Cohousing may be the solution to a lonelier grey generation

The problem of increased living prices and older residents in need of company can be solved by shared housing schemes, and such programmes are seeing a resurgence in popularity

Saturday 05 October 2019 12:56
Golden years: various grassroots alternatives are helping a greying population confront the limited options for old age
Golden years: various grassroots alternatives are helping a greying population confront the limited options for old age

After her husband died, Freda Schaeffer was left on her own in a three-bedroom house in Brooklyn. “I was lonely,” she confesses. And she worried about finances, because “there’s a lot of expenses in a house”. Tom Logan, who had moved east from California, found that his disability payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs didn’t stretch very far in New York City. “I needed a place to stay, or I could be homeless,” he says.

Enter the matchmaker, a home-sharing programme operated by the New York Foundation for Senior Citizens. It pairs people who have extra living space – but who want company, help with chores, extra income or all three – with those desperate for affordable housing. Over nine years, the programme has found several carefully screened guests, as they’re called, for the spare bedroom on Schaeffer’s second floor. Logan, who moved in a year ago, has become one of her favourites.

Together, they watch the evening news and Columbo reruns in her living room, says Schaeffer, 89. “We discuss what’s going on in the world. And he loves animals.” Indeed, Logan, 63, is studying to become a veterinary assistant and helps feed the feral cat they’ve adopted. “Freda and I are family now,” Logan says. “We need each other.”

As a greying population confronts the limited options for housing in old age, various grassroots alternatives are gaining footholds. Shared housing, cohousing and village organisations appeal to those hoping to avoid the high costs and institutional nature of assisted-living and nursing homes, or at least stave them off for as long as possible.

Though these approaches date back years, “We are seeing a resurgence of people wanting different models of housing,” says Kirby Dunn, executive director of HomeShare Vermont.

Shared housing matches people who have unused space with people who need housing. Typically, at least one party is aged 60 or older. Sometimes the arrangement involves simply rent and companionship, but sharers can also agree on lower rent in exchange for grocery shopping, dog walking, driving or other services.

About 100 such programmes once operated around the country, Dunn says, but they proved difficult to sustain. A few years ago, the number had sunk to around 35; now it has rebounded to 50, with established groups like Dunn’s getting enquiries from people hoping to start new ones.

We are seeing a resurgence of people wanting different models of housing

Kirby Dunn, Homeshare Vermont 

Though home-share agencies run an array of background checks and work to ensure compatibility, the prospect of a stranger moving in can still provoke uneasiness.

Unsurprisingly, home-share programmes attract many more would-be tenants than householders willing to open their homes. HomeShare Vermont has just 60 matches going at a given time. Tenants on the site paid an average of $300 a month last year – one-bedroom apartments in the Vermont city of Burlington typically go for $1,500 (£1,200) – and surveys show that more than 80 per cent of participants report feeling happier, safer and less alone.

Cohousing functions differently: a like-minded community forms, then looks into acquiring land and building a housing complex (or occasionally, converting a building) where members can live together. Residents share a smallish house for communal meals, classes and meetings, plus gardens and outdoor walkways designed to encourage socialising. “The joke is, in cohousing you go check your mail and you’re gone for half an hour,” says Karin Hoskin, executive director of the Cohousing Association of the United States.

Shared housing, cohousing and village organisations appeal to those hoping to avoid the high costs and institutional nature of assisted-living and nursing homes (Getty)

Most of the 170 self-governed cohousing communities that already exist (another 140 or so are in varying stages of formation) are multigenerational. But 15 have organised to serve older residents specifically, including communities in Virginia, Colorado, California, Oklahoma, Washington and West Virginia.

Alan O’Hashi, 66, a documentary filmmaker, and his partner moved into the architect-designed Silver Sage Village cohousing community in Boulder, Colorado, in 2008. Though he enjoyed living in the 16-unit development, which like most cohousing communities operates legally as a condominium, O’Hashi didn’t become a true believer until 2013, when pneumonia saw him have to go into hospital and then a rehabilitation facility. He came home in a wheelchair. “All of a sudden, people were bringing over food and calling to check on me,” he recalls. “It’s the secret sauce of cohousing, this notion of community, of shared values.”

It’s the secret sauce of cohousing, this notion of community, of shared values

Alan O’Hashi

The village movement, the newest and most vibrant innovation, comprises 280 organisations in towns, cities, neighbourhoods and even apartment complexes, and is growing by 20 per cent a year, says Barbara Hughes Sullivan, national director of the Village to Village Network. Members must pay annual dues, $250 to $450 on average, and villages hire a coordinator to oversee services. Topping the list is transportation, via volunteer drivers, taxis or ride-hailing services.

Villages also arrange social gatherings and cultural outings. They vet handyman services and home care agencies, sometimes negotiating for discounts.

Judy Rosen, 94, lives in the 10-year-old village Mount Vernon at Home, which has 180 members, in Alexandria, Virginia. She has always enjoyed its lunches, lectures and museum trips. But she recently stopped driving, so she now also relies on its volunteers for rides to the supermarket and doctors’ offices. “You know that if you need something, you have a place to turn,” she says.

None of these new approaches can solve the crisis in affordable supportive housing for older adults. For one thing, these new options are too small. The New York Foundation for Senior Citizens has run a home-share programme for nearly 40 years, but last year matched just 49 hosts and guests. It is using more than $2m in new city grants to expand its reach, but “it’s slow going”, the director Linda Hoffman says.

They also require considerable volunteer effort. Organising a village takes about two years, Sullivan says; for cohousing, it is three to seven years. And despite attempts to keep costs reasonable, these alternatives can get expensive. Village memberships can climb towards $1,000 in some locations, with discounts for lower-income residents.

Finally, cohousing or village neighbours can offer lifts or bring meals, but they can’t help a frail older person take a shower. At some point, residents in declining health will need home care or a long-term facility. Freda Schaeffer, for instance, relies on carers daily.

Still, if more groups try out these programmes, and if government and non-profits provide support, older adults could remain in their communities longer, with stronger social connections.

Maybe, proponents say, a building or neighbourhood that’s already home to many older residents could become a reverse-engineered cohousing community. Maybe Medicare Advantage plans that offer gym memberships could also cover village dues. In villages, “you’re still able to be active and part of the community”, says Sullivan of Village to Village Network. “And you have a sense of a caring group of people beyond your family. It’s very cool.”

© New York Times

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