Retrofit Cohousing Communities: Can they solve the elder housing shortage?

pat nichols birthday

Growing up in the Cole Addition in Cheyenne, WY in the 1960s. This is my across the alley neighbor Pat Nichol’s birthday party.

I remember growing up in a neighborhood where the kids all hung around together and the reason our parents knew each other was because of bands kids running through one another’s houses. Garage doors were always open and lots of neighborhood birthday parties happened on the weekends.

We Baby Boomers, now well into our 60s and 70s, are trying to figure out how we will be cared for now that our kids are scattered all over the country with lives of their own, or in my case, no kids.

According to a 2015 US Aging Survey, 58 percent of seniors have lived in the same home for at least the past 20 years. Even though people ideally want to stay in one place, there continues to be anecdotal evidence about future uncertainty. While researching this story I asked in a facebook post, “Who will take care of you when you get old?” I was surprised at the 2,000+ engagements and 850 responses that ranged from “myself” to “nobody” to “I don’t know” to “maybe one of my kids” to “my cohousing neighbors.”

Cohousing intentionally tries to replicate neighborhood relationships that came about organically, by “building community, one neighborhood at a time.”

There’s a big unseen housing shortage that will become larger in the years to come. Did you know that 10,000 people turn 65 everyday? While many seniors are able to live independently, there will come a point when we will need assistance or be unable to take care of ourselves.

This growth is pressing seniors and their families to think differently and more broadly about a whole host of issues: housing, transportation, social services, cultural offerings, health and wellness programs, to name a few.

Life care managers, like gerontologists and social workers, believe there is a strong correlation between safe and affordable housing and keeping seniors healthy through accessible informal and formal care giving.

A longer life doesn’t always translate into a better quality of life. No one knows this better than the millions of adult children caring for their parents who struggle to remain in family homes and communities ill-designed for the challenges of aging. Those challenges include long travel distances, non-existent or limited relationships among parents and their children.

Historically, seniors aged in their homes for as long they could with support from family and informal caregivers, until they died or health conditions deteriorated to the point that hospital or nursing home care was necessary.

These data are now flipped. In his book “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” Atul Gawande observes that now, the vast majority of people die in the hospital or long term care facilities rather than at home.

golden girls

The “Golden Girls” were among the cooperative living trend setters – ABC

The circumstances of where, how, and with whom people grow old are changing. From “Golden Girls” roommate households to high-rise artist-centered apartments, Baby Boomers are redefining how they live out their lives — breaking down the old stereotypes and rules, and building new visions of great places to grow old, and doing it better living in community.

One such housing configuration is cohousing. Cohousing communities consist of neighbors who decide to live together in their private homes and agree upon common values, share in some form of consensus decision-making, operate and maintain common spaces such as a common house where cohousers share meals and activities together.

What if this cohousing “secret sauce” is applied to other senior and multigenerational housing configurations?

Continuing Care Residential Communities (CCRC) are good for some. For decades, Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) have offered older adults (usually age 65 and older) an innovative and independent lifestyle that differs from other housing and care options. CCRCs offer a living continuum  in which residents transition from independent to assisted to long-term care.

The CCRC model is appropriate for retrofit cohousing because cohousing can be the entry point to a CCRC. The main limitation of retrofitting an existing CCRC is one of control. CCRCs are typically managed “top-Down” as opposed yo resident directed.

Retrofit cohousing residents govern themselves and become accustomed to community living. That doesn’t mean giving up independence, but being collaborative among others with independent lives. While there would be changes in the cohort, the idea is that it would remain intact and repopulated with others attracted to the community lifestyle.

CCRCs allow seniors to convert home equity or other assets into a place to live and receive daily living services and health care that keeps monthly expenditures more stable – like a meal plan in the dorms. A CCRC isn’t for everybody.

The National Long Term Care Survey is a nationally-representative sample both of the community and of institutionalized populations and is longitudinal in that sample persons join the survey once they reach 65 years of age and stay in the survey until they either die or are lost to follow-up. The NLTCS data from 2004 are not up to date, but find that while CCRC residents are the oldest and sickest population, they have the highest incomes, with an average household income of $40,000-$45,000. Compare that to those in assisted or independent living who report average incomes of $24,000.

CCRCs are a tried and true lifestyle option for some seniors, particularly those with higher incomes and net worth, but what about everyone else?

alan wheel chair

My last day in rehab after six weeks in ICU and recovering from two surgeries in 2013.

Applying cohousing principles, relationships developed among neighbors and subsequent sharing of tasks and care for one another can help delay the need for other types of independent and assisted living. Adapting existing housing configurations – senior or multigenerational – by adding the tenets of cohousing emulates what is provided in a CCRC:

  • Private residences and common areas;
  • A continuum of service, including food services, housekeeping, social and recreational outlets, transportation, and health-care services, as needed;
  • Housing rent or ownership that may utilize home equity to help keep monthly expenses lower

Buying into a CCRC is not cheap. Entrance fees range from about $20,000 to more than $500,000 or even $1,000,000, based on an area’s cost of living. This is clearly unaffordable to most people.

hospital monitors

Six weeks in the hospital and rehab and homeboubd for a mobth after. One day I was healthy, a couple months later I was on my death bed.

We’re all getting older every day. Unfortunately, for many young people say, under 50, the prospects of aging aren’t on their radar screens. It isn’t until the “Join AARP” membership cards start coming in the mail and phone calls from parents in the hospital announcing, “I fell down and can’t get up” that they begin to take notice.

Home living conditions have a huge impact on the health of seniors living with long-term illness and their abilities to live independently. Care managers and geriatricians are often called upon to give advice to families about where their aging family members who have developed illnesses or a disability can live, according to the Aging Life Care Association.

Seniors and their families now seek more information about the relationship between safe, affordable housing and health. At-risk older people who are on fixed incomes with no familial safety net are more likely to be living in non-decent rental or owner-occupied housing.

The 4th annual 2015 United States of Aging Survey, conducted by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a), the National Council on Aging (NCOA) and UnitedHealthcare, examines senior perspectives on aging and what communities can do to better support an increasing, longer-living senior population. The survey included a nationally representative sample of 1,650 Americans 60 and older, and professionals who work closely with them. These data support a need for supportive and collaborative communities.

Financial concerns:

  • The top financial worries that keep seniors up at night are increasing costs of living, 28 percent and unexpected medical expenses, 24 percent.

Maintaining health:

  • Professionals and seniors agree that maintaining good health as they age as important. They named eating healthy, 91 percent and 72 percent, respectively; maintaining a positive attitude, 86 percent and 72 percent; and getting enough sleep, 79 percent and 67 percent.

Staying at home and independent:

  • When asked what concerns they have about living independently, 42 percent of seniors say they are most concerned about becoming a burden to others, 41 percent said experiencing memory loss and 34 percent said not being able to get out of the house and/or drive.

Community Support:

  • 59 percent of seniors say that young people today are less supportive of seniors than their own generation was in previous years, 24 percent see the same levels of support, and 12 percent say young people are more supportive of older adults;
  • 47 percent, (down from 54 percent in 2014 and 49 percent in 2013) and 37 percent of the professionals say their community is doing enough to prepare for the needs of retiring Baby Boomers.
alan shoveling poster

Cohousers share in the chores around the community.

Retrofit cohousing can fill the housing gap. The cohousing model originated in Denmark in the 1960s. Architects Katie McCamant and Chuck Durrett brought the concept to the United States in the 1980s. The legal structure is typically a Home Owners Association (HOA) or Housing Cooperative.

Most cohousing communities are multigenerational, but over time, become senior communities because of people who agein place. There are around 11 established senior-only cohousing communities and more in the forming stages. Most cohousing communities are new-build or adapted developments and some retrofits.

Research points to a variety of cohousing benefits. The most often mentioned benefits relate to reducing social isolation. The cohousing secret sauce provides for intentional socializing, neighborly support when under the weather, sharing chores, sharing expertise, and having neighbors who share similar interests.

Compared to the general population, cohousers are more likely to be a homeowner, highly educated, Democrat, White, female, and age 60 or older, according to the Cohousing Research Network.

Traditional cohousing communities may not represent the characteristics of a broader segment of the population that is interested in cohousing but unable to access, or would be interested if they knew about it. This is where retrofit cohousing can help fill the gap.

How a cohousing community gets started is like forming a club. A few strong advocates seek others to join the community development efforts. In addition to finding like-minded people who want to live together, they must also have the financial resources to invest in land, design and construction, patience to decide on countertops and landscaping and have the time to wait while all this happens. This ground-up process often takes three to five years or more with potential members coming and going.

The cohousing model can also be applied to more structured housing configurations such as existing CCRCs, stand-alone independent living communities, assisted living or long-term care facilities; and people living dispersed within a geographic area such as the Beacon Hill Village in Massachusetts.

beacon hill village

Beacon Hill Village in Boston is a member-drive organization that provides services so members can lead active lives, while living in their own homes and neighborhoods.

Retrofit cohousing communities are more diverse. Data from a 2012 Cohousing Research Network study by Angela Sanguinetti compared the residents of retrofit cohousing communities (those that grow over time in existing residential developments) with the residents of traditional cohousing (new-build or adapted developments that start from scratch, involving a full group of members in the planning process who move in all at once).

When applying the tenets of cohousing, “retrofit” can also be a community of people who don’t live in the same proximity. Housing is housing, but the cohousing culture is what makes the community. The Beacon Hill Village is an existing dispersed community of 500 seniors who agree upon how to be active and supportive of one another rather than reliant on others to “take care” of them all the time. They provide neighborly support with one another and coordinate outside social and physical care giving when necessary.

The Beacon Hill approach would be appropriate to multigenerational communities as well. Since all are aging, it seems like people don’t get around to planning for their life care until it’s almost too late.

chung nyc coho

Jeddy and Cynthia created an accidental cohousing community in Flushing, NYC.

Residents of retrofit cohousing in one place include more young people, full-time students, renters, racial minorities, single householders, and households with fewer financial assets. An example, while not called “cohousing” is the case of a group of apartment dwellers in Flushing, New York City who became an accidental community.

Sanguinetti’s study finds that retrofit cohousing residents did not differ from traditional cohousing residents in terms of political affiliation or the level of education. The retrofit model may mitigate some barriers for a broader group of interested cohousers by being less resource-intensive.

The social support that cohousing offers may be beneficial for an aging population. Senior cohousing has received recent attention as a model to support well being, and aging in place through emotional support and activities of mutual assistance (e.g., doing errands, driving, cooking, or going for a walk with a neighbor), downsizing, and safety.

How does retrofit cohousing work? In a retrofit situation the community development steps are the same as for a traditional cohousing community. “Burning soul” advocates and other group members may or may not live in the same building or community. They may decide to move into the same apartment or condo complex, but would follow a typical cohousing development process such as these three steps that were identified by CoLiving Canada:

Feasibility study

  • Discuss and agree upon community values and perhaps, a higher purpose, which would fill the need to walk their community values talk while participating in service projects;
  • Whether you’re three or thirty people, come up with a name and “elevator speech” identifying the community. Referring to yourselves as a “bunch of housemates” doesn’t tell about your community story;
  • Community cohesiveness could be built around a higher purpose of community service that binds a community together.
  • Once you kick the can down the road a few blocks, check your state laws about homeowner association regulations. You will find they set up HOAs that do not mirror cohousing very well – lots of centralized power and control, lots of voting. Save this intil later, because conforming cohousing declarations with state laws is a chore.

Develop budgets

  • There likely will be common expenses that relate to community activities, coordinating transportation, common meals, intra-community communication and a fee structure to pay for all or part.
  • Community values and mission are umplemented through the budget by teams – overall steeringteam equivalent to a board of directores, social events, managing building and grounds, procesd and governance, finances and legal matters,
  • The entire community approves by consensus the budget or any action for that matter, and the steering team ratifies the action also by consensus.

Design and Construction

  • If you’re sharing a big house, there will be design issues about designating common spaces and storage. Some design and construction in retrofits may be necessary if you’re in an existing condo community or apartment building is adapted. This may include renovating an existing dwelling unit into a common space with a guest room and common kitchen which was the case at Boulder Creek cohousing in Colorado;
  • Identify resident needs, how the “site” functions – if it is in an existing physical development like a condo association, apartment complex, or households dispersed within a given boundary;
  • Determine what are considered “common spaces” which may not be literally common, but function in common. These may be in private homes for shared meals and meetings, civic spaces, churches, libraries

Looking for a few cohousing retrofit pioneers. There are plenty of individuals who are interested in cohousing. Some of you may have managed to form into group that has begun the traditional cohousing process but you’ve bumped into obstacles including lack of money, no suitable land available, professionals such as architects who are only willing to give so much upfront service, group members who can no longer wait for the community to get off the ground. There are well-documented war stories.

I want to prove the concept. I’m seeking one or more people, preferably in the Denver-area to organize a retrofit cohousing community and facilitate you through the process.

  • Maybe, you don’t need a place to live or have bumped into some community development obstacles, but want to create connections with other like-minded people as a hedge against loneliness and living in isolation;
  • Maybe you live in an apartment building and your neighbors are interested in a more collaborative lifestyle;
  • Maybe you are affiliated with an existing assisted living community and want to adopt appropriate cohousing principles

There are varying opinions about whether what I describe is actually cohousing, but regardless, I want to hear from you. Email adoecos@yahoo.com

In case you’re wondering about my interest in this topic, I became Medicare-eligible this year and live in the Silver Sage Village cohousing community in Boulder, Colorado.

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The Spirit of Culture: Is diversity highly over rated? 

Click on the banner to read the full conference schedule.

Diversity, inclusiveness, cultural competency: are they just feel good buzz words?

Do they result in big benefits or big hassles in the long run?

I don’t know anyone who is AGAINST the tenets of equality and fair play in the abstract.

I don’t know anyone who considers themselves a “racist” but we’ll also talk about the roots of violence and privilege that play out in the 24 hour news cycle of today and enable bad behavior in smaller communities.

I’m leading a workshop at the “Aging Better Together” conference in Salt Lake City May 20-21 called “The Spirit of Culture” which addresses inclusion and diversity from first person perspectives – your prespectives.

Here’s a link to the slide presentation I’ll be making at the conference.

We’ll work as a group and as individuals while thinking back about our upbringing, the people of influence in our lives and how we can understand ourselves to better relate to others.

A cohousing community is a unique social construct that isn’t inherently in the American cultural DNA.

Another topic we’ll discuss in the context of cohousing is that of affordability – the types and prices of housing and the persons and families who live in them.

Workshoppers will leave some tips and exercises they can share with their communities.

This will be the most important workshop you’ll attend – if you dare.

Confessions of an upward facing dogie

BOULDER, CO - SEPTEMBER 2: Lindy Cook and Alan O'Hashi pull weeds from the garden of the community with other residents September 2, 2015 at Silver Sage Village. The active adult cohousing community for those 55 or older is setup like a usual condo community with every person having their own place, but the sense of community is what is unique. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post)

BOULDER, CO – SEPTEMBER 2: Lindy Cook and Alan O’Hashi pull weeds from the garden of the community with other residents September 2, 2015 at Silver Sage Village. The active adult cohousing community for those 55 or older is setup like a usual condo community with every person having their own place, but the sense of community is what is unique. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post)

A month or so ago, Denver Post reporter Claire Martin caught wind of the documentary I’m making about “aging in community”. The principle photography is done, but there are a couple stories that need updating and I’m gathering up some photos for extra coverage.

The movie is based on my “aha” experiences and perspectives learned after being pretty sick to the point of having the “end of life” and drastic “heart lung transplant” conversations with my doctors back during the summer of 2014. My colleague Maryann Williamson interviewed some of my Silver Sage Village neighbors about their perspectives about aging in an intentional community like cohousing.

The Denver Post article came out yesterday – the beginning of Labor Day weekend. There’s another chapter in this saga which marks the one year anniversary of me taking yoga classes.

In this town, that shouldn’t be too earth shattering at all. For a Wyomingite, it’s not the usual way to while away the hours. There’s an advertisement to attract former Wyoming people back to the state that says something to the effect that “we have latte’s and yoga” which are why an expat like myself should move back.

Yee Haw – git a long little downward facing dogie!

A "dogie" is a neglected calf that is eventually rescued and looked after.

A “dogie” is a neglected calf that is eventually rescued and looked after.

Over the past 10 years or so, one of my annual missions is to take footage of all the entertainment along the Bolder Boulder route. The 2014 acid test was whether or not I could complete my usual task and finish the 10K. All went well, but I needed to take a swig of O2 going up the Folsom Street hill into the stadium.

A month later, I was given the okay to put the supplemental oxygen aside while weaning off of the prednisone. My chest xray in June wasn’t that great, and my lung doctor wasn’t very optimistic at all. That’s when I also started with aggressive treatments at the Southwest Acupuncture College Boulder Campus. I attribute my miraculous recovery to that, which is another story.

In retrospect, the Bolder Boulder probably wasn’t the wisest thing to do, since my percent of oxygen was around 80 percent, which was pretty good, considering a couple months earlier it was in the 60s and 70s. I had gained back some of the 37 pounds I lost laying in the hospital for a month and half and I noticed the lost weight right a way since my inner knees didn’t ache.

Anyway, I was still very weak and had trouble lifting the milk jug out of the fridge and still not very stable on my feet, having taken a tumble on the step going into Silver Sage Village. I finally could push the clutch pedal on the Eurovan and I started driving, which also wasn’t a very good idea.

My occupational therapist had me trying to do push ups against the wall and half push ups on the floor. I couldn’t do either. Sit ups were painful because of the scarring from the leaky intestine ulcer that was also repaired. I didn’t want to lift weights or go to a gym. The OT couldn’t do anything more for me. When I relearned how to walk and my gait was straight, she turned me loose.

I was picking something up at McGuckin Hardware on the Sunday afternoon before Labor Day. I noticed the The Little Yoga Studio next door. There was a woman inside working on the computer at the front desk. They were closed, but she told me to take a schedule from the box by the door.

Being a Boulder guy, I wasn’t a yoga guy. Many years ago, Comcast used to have Core Power Yoga on TV in the mornings. I did that for awhile, then the practice started to include weights and equipment, which seemed out of context.

That gave me some knowledge and experience with the basic poses. Since my body was totally out of whack, I thought yoga would be more balanced than going to a gym, plus I only needed a mat – although I had sticker shock when I saw mats cost as much as $85. I needed to get stronger and more flexible. Shortly after Labor Day I made my first visit.

I really didn’t know what to expect since it was my first time in organized yoga practice, I thought it was more meditative, but I have come to learn that the Americanized versions of yoga are very different from it’s 5,000 year old traditional roots in south Asia. I was also surprised to learn that yoga in America is an 18 billion dollar a year industry. The yoga industrial complex includes, clothing, mats, equipment, food. In Boulder, you can’t turn around without your water bottle whacking into a yoga teacher.

Ronald McYoga

Ronald McYoga

I got a deal for yoga at one of the other studios in town. Turns out that was part of a yoga franchise – McYoga. It was a huge place with showers, a store with branded merchandise. That wasn’t for me – some of the same teachers work there, too.

My initial reasons for going to yoga class a couple times a weak were totally health and medical related. Some of the teachers give little dharma lessons at the beginning of the class. At the beginning of one class the teacher gave a bit of a rant about how westernized yoga moved away from the traditional tenets, which wasn’t a good thing. and that there should be more attention paid to the original teachings.

That brought to mind an NPR radio story I heard six or seven years before, about a group in Fairhope, Alabama that wanted to take the original spirituality out of yoga and replace it with Christian spirituality, since they liked the asana part – physical aspects – of yoga, but not the meditative part.

At the time, that struck me as odd.

Now that I have more of an interest it really strikes me as odd.

I also remember this story because I mnemonically link it to a former basketball player from Fairhope who played at Wyoming named Quentin Higgins.

Afterwards, I talked to the teacher about this, and turns out there’s quite a bit of information out there about the topic of non-yoga yoga. I watched a documentary called “Yoga, Inc.” which was mostly about the lawsuit between yoga mogul Bikram Choudhury and some of his teachers about unauthorized uses of his yoga pose sequences.

Om

Om

The yoga classes are helpful for me physically. I was going a couple times a week with a day of recovery time in between. I now try to get there four or five consecutive times with a couple days of rest between. But also, I want to be around the practice more which is insightful. My journalistic curiosity always gets and best of me and I’m now researching American yoga for another documentary project.

I’m learning that horse has left the barn and there must be some other angle that hasn’t dawned on me yet about putting yoga back into yoga. I’m talking with my pal Ravi Dykema about it next week. I’ll take a meeting with anyone who has a perspective on this.

Meanwhile, I’ll be continuing to “age in c(OM)unity”.