Senior Coliving: “Aging in Community”?

In recent years, I have written and blogged quite a bit about several contemporary “movements” (maker spaces, cryptocurrency, coworking), all of which are related by the fact that they are all about “community, community, community”. Many of the movements are focused on the lives of young workers, who are drowning in digital “community” and starving for face-to-face (“analog”?) community.

In my observations, I have often considered wider communities, and, specifically, the desirability of including children, parents, and older people in such “communities”. For example, I have observed the virtues of a maker community that is multi-generational [4].

Let’s urn the tables here, and look at Cat Johnson’s recent article about “Senior Cohousing Movement” [3] (no kids allowed!). Johnson’s features an interview with Prof. Anne P. Glass of UNC, Wilmington, who studies these communities around the world.

If “community, community, community” is good for twenty somethings in the city, it is just as important for over 50’s living anywhere. Glass has written about the value of caregiving, commenting that most research and policy is concerned with seniors who are assumed to be dependent, while “[t]he concept of elders helping take care of each other has been little studied.”[2]  As Sensei Claire Marshall has commented, “we are happiest when we share” [4].  In her work, Glass has outlined many ways that seniors helping each other is beneficial—to all parties involved [2].

Johnson explains that the “Senior Cohousing Movement” is organized as a self-run housing, run by the residents. While the facilities may be similar to other housing, the residents develop “a sense of community, running the place themselves, and having the interest in connecting with each other.” [3]


Sounds great, but it isn’t necessarily easy to achieve

The article covers a number of non-trivial challenges, and they are similar to issues I have seen in other communities, such as coworking.

For starters, cohousing faces the same affordability issues as all senior housing. Quality isn’t cheap, and many people are priced out. A locally created and self-operated housing project is effectively a small, bespoke affair, likely to be more expensive than commodity elder housing.

In all cases, creating and sustaining community is not easy. One of the challenges of coworking spaces is to recruit workers, and get them to participate in the community. Filling desks with people who don’t connect with others defeats the purpose, and can kill the space. Coworking succeeds at creating communities partly by diversity of spaces (there are zillions of workplaces) and by the short term nature of the commitment (dissatisfied workers can walk away or join another community). And, by the way, coworking spaces are generally pretty cheap, compared to other office space.

I note that coworkers are generally happy with their chosen coworking community, but they also tend to cowork in the same place for a year or so, departing for various reasons.

A housing community faces the same fundamental challenge: if people move in, but ignore their neighbors, that is bad for the community, and potentially fatal.  If residents do not like the community, or grow to dislike it, they can leave. Just as in a coworking community, there is “churn”, which creates stress on the community, newcomers must be integrated, and the community may change as the population turns over.

The solutions that seem to work for coworking communities do not fit housing as well. The coworking strategy is basically “let a thousand flowers bloom”, popping up and closing down work spaces, and workers dropping in and out for relatively short dwell times.

This approach is less effective for housing, senior or otherwise. There cannot be so many options, and the commitment is considerably more significant.  Even if were multiple senior cohousing options in an area, moving house is way more trouble than taking hour laptop to another workplace.

 

I’ll add one more point. The general idea of “senior cohousing”, like other “senior” housing seems to be focused on segregated communities, seniors only. The reasons are obvious: a “community of peers” in this case very much means people in the same age group. And, as Dave Barry comments, we want to live “in the company of people who don’t view them as fossils” ([1] , p. 155).

However, I have significant concerns about segregated housing of any kind. Self-sorting is a problem in many areas of life, and this model certainly doesn’t solve the problem. I’m sure that having a lot of neighbors my own age, taking care of our own selves, is a good thing. But perhaps we should consider multi-generational cohousing.

If a “family of friends” (a la Glass [2]) is a good idea for seniors, wouldn’t it be even better for kids and parents as well? Along this line,  I have commented on the great things that can happen in a maker space with people of many ages, which arks back to an earlier view of working and learning [5].

In an all ages coliving, there are extra aunts and uncles to help out with the kids, and kids of many ages for everyone to “worry about”, and a variety of learning and sharing all around.

Obviously, this harks back to an earlier way of living: a village is a multigenerational settlement, not a themed life style. Sure, there are be challenges and stresses mixing age groups, but when it works, it’s going to really work well.

In fact, let’s set aside age, and think about mashing up several “co-“ concept. Let’s arrange a community maker space, some coworking space, coliving for the coworkers, and senior coliving, all in the same proximity. (Add parks, schools, access to shopping, and, why not, a farm on the roof.)

Hey, we’ve just reinvented  a home town. What an idea!


  1. Dave Barry, Best State Ever: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland, New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2016.
  2. Anne P. Glass. (2012) Aging Better Together. http://www.secondjourney.org/itin/12_Sum/12Sum_Glass.htm
  3. Cat Johnson,  (2016) Aging in Community: Inside the Senior Cohousing Movement. Sharable, http://www.shareable.net/blog/aging-in-community-inside-the-senior-cohousing-movement
  4. Claire Marshall,  (2015) What I Learned in My Whirlwind Month in the Sharing Economy. Sharable, http://www.shareable.net/blog/what-i-learned-in-my-whirlwind-month-in-the-sharing-economy
  5. Robert E. McGrath, Making a “Trammel of Archimedes” (2012): Examining Consequences of Making Something Useless. Champaign Urbana Community Fab Lab, Urbana, 2013. https://robertmcgrath.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/making_a_trammel_of_archimedes1.pdf

 

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