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The Pros and Cons of Living With Friends in Older Age

Here’s how to start exploring your options

Part of the Transforming Life as We Age Special Report

I’ve heard my friends say this, and maybe you have, too — or maybe you’ve said it yourself: “We should all move in together when we get older!”

Alice Alexander, executive director of the Cohousing Association of the United States, says talk among friends is often how cohousing communities get started, including the Durham Central Park Cohousing Community in North Carolina, where she lives. Durham Coho, as it is known, isn’t just for older people — one of the community’s aims is intergenerational living — but Alexander has advice for 50- or 60-somethings who want to explore cohousing as a way to live in their older years: Get started now.

“We didn’t break ground until November 2012” and didn’t move in until the summer of 2014, Alexander says. That was years after Durham Coho’s founders started pursuing their idea in earnest in 2008.

Two events this spring will make it easier to take Alexander’s advice. April 30 is National Cohousing Open House Day, when more than 90 cohousing communities around the country will welcome visitors for tours and Q&A sessions. Then on May 20 and 21, a national cohousing conference, Aging Better Together, will take place in Salt Lake City. Sessions will cover how to form a cohousing community and how to create an environment that supports aging in community.

Cohousing is Just One Way to Go

Why the years-long wait before Alexander and other members of her Durham community could move in? It’s easy to understand when she explains what cohousing is.

Ideally, everyone has the ability to retreat to their personal space when they’ve had enough social stimulation.

— Janelle Orsi, Sustainable Economies Law Center

“Cohousing celebrates having your own private home with access to community,” she says. Each household is independent, but there are shared activities and spaces, often things like laundry rooms, workshops, arts spaces, and a kitchen and dining area for communal meals that might take place once or twice a week. There’s also a shared community intention, which could be as specific as operating a farm or as general as growing a culture of mutual caring.

Durham Coho’s members are environmentally focused and wanted to live in an urban setting with amenities like the downtown farmers’ market, library, theaters and YMCA within easy walking distance. To do it, they bought and redeveloped a parcel of brownfield land in the heart of the city, oversaw the design and construction of two dozen condominiums and several commons areas and marketed their community to attract more families to live there.

It is possible to shorten your wait time by joining an existing cohousing community instead of building one. There are 162 established communities across the country — most states have at least one — with another 126 in some stage of formation.

But another option is to look into “cohouseholding.” That’s the term used for groups that form a single household together, Alexander says, and both cohousing and cohouseholding fall under the umbrella of “intentional community.”

Can You Ditch Old Expectations?

“There are very distinct benefits,” economic and social, that come with living together, says Sky Blue, executive director of the national Fellowship for Intentional Community. But along with the benefits, Blue notes, “there are some very distinct costs.”

Consider, he says, that some of the biggest costs in cohouseholding can be the emotional ones.

“The notion of privacy is something intensely ingrained into American culture, much more so than almost any other culture in the world. Also the notion of personal space,” Blue says. Giving up a degree of privacy about personal finances or a degree of control over your environment isn’t always easy.

“You’re going to get into conflict,” he says, and it won’t necessarily be about the big stuff. It will be about “where on the counter does the blender sit.”

It helps going into a shared living situation to know that there are bound to be difficulties, he adds, and to work out clear systems at the start for how the group will communicate, make decisions, share responsibilities and hold each other accountable.

It also helps to make sure that everyone still has sufficient personal space, according to Janelle Orsi, an attorney who heads the Sustainable Economies Law Center and specializes in the “sharing economy.” Ideally, “Everyone has the ability to retreat to their personal space when they’ve had enough social stimulation,” she writes in a case study on how to succeed at cohouseholding.

Orsi and another attorney have posted a set of 58 questions to help prospective cohouseholders consider the practical, financial and legal aspects of their living arrangements. And both the Cohousing Association and the Fellowship for Intentional Community have websites loaded with resources and advice from existing communities.

Affordability and Aging

Cost might move you toward one option or another if you and your friends are thinking about forming a community together as you age. On the surface, at least, forming a single household jointly with a small group of friends seems like the least expensive option. But a closer look at shared living arrangements might make you think differently about affordability.

Blue lives in the Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia, which has about 100 members. They share not only expenses but all the income they generate through several group businesses, including building furniture, making tofu and farming. With a large enough group to sustain those enterprises, they’re able to cover each community member’s living expenses.

Having a large group with diverse skills has given the Durham Central Park Cohousing Community some advantages, too. They were able to be their own real estate developer and their own marketer, rather than paying for those services. It also makes self-governance easier, Alexander says. Personalities tend to blend and balance each other out better. The “sweet spot” in cohousing, she adds, is in the range of 20 to 40 households.

“Cohousing is very typically market rate,” Alexander says of the cost of housing itself. So a condo at Durham Coho goes for what a condo elsewhere in downtown Durham might cost. “But you get so much more with it. We’re getting not just a community, but we’re getting all this amazing community space,” notes Alexander.

Changing Needs

When it comes to the costs and needs that go with aging, she says cohousing communities on the whole are in the early stages of thinking about those questions.

Her own community was designed to be Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant, partly with an eye to aging in place. And as members have looked ahead to their future care needs, “somebody floated the idea of one of our guest rooms being used for a [home health] aide. So there is that possibility,” Alexander says. “On the other hand, we’re also looking at trying to attract families. So just as important a question to us is, how can we help support children in the community?”

She adds: “One of the reasons we’re having this conference, this Aging Better Together conference, is that so many of the older, mature communities . . . are having to figure this out. What will [members’ aging] mean for the physical structures, but also what does it mean for us as a community in terms of caring and sharing?”


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