You Take Care of Mom, But Who Will Take Care of You?

Family caregivers provide the majority of long-term services and supports; however, the supply of family caregivers is not likely to keep the pace with the future demand.

Why is this relevant? According to an AARP study, in 2010 the caregiver support ratio was more than seven possible caregivers for every person over the age of 80—the age when risk of injury and need for additional support is greatest. By the year 2030, this ratio is projected to decline sharply to four possible caregivers for every 80-year-old, and the ratio expected to fall to less than three to one by 2050.

As more individuals have fewer or no children, cohousing may offer a good alternative to assisted living or continuing care facilities. Older adults may want to take a more active role in their living situation and may want to engage in conversations and actions of communal coping. Furthermore, as children move farther and farther from their hometowns, the reality is that parents coming to live with their adult children may result in displacement from their communities and the social networks they have been built over their lifetime. Cohousing inherently offers the benefit of mutual support without displacement at those critical periods of eldership.

Cohousing is an intentional neighborhood where neighbors know and care about each other. While there is a focus on community, there is also a deep respect for individual privacy. The homes are fully equipped and self-contained, but there are significant common areas. There are many opportunities for social interaction, including shared meals. Group activities vary amongst individual communities because they are resident led.

Cohousing started in Demark in the late 1960s as two-income families struggled to find a way to satisfy domestic requirements and still find quality time for family and socializing. There are more than 120 built intergenerational communities in the U.S.; however, only five senior communities have been built to date. In Denmark, there are several hundred cohousing communities, including many senior-only communities.

Intergenerational communities offer many benefits for people of all ages:

  • Purpose. Everyone, regardless of age or income-producing capacity, has a job within the community that is appropriate for their capability and provides an essential function to the community.
  • Belonging. Due to proximity and frequency of interactions, residents have a depth of relationship with each other that reinforces strong community cohesion. Residents know personal preferences and daily patterns to notice when their neighbors are missing or behaving out of character—ideal for raising awareness for memory or medical issues.
  • Engagement. Children are engaged with adults because they have relationships with grown-ups who are not just family members. They are able to engage in meaningful conversations and serve as buddies with seniors, checking in with them on a daily basis without making the elder feel supervised.
  • Self-awareness. Group process is very important in cohousing communities, providing a structure for discussion as well as conflict resolution. Often, communities will engage in training as a group to ensure that every resident has skills to navigate the daily interactions and periodic disputes that may arise. As such, both adults and children in cohousing are generally self-aware of their communications and how they may impact others.
  • Civic engagement. Those residing in cohousing are very intentional, not only in where they choose to live, but how they may participate in their community at large. Cohousing residents tend to be very involved in civic activities, often called upon to organize community wide initiatives.

Cohousing makes it easier to develop new skills, share resources and tools, find mentors, and simply complete a chore or task. Aside from these very practical and important daily necessities, cohousing also makes it possible to effortlessly share a glass of wine, make cookies, celebrate life events or spontaneously share a meal—all of which increase the quality of life. This also helps to build the social capital necessary to develop trust and willingness to call upon each other and help each other during times of crisis or need.

Cohousing residents report feeling more connected, interdependently and independently. They feel valued for their contributions and appreciative for their living situation and the community network that supports them.

AARP has looked at cohousing as a housing alternative that minimizes loneliness and isolation—two key factors that can result in the decline of the quality of life. Cohousing also results in minimization of waste, and reduction in domestic chores like cooking, cleaning and building upkeep—activities that become more challenging for seniors over time.

For more information, visit the Cohousing Association of the United States website (www.cohousing.org) or contact local cohousing groups like Capitol Hill Urban Co-Housing, Clearwater Commons, Duwamish Cohousing, Jackson Place Cohousing, New Earth Song Cohousing, Puget Ridge Cohousing, and Vashon Cohousing.

Contributor Grace H. Kim, AIA—founding principal of Schemata Workshop—has practiced architecture in Chicago and Seattle for more than 20 years. Grace serves on the Seattle Planning Commission. She is frequently asked to present at national conferences on the topics of mentorship, cohousing, and alternative housing models for seniors and those with disabilities.