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Learn How Two Communities Prevent Social Isolation

These co-housing options in Denmark and the U.S. try something new

By SCAN Foundation and PBS NewsHour

By Saskia de Melker and Melanie Saltzman

The full transcript of the PBS NewsHour Weekend story shown above follows here:

SASKIA DE MELKER: This is the regular dinner scene at Saettedammen, a co-housing community 45 minutes outside Denmark’s capital of Copenhagen.

Stig Brinck, an architect, and his wife, an artist, and the teenage daughters they’ve raised here, are responsible for tonight’s meal…for themselves and 20 neighbors in the common house.

STIG BRINCK: We eat together four times a week, for those who want to participate.

SASKIA DE MELKER: What’s it like cooking for 25 people? How do you do that?

STIG BRINCK: First of all, we have a kitchen that’s capable for it. So we have the tools to do it. That’s very important.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Communal meals are a staple at Saettedammen, where 71 people live in 28 houses clustered around shared recreational and outdoor spaces — walkways, gardens, and parking — and a common house. Residents are expected to clean shared areas and take turns tending the grounds. Everyone shares resources like laundry facilities, outdoor tools, and play equipment. Small groups of families rotate leading monthly community meetings.

STIG BRINCK: You live in kind of a small, small village. You know everybody around you, and you share as much as possible. So you are very close neighbors, and you are kind of depending on each other, but you’re not obligated to any strict rules.

SASKIA DE MELKER: The Saettedammen community is made up of a range of singles, couples, retirees, and families with children. Every family has privacy in a home with its own bedrooms, baths, and kitchen.

The land is cooperatively owned, but residents own their homes — a structure similar to a condominium association in the U-S. The cost of homes here is comparable to other homes in the area, but an average sized household pays about $3,500 dollars a year for communal resources.

Saettedammen started 46 years ago and is recognized as the first co-housing community in the world. Britta Bjerre and her husband, Arne, were among the first families to move in.

BRITTA BJERRE: We didn’t want our family to spend our lives in an insular way in a house on a suburban street somewhere. And one day we saw a newspaper ad saying that some people had their eyes on a plot of land, and they were looking for twenty-five to thirty families to buy it and build houses as well as a communal house.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Lisa Berkman, a professor of public policy and epidemiology at Harvard University says that co-housing harkens back to the kinds of communities that used to naturally dominate our societies.

LISA BERKMAN: You know, when you think about the apartment buildings that were designed at the turn of the century, they were designed as two-family houses or three-family houses, each on a floor. And those enabled multi-generation households to live together and still have their own housing.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Berkman says that cohousing can reduce social isolation and the detrimental health effects associated with it.

LISA BERKMAN: Social isolation relates to the number of ties and the quality of relationships that you have: religious ties, community ties, work ties. People who are very isolated, who are disconnected, have a mortality rate that’s about three times as high That is, they’re about three times as likely to die over maybe a decade, as people who have many, many more ties.

SASKIA DE MELKER: 70-year-old Jytte Helle has lived in Saettedammen for 30 years.

It’s important to me to be with a mixed group, not only with other older people, because then we would just talk about our diseases and aches and pains. Older people can’t give the same energy as younger people can.

STIG BRINCK: So having neighbors and knowing their kids, I think that’s // just like it’s a benefit of having a big family.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Is this replacing the idea of the extended family?

STIG BRINCK: Indeed it is. I see it very much as the extended family.

ELLA POULSEN: It’s like nice to have a friend nearby always that you can talk to.

SASKIA DE MELKER: 14-year old Ella Poulsen has lived in Saettedammen her whole life.

ELLA POULSEN: It’s kind of like everyone’s a parent, and everybody will take care of the kid if there’s something wrong and the parents aren’t there. I think it’s just very safe.

SASKIA DE MELKER: It’s estimated that at least 1 percent of the Danish population lives in co-housing arrangements. In the United States, the Cohousing Association of America estimates there are about 150 communities.

Rocky Hill Cohousing in Northampton, Massachusetts was established 12 years ago. It has 28 households with residents ranging from age 2 to 80. With a similar financial model to Saettedammen, Rocky Hill has a variety of common spaces, resources, activities, and shared chores.

CAROL RINEHART: I love knowing that somebody’s out there plowing the path on a snowy morning. That’s lovely, knowing that there are mixed ages of people who can help with keeping the place up, and we have our jobs divided.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Carol Rinehart is 72-years-old and just retired from her job as a hospice coordinator. She’s lived at Rocky Hill since its formation.

CAROL RINEHART: You don’t get up some day in the morning and say, “You know, I think this is the day I’m going to have a community.” You know, you build a community.


SASKIA DE MELKER: The number of Americans 65 and older is expected to nearly double by 2050. According to the Pew Research Center, 61 percent say they would prefer to stay in their homes even when they can no longer take care of themselves.That’s compared to 17 percent who would opt for an assisted living facility. Just 8 percent would prefer to move in with a family member.

Harvard Professor Lisa Berkman says co-housing allows people to age in their homes.

LISA BERKMAN: With the aging of the population and the increasing frailty that people will experience as they age, at some point everybody needs a little help. Americans are particularly vulnerable to social isolation in part because we value independence so much, and because we’re so mobile. And we live in a very, very big country.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Berkman says that while older Americans are especially vulnerable to social isolation, young families often struggle to maintain social networks as they juggle work and family.

College professor Gary Felder lives at the Rocky Hill co-housing community with his wife and their two young children. He says their social life is built in, unlike other families who don’t live in a co-housing arrangement.

GARY FELDER: You’ve got to arrange babysitting, you need to figure out the timing, and then you’ve got to rush back and so on. And that was just never a big deal for us. We would put our kids down, we would throw in a baby monitor and we would go spend an evening with our friends. Every week.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Cause you’re right next door, to the common house?

GARY FELDER: Yeah, absolutely. And if one of our kids woke up, two minutes later we were in the bedroom.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Felder admits that this lifestyle isn’t for everyone, and about one family a year decides to leave.

GARY FELDER: The biggest challenge is that you’re making decisions with 27 other households. That is the definition of hell for some people.

SASKIA DE MELKER: But Felder says that for his family the benefits they get from an intergenerational community outweigh the difficulties.

GARY FELDER: The other thing which our kids get, which is even more rare in this society, is they have regular interactions with elders, with seniors. They’re very aware of the whole process of people getting older and retiring and having physical problems and dying.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Rocky Hill residents are coming up with new guidelines to help aging community members, including ride sharing and connecting residents with financial and medical services.

CAROL RINEHART: Could we even make a space here in the common house for somebody who lives and is a licensed practical nurse and taking care of several different families who may be in that area of need.

SASKIA DE MELKER: At the Saettedammen community in Denmark, maintaining an intergenerational community is getting harder. More than half of the residents are now over 65. The community is encouraging younger families to move in when homes become available. Many long time residents, like Jytte Helle, don’t want to leave their social support network.

JYTTE HELLE: We’ve been a part of creating this, and want to feel the benefits that come with getting old in a cohousing community like this.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Do you think there is something about this community, does it keep you younger?

JYTTE HELLE: Yes. Definitely. I’m convinced that If I lived exclusively with elderly people, I would degenerate. So the fact that I’m living with younger people is a gift on a daily basis.

(This story originally appeared on PBS NewsHour Weekend.)

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