Older adults embrace the co-housing connectio
“I watched people walking by when I was waiting for a medical test, and I thought, ‘Gee, I used to walk like that,’” said Nancy Jungerman, 85.
“I remember how much fun it was to skip,” said Lois Grau, 93.
“Oh, yes,” said Peggy Northup-Dawson, 85. “Now I’m lucky to walk.”
When it opened at the end of 2005, with its eight individually owned town houses centered on a common garden that’s grown lush and pretty, Glacier Circle in Davis pioneered the way for seniors-only co-housing in America.
Now Grass Valley’s Wolf Creek Lodge, with 30 residences designed for older adults, is on track to open next summer. It will be the country’s fourth elder co-housing complex, but according to the Co-housing Association of the United States, another dozen are in the planning stages.
The co-housing movement for America’s older adults – a slowly growing alternative to sprawling seniors-only suburban developments and continuing care retirement communities – could be coming of age, just as the baby boom generation begins considering its retirement living options.
For proponents, co-housing offers not only the connection of small communities where everybody knows the neighbors, but also control. Unlike traditional seniors developments – where managers, assisted by residents’ councils, decide on everything from rules to recreational activities – co-housing residents run things themselves.
“This is a bunch of people who want to stay in charge,” said Katie McCamant, an architect with Nevada City’s Co-housing Partners, which brought the concept of co-housing to America from Denmark and is building Wolf Creek Lodge.
“They’re not looking for other people to manage things. They want to determine what they need, and they don’t want to live somewhere that someone sets up craft time at 2.”
The philosophy of co-housing is simple, both for seniors-only communities and the country’s 120 intergenerational developments: Share and share alike. Residents own their own homes, but they share ownership of common areas. They share at least a few meals each week – and, so the idea goes, they share the lives they create together.
Andrew Carle, who directs George Mason University’s senior housing administration program, dismisses co-housing as a fad rather than a lasting solution.
“Co-housing for seniors is basically Communes 2.0,” he said. “The first-generation communes disappeared because of the fanciful idea that we’ll all live together in peace and happiness and help each other. We tried this. It’s easier said than done.
“I’m in favor of any type of new housing for seniors. Co-housing gets press as the next big thing, but I don’t think it is. It’ll be a small niche for some people, for whom it will work really well.”
Pat Elliott, a 68-year-old Sacramento attorney who lives in midtown, is convinced Wolf Creek Lodge will work for her. The wooded 7.9-acre site is within walking distance of downtown Grass Valley. It’s affordable, with residences priced from $190,000 to less than $500,000, plus homeowners’ association fees of up to $400 a month.
The most powerful appeal of co-housing for her is that it combats potential isolation with a built-in community of neighbors.
“In my working life, I’ve had a community of colleagues,” said Elliott. “Once you retire and leave work, there may be a few connections, but for the most part, it fades away.”
Future resident Butch Thresh, 73, is a retired teacher who lives on 15 acres outside Nevada City. He and his wife, Virginia, 72, like the idea of downsizing and the concept of building a neighborhood that operates by consensus.
“Everybody has an equal say,” he said. “We’re all members of the board.”
For the residents of Davis’ Glacier Circle, the community came first. Most have been members of the local Unitarian church for 50 years. They raised their kids together. And they wanted to figure out a way to take care of one another as they aged.
“We weren’t thinking about housing at first,” said retired UC Davis physics professor John Jungerman, 89, “but it evolved. We’re old friends. It’s a big bond.”
They pooled their funds – the one-acre site cost $3.2 million to develop – and they painstakingly made group decisions on everything from the color of trim to how to deal with the next generation of owners.
(Simple: Their adult children will inherit their property and can, of course, sell it. But current residents have legal right of first refusal over potential new homeowners.)
Over the years, the group has dealt with the ordinary tragedies of age. Two members died. Another resident, who needed ongoing care, ended up in a nearby facility. Yet another has become disabled but is able to remain at Glacier Circle in part through other residents’ help.
“My husband’s brother thought we were losing our minds,” said Northup-Dawson. “Why would you want to live with other people?”
For Glacier Circle, the answer is easy: They’re not just co-housing. They’re family.