Hitching Post was a legendary Cheyenne landmark. There are some great stories associated with the site which are big selling points for the project. Mine, for example? My first job when I was a 12-year-old was at the Hitching Post.

An introductory meeting is being planned for early December. We’ll provide some information about the project, about collaborative communities, cohousing, the arts and cultural higher purpose. We’ll ask those in attendance to “break ground” and help with some general land use concepts for the site. It will be informative and a lot of fun.

Musings about the cohousing ‘Dealing with Diverse Personalities Retreat’

arcosanti-class-pix
Arcosanti is an urban laboratory near Mayer, AZ. The Dealing with Diverse Personalities retreat was held there with 40 participants from around the country in attendance.

“Forget Arcosanti, we’ll always have Mayer …’

Movie line maloprops from “Forget Paris” and “Casablanca” struck me when I started writing these musings.

Good memories.

Besides, I have to make some sort of movie reference since it was my  “Dealing with Diverse Personalities” retreat presentation theme at Arcosanti in Arizona which wrapped in early October and sponsored by Cohousing USA.

If you’re reading this and didn’t attend the retreat, you’ll likely note a bunch of “inside baseball” references and I don’t expect you to understand them, but maybe that bit of mystery will entice you to a similar workshop at your community.

It was a lot of fun for me. I get personal satisfaction as a facilitator when participants learn something – at least I hope something stuck with each of them! I try to appeal to all learning styles with visual, audio and hands-on approaches.

We had 40 people from around the country attend who I hope learned a little bit more about themselves and why self-awareness is important while interacting with others.

I hope all who were there are still at least a little jazzed up with the experience. A lot of stuff was crammed into a short  weekend. I’ll send out periodic notes to our retreat group to keep the creative juices flowing and keep everyone connected, even if it’s virtually by way of email.

arcosanti wide

CoHoUSA is presented a retreat September 30 – October 2 called “Dealing with Diverse Personalities inn Community” at Arcosanti in Arizona.

Arcosanti is an interesting urban community laboratory – not easily forgotten – established in 1970 just outside of Mayer, AZ – which is a bit hidden away just past Cordiss Junction.

The unique venue proved an apt setting for the retreat about dealing with diverse personalities in communities.

The cafeteria food was okay, but mostly because I didn’t have to cook it. I like eating at places where none of the meal serviceware matches.

Sharing food with others is always a great chance to know people better – like whether they use their salad fork through the entire meal, if they like ice in their water or not, etc. – as well as a little about their lives.

A cross section of folks attended who currently live in community, are starting a community or just interested in community. Building a cohousing neighborhood is a daunting task and getting compatible people to live together in the same place is the most fulfilling, but maybe the most difficult part of the process. There were plenty of war stories told and questions asked about cohousing.

If you’d like to see my notes from the two sessions I facilitated, you can download them from this flip book. My presentation style is a combination of lecture and interactivity. I generally don’t like power point presentations, but I think they are necessary to provide details about content as takeaways. The activities are intended to be hands-on applications of the information provided.

arcosanti-apse

The vaulted area of Arcosanti is one of the unique areas of the community which was a great gathering spot for the retreat.

The upshot of the retreat was to take a different look at diverse personalities and seal-realize that we all are diverse in our own ways, with moments of being difficult, conciliatory, positive and everything in between.

Getting to know potential residents at the superficial level is part of the process, like if they are readers, or knitters, or hikers.

But what about the nitty gritty? Is getting to  know if a person is a chronic over achiever/slacker, or a control freak important/complacent or introvert/extrovert important?

I say, “yes.

Knowing “who” a person is turns out to be more important than whether or not they like to go to the movies.

Remember, your group will be managers of the day-to-day business of the community.

We covered some techniques as to get a handle on the nitty gritty.
The other higher level component is for communities which consist of members of all types of personalities to agree upon norms and expectations to create an atmosphere of accountability, rather than setting up a typical “victim vs perpetrator” norm.

It is up to each of us, as individuals, to take responsibility for our actions. It’s then up to the community to determine the level at which its members agree to intentionally learn about one another, particularly about past experiences and histories.

ann-tour

Jeff Zucker is the resident Arcosanti architect and gave a tour of the place. Those spires are cypress trees.

I sensed that there was some push-back from this approach since it moved participants out of their comfort zones.

There were some who wanted more “practice” dealing with interpersonal conflicts between and among people who have personality traits that tend to rub people the wrong way.

The main drawback to “practicing” is, all scenarios are different, they occur at the moment, there are different people situations.

Practicing one set of variables will ALWAYS differ from what actually happens. My approach is for neighbors to better understand themselves and how they can monitor their reactions to prevent conflicts from happening in the first place.

img_5543

Cohousing USA President Jeff Zucker who lives in nearby Manzanita Village cohousing welcomes retreat goers at the Friday night mixer.

Nonetheless, the best way to practice is through interactive simulations. To get us all up and moving, my colleagues Mike and Jeff administered a self-evaluation form that classified us into various animal types, which was an interesting exercise and gave some insight into specific personality types.

Following that, a problem solving game was played with the upshot being that we all possess iterations of each of the personality types. Sometimes we play different roles in a group decision making setting.

I’ll likely be teaching a redux of the Arcosanti workshop, but entitled “Understanding Diverse Personalities” at the Cohousing Association National Conference in May 2017.

The Arcosanti content was received well, but I’ll tweak  the presentation for the May workshop. It will be new and approved particularly as it pertains to developers – so stay tuned.

img_5562

Does Arcosanti ring a bell?

I like smaller events like the Arcosanti retreat. I got to know some of my cohousing colleagues better and kindled some new friendships. I’ll likely return to Arcosanti, particularly since I forgot a piece of equipment there.

What will I remember?

I’ll remember scraping the under carriage of my VW in the dark of night. I have fond memories of the Cowboy Saloon in Mayer.

Whatever your experiences, I hope they are good ones, but keep in mind – “What happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas!”