For active seniors, cohousing is a cozier alternative to downsizing

The 5-mile hikes, yoga classes and communal dinners are now routines for the residents at PDX Commons Cohousing in Portland, Ore.

These 39 individuals (about half partnered but largely strangers at first) started forging relationships well before they moved in late this summer to join a trend called cohousing.

“Here, you walk in and know every one of the people and you know them well,” said Steve Fisher, 63, a retired transportation planner who leads the weekly hikes. He and his wife moved from San Jose, Calif., to PDX Commons. “You greet them. They’re your friends. You do stuff with them. It’s the opposite of the isolation you sometimes get in the urban areas.”

It’s not a commune and there’s no sharing of income, though decision-making is by consensus. Cohousing bolsters sharing — a lawnmower, tools or an on-site laundromat, as well as guest quarters for out-of-town visitors. Homes are private, clustered near a common space where homeowners meet regularly to share meals and build community.

Of the nation’s 168 cohousing communities, almost all are intergenerational. But now, as increasing numbers of aging adults eschew the idea of institutional living, cohousing has become an attractive option.

In 2010, no U.S. cohousing communities were geared toward seniors. PDX Commons is now the nation’s 13th such community for the 55-and-older demographic. Two more are under construction and 13 others are in the early stages.

“Interest in cohousing has not only increased in general, but especially in the senior world,” said Karin Hoskin, executive director of Coho/US, the Cohousing Association of the United States, a nonprofit that supports cohousing communities nationwide.

While groups of friends may discuss growing old together on common ground, in most cohousing communities, the residents start as strangers who plan to help each other for the rest of their lives. Fisher said part of the home-buying process includes months of getting-to-know-you activities that precede the purchase.

“We are people who have the ability to live independently who intended to come together to form a community,” Fisher said of the group that ranges in age from 57 to 80. “We made it really clear: We’re not a care facility.”

Trudy Hussman, 68, bought into PDX Commons in June 2016 after retiring two years ago.

“I had been living alone for a long time and was feeling fairly isolated since I retired. I was used to it but not happy with it,” she said. “I started thinking that living in a community with other similar people would be an antidote.”

Clinical psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, of Chicago, agrees. Social support is critical to health and well-being, with countless studies showing those with social ties live longer, are physically healthier and happier and have less stress, she said.

“From a psychological and physical health perspective, it’s a pretty cool idea,” Lombardo said of cohousing. “It depends upon how open-minded and like-minded people are.”

Sidney Ewing, 82, and his wife of 54 years, Margaret Ewing, 77, had second thoughts about moving to the cohousing Oakcreek Community in Stillwater, Okla. The couple, both retired professors from Oklahoma State University, were among the group’s founders but dropped out.

“We decided the social load might be too heavy for us,” he said. “We are much more introverts.”

Two events changed their thinking. A neighbor fell down the stairs at home and was on the floor eight hours before being found. And, they got a notice from Oakcreek of an approaching deadline. They rejoined in time to get in on the planning and moved in five years ago when the community opened.

Cohousing came to the U.S. after architects Charles Durrett, 62, and his wife, Kathryn McCamant, 57, learned about the concept in Denmark. The Nevada City, Calif., couple became advocates and have designed more than 55 such projects in the USA and consulted on others. Cohousing fulfills a variety of needs, from saving money through sharing to having ready companions. Cohousing developments include private homes (typically 20-40 such homes, with square footage reflecting a downsized lifestyle) clustered around shared space designed to promote frequent interaction. The legal entity is usually a condo or homeowners association with monthly fees, generally between $100-$350, Durrett said.

“Structurally, they’re infinitely different,” he said. “It needs to be designed from scratch for each group.”

At some senior projects, one of the guest rooms in the common house was designed for future caregivers to assist homeowners; however, the cohousing communities say they haven’t been used that way because anyone who might have needed such help hired someone privately. Cohousing communities don’t aim to be continuing-care or nursing facilities, homeowners say.

“None of us moved in here with the idea of bathing or dressing our neighbors,” said Pat Darlington, 66, of Oakcreek. “There are certain things we’re committed to doing and certain things we’re not.”

The nation’s first senior cohousing community opened in December 2005 with eight homes and a dozen individfuals at Glacier Circle in Davis, Calif., about 15 miles from Sacramento. Seven of the initial group remain.

“We’re declining and holding on and trying to be good to each other,” said Stan Dawson, 86, president of its homeowners association. “There’s no sense that anyone wants to move out to a nursing home yet, unless they absolutely have to.”

Dawson said the community connected as members of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Davis but didn’t really know each other.

“As time has gone on, we’re more of a family,” he said.

Their thrice-weekly communal dinner has expanded to Monday-Friday most weeks. From the beginning, they hired a cook, but now that the members are aging, Dawson said they’re also hiring out other needs.

Among the newer senior projects is Village Hearth Cohousing in Durham, N.C., where construction is to begin in April and move-in is scheduled for the summer of 2019. It’s an “LGBT and allies” community for age 55-plus, said Pat McAulay, 62.

“My wife and I actually started the group in 2015,” she said, based upon “dozens of beach trips with our friends — a bunch of women together in a house. We said ‘Let’s do this when we retire.’ ”

But none of those friends bought in, so they started looking for prospects in April 2015 and bought 15 acres in August of that year. So far, 11 households are sold.

Alan O’Hashi, 64, who moved to senior cohousing at Silver Sage Village in Boulder, Colo., in 2010, offers newbies some advice.

“The best thing about cohousing are neighbors and the worst thing about cohousing are the neighbors,” he said. “You get to know people in ways you wouldn’t. You’re putting up with everyone’s positives and negatives and striking a balance between being in community and being an individual.”

Lew Bowers, 65, said PDX Commons is learning that. “In consensus,” he said, “you have to think about what’s good for the group.”


(Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.)

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Living

Amanda Diore, 32, of Alpharetta lost 113 pounds
Amanda Diore, 32, of Alpharetta lost 113 pounds

Former weight: 290 pounds Current weight: 177 pounds Pounds lost: 113 pounds Height: 5 feet 5 inches Age: 32 years How long she’s kept it off: She started in 2012 and reached her current weight in December. Personal life: “I am a single mom with four girls. I live in Alpharetta,” Diore said. “I have worked at the Karate...
TV best bets with ‘Black Lightning,’ ‘Scandal,’ Catherina Zeta-Jones
TV best bets with ‘Black Lightning,’ ‘Scandal,’ Catherina Zeta-Jones

Catherine Zeta-Jones is in a new Lifetime movie about a female druglord called “Cocaine Godmother.” Posted MONDAY, January 15, 2018 by RODNEY HO/ on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog Catherine Zeta-Jones stars in a new Lifetime movie this Saturday about a Columbian drug lord Griselda Blanco. A bunch of other shows return from...
Senior resource network is a funding priority for GA aging advocates
Senior resource network is a funding priority for GA aging advocates

Back in September, when the remains of Hurricane Irma blew through Middle Georgia, residents of a senior apartment complex in Macon found themselves in a dire situation. The complex was without power, and there was no way to cook a hot meal or get a warm shower. And because the elevators didn’t work, some residents with disabilities were trapped...
UK party leader's girlfriend suspended over Meghan Markle comments
UK party leader's girlfriend suspended over Meghan Markle comments

The girlfriend of the leader of Britain’s right-wing U.K. Independence Party has been suspended from the party after reportedly making racist comments about Prince Harry’s American fiancee, Meghan Markle. The Mail on Sunday published a series of messages reportedly sent by 54-year-old Henry Bolton’s 25-year-old girlfriend...
Dennis Rodman arrested on DUI charge
Dennis Rodman arrested on DUI charge

Dennis Rodman reportedly has been arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. Entertainment site TMZ broke the news that Rodman was pulled over for a traffic violation late Saturday and ended up being arrested on a DUI charge. The Associated Press, CNN and other news outlets later confirmed the arrest. >> Read...
More Stories