For the next 18 years, one American will turn 60 years old every seven seconds.
Profound change is coming. Members of the Baby Boom generation have transformed every stage of life they have passed through, impacting everything from disposable diapers to health awareness. This will be true as well for how Boomers choose to live in their later years—the second half of life. The current options available to seniors, from aging-in-place, to age-restricted communities, to continuing care retirement communities (CCRC), may be acceptable to many Boomers. But these traditional options will not satisfy the desires held by many others for independence, control of their environment, and authentic community. New models will be created.
Aging in Place?
Most Americans say they would prefer to “age in place;” to continue to live in their own home utilizing professional support services when necessary. Often, however, finances, advanced medical problems, or the difficulty of maintaining a single family home make this option untenable. All too often, seniors wait too long to make appropriate living choices and become prisoners of their declining circumstances in a home they can no longer manage. They are forced to move to an institutional environment, living among strangers while their lives are controlled by well-meaning professionals. They have waited too long to make a move and at this point it is difficult to create new relationships. They have no real community.
Many 50-somethings have seen just this scenario take place with their own parents, and have resolved to find a better way to age. They want real community and they don’t resonate with the traditional, gated, 55+ communities surrounding a golf course. This segment of the population, referred to as "cultural creatives" by researcher and author Paul Ray in The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People are Changing the World, envisions living in an affordable, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood with like-minded people. Now their visions are starting to become reality as seniors begin to explore alternatives for living in the second half of life.
Communes for Seniors
As the “Age Wave” approaches, new alternatives for independent living are providing seniors with more and more options. Intentional communities for philosophical, religious, and lifestyle groups; SOTEL (service-oriented technically enhanced living—like an upscale Embassy Suites); ecovillages; senior cohousing; and the new lifestyle communities being developed by Canyon Ranch are adding great variety to the choices available.
One of these alternatives, senior cohousing, was recently described in Newsweek: “Seniors are signing up for semi-communal enclaves, with separate homes but a supportive community…. The idea is to bring back a time when neighbors were an integral part of one another’s lives, sharing meals, recreation and providing a helping hand.”
In this innovative model, separate one-, two-, and three-bedroom living units surround a common house that includes kitchen, dining room, gathering space, and room for activities. Guest rooms that double as future caregiver suites for at home healthcare providers can be included in the common house. Homes feature universal design options including single-story homes, wheelchair-accessible counters, and many more options geared to the needs of elders. The typical size of a cohousing community is 25 to 35 individual homes.
In preconstruction meetings, prospective residents in senior cohousing communities make practical, co-caring agreements as to how much they can assist one another as they age in community. As time passes and some residents need to move to assisted living or a Green House—a new concept in nursing care created by Dr. Bill Thomas—because their needs are greater than the community can handle, other residents commit to regular visits and other assistance, thus keeping these community members connected to the larger community.
Studies have shown that “people thrive in a community that interacts and cares [and where] there are… 30 to 50 people nearby if a person becomes ill,” says Chuck Durrett in Senior Cohousing. “These people are the 30 or so residents of the cohousing community plus the family, friends, medical organizations, nursing establishment, and so on. In other words… a small town of people—who live right next door.”
Cohousing itself, which began in Denmark in the 1970s, was introduced to this country by architects Chuck Durrett and Kathryn McCamant. Since their book Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves was self-published in 1988, over ninety multi-generational communities have been built throughout the country. Senior cohousing is a recent adaptation of previous cohousing communities with only two communities completed at this point: ElderSpirit in Abingdon, Virginia, and Glacier Circle in Davis, California. Several others are in various stages of development.
Key elements of cohousing include:
Group-Driven vs. Developer-Driven Projects
The development of cohousing communities has typically been driven by a dedicated group of individuals, the resident or core group, who share a desire to create a resident-controlled community. The majority of the cohousing communities completed to date fall into some variation of this group-driven model. Books are available to guide the core group through the process of choosing a site, finding an architect, buying land, designing homes and facilities, legal issues, construction, and marketing. While the group-driven model has been sped up in recent years, it is not unusual for this process to take five years and more.
In the developer-driven model, the developer provides the land as well as the architectural and construction expertise; thus, the whole process is greatly accelerated. It can be completed as fast as two to three years. The developer basically controls the design process and timing for the home construction, with considerable input from the cohousing group.
The core group gives control to the developer but is free to concentrate more on its mission, values, and other vital operating agreements. This is a worthwhile tradeoff given the complex and often divisive process of buying land and hiring capable professionals. The group gives up some control but gets a faster process with less risk and more sanity.
Incorporating Senior Cohousing into Urban Communities
Just beginning to emerge is the idea of building a senior cohousing community within a larger, urban or new urbanist community. When combined with the developer-driven model, this becomes the best of both worlds.
This model provides seniors access to amenities and services that come with the larger community (walking paths, pools, tennis, and fitness centers plus coffee shops and convenience stores). For the developer, it offers the low risk of a built-in market backed by the knowledge that, if necessary, the planned units can be sold through traditional real estate markets.
In Asheville, North Carolina, we are developing just such a community: Corazón of Altura. Altura is a 200-acre resort community located six minutes north of downtown Asheville. Already under construction, Altura will include luxury homes, condos, hotel and spa, fitness center, town center with restaurants and shops, a 40-acre nature preserve, and ambitious green building standards. Located between the town center and the nature preserve will be a 47-unit senior cohousing community called Corazón, meaning the heart. Corazón will be senior-focused but not age-restricted.
These 47 units will be divided between a three-story condo building and individual patio homes, the majority with stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The common house will be located in the condo building, taking advantage of the views from the third floor. All the amenities of Altura will be available to the Corazón community, including the serenity of the nature preserve and easy access to downtown Asheville.
From the first meeting with the developer to the completion of construction, the entire cohousing development process should take only two to three years. A solid core group has been meeting regularly since the beginning.
The Corazón model can be repeated in master-planned and urban developments if developers recognize the potential. Alternatively, groups interested in creating such a community can take three actions to initiate the project:
Even if the developer does not want to commit to a conventional cohousing model with input from a core group, a senior community designed along the lines of cohousing can still be included in the larger community. While the resulting community from this “build it and they will come” model may not be as cohesive as traditional cohousing, it will be better than no senior community at all.
The idea of aging in community honors the elder stage of life as one with gifts and challenges. It encourages creation of caring neighborhoods and networks that provide for affordable, quality housing to support future needs and new opportunities for seniors to realize their full potential. In the words of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, it provides the opportunity to go from “age-ing to sage-ing”.
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