Cat Johnson, Sharable - For seniors who want to age in a supportive community environment, cohousing is an exciting alternative to traditional options such as retirement homes and assisted living centers. In senior cohousing spaces, rather than relying on administrators, people rely on each other to lend a hand when needed and provide much-needed social engagement.
We recently connected with Anne P. Glass, professor and gerontology program coordinator at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, about the current state of senior cohousing. Glass, who has researched the topic of senior cohousing for the past decade, shared her thoughts about why the senior cohousing model is so appealing, what senior social networks look like in practice, and why we need to get rid of ageist stereotypes.
Cat Johnson: When I wrote about senior cohousing for Shareable in 2011, there were around 120 cohousing communities total in the U.S. What has happened since then, especially in regards to senior cohousing?
Anne P. Glass: One of the first senior, or elder cohousing, was in the late part of 2005. In 2006, the elder cohousing movement officially began. There are still only a dozen or so in the U.S., but there are at least a dozen more in the planning or development stages.
It was already much further developed in countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, although they might call it different things — like in Sweden they call it collaborative housing, and it might be an apartment building, for example. It looks a little bit different, but it’s still the same idea. It’s still the idea of older people developing a sense of community, running the place themselves, and having the interest in connecting with each other.
In addition to providing a social network, cohousing is a way for seniors to take care of each other, which is an area of particular interest to you. How do you see this working out in cohousing communities?
There are some big differences if you move into an elder cohousing community, for example, versus living in the suburbs or living in an apartment by yourself. Even in the suburbs, oftentimes people drive into the garage, shut the door, and they don’t even know their next door neighbors — they don’t even know their names.
If you move into a cohousing community, you would know all your neighbors — an average of 25-30 people — you would pretty much know everybody within 24-48 hours, so that’s already a big difference.
There’s a lot of security in being part of a community like that because you know people are looking out for you. People are not all going to love each other equally, but there is something going on where people are looking out for each other. That’s wonderful because more people are living alone and the term “elder orphan” is being used more and more. This kind of housing situation could work really well for people who are lonely and isolated, as well as for couples and friends.