Cohousing Comes of Age

Article excerpt

As the 21 st century approached, freespirited former nun Dene Peterson was thinking about retirement, but her preparation was not going well: She could not find retirement housing that she considered a viable option. Taking matters into her own hands, she decided to design a place that she could look forward to living in. Along with three other former members of the Glenmary Sisters, Petersen developed a retirement community dedicated to communal living and exploration of the human spirit. "These were the best parts of convent life," Petersen told an Associated Press reporter in 2004.

The group named their project The ElderSpirit Community, with its design based on the cohousing model. After five years of hard work, the community will open summer 2005 on a 3.7-acre site along the Creeper Trail in Abingdon, Va. The launching will mark two firsts: The community will be the first cohousing program in the United States developed exclusively for elders, and it will be the first residential community that has late-life spirituality as its primary goal.

Facing the same issues as Dene Peterson, Jim Leach and his wife, Brownie, decided to develop and move into Silver Sage Cohousing, which opened August 2005 in Boulder, Colo. Silver Sage is the third elder cohousing project in the United States and the first in Colorado. Leach, president of Wonderland Hill Development Company, is an engineer with more than 30 years of experience in the design, construction and development of sustainable housing. He has developed more than 15 cohousing communities in the past dozen years and is regarded in the cohousing field as a national leader in creating environmentally friendly, mixed-income housing combining quality design within communal neighborhoods. "We have seen firsthand the advantages of community living and how much more fulfilling it is to be connected with your neighbors, especially for people in their 60s."


Petersen and Leach are pioneers in a new housing concept whose time has come: elder cohousing. This innovative type of housing is based on the established cohousing model, which aims to offer residents an old-fashioned sense of neighborhood. In cohousing, residents can get to know their neighbors, building a strong sense of community that is usually absent in today's cities and suburbs. Cohousing communities are designed and managed by their residents. They provide homeowners with the autonomy and the privacy of home ownership combined with the advantages of community living.

A typical cohousing community has 20 to 30 single-family homes along a pedestrian street or clustered around a courtyard. Virtually all cohousing communities have a shared common house that is the hub of activity. Residents can gather there for group meals, social activities and meetings. Often, residents of these communities have several optional group meals in the common house each week.

A workshop is another common facility. Chuck Durett, coauthor of Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves (Berkeley, Calif: Ten Speed Press, 1993) said, "Instead of 35 houses and 35 power drills you have 35 houses and one power drill." The co-founder of the CoHousing Company, Durett added that cohousing developments may also have common barns and sheds, greenhouses, gardens, car-repair garages, athletic facilities, pools and other shared amenities. Like multigenerational cohousing, elder cohousing communities provide both privacy and community support to residents.

Cohousing began in Denmark in the late 19605, and spread to North America in the late 19805. The first cohousing communities were intergenerational. Age-targeted cohousing began about 20 years later. Now, older people in Denmark live in more than 200 Danish elder cohousing communities, and about one-third of all cohousing in Denmark is for older adults. In contrast, elder cohousing in the United States is in the infancy stages.


Senior cohousing is an idea whose time has come because of its obvious appeal to aging boomers. …