Seniors at home in co-housing

Annie Russell lives alone but not in solitude.

While she was laid up for almost nine months by an injured knee, neighbors checked in on her regularly. They brought her ice packs, fetched water and did her grocery shopping.

Twice a week year-round, everyone in Russell's community is assured dinner with friends in the large common house of Silver Sage Village in Boulder, Colo. It's a potluck of sorts. Residents can cook the meal together in a communal gourmet kitchen.

"If somebody just wants a place to live and doesn't want to commune with their neighbors, this is not for them," says Russell, 68.

Projects such as Silver Sage are called co-housing. European-inspired housing built around a common area and a social compact that all residents agree to, co-housing has existed on a small scale in the USA for years. Now, the concept is coming to senior housing, a trend supported by advocates who favor independent living for the old.

The oldest of 79 million Baby Boomers turn 63 this year, and they are "not interested in what their parents had in terms of assisted care, wasting away in a private house or nursing home," says California architect Charles Durrett, author of The Senior Cohousing Handbook.

Pioneered in Denmark

There are only three senior co-housing developments in the USA — compared with 250 built since 1985 in Denmark, a country that has fewer people than the Atlanta metropolitan area.

The first U.S. project opened in Davis, Calif., in 2004. At another in Abingdon, Va., members of The ElderSpirit Community at Trailview believe that spiritual growth is vital in the later stages of life. They vow to help each other and adopt a simple lifestyle. "We better come up with new ideas on how to better accommodate ourselves," says Durrett, who has designed about 50 co-housing developments for all ages.

He hopes it will be soon. More than 20 people from as far as North Carolina attended a senior co-housing workshop he conducted in Boulder last month. A dozen bookstores have invited Durrett to book signings.

"It's very interesting niche housing," says Elinor Ginzler, senior vice president for livable communities at AARP. "It's absolutely an option that should be out there and available. We need as many different kinds of choices as the imagination can bring."

Independent living for the elderly reduces dependence on social services and is a primary goal of most organizations for the aged. "The Danes proved it," says Jim Leach, president of Wonderland Hill Development, the company behind Silver Sage, where he lives. "If you house people that way and let them age together, they not only live longer, they live healthier and cost a lot less."

'Like an extended family'

Think '60s communes meet retirement villages, a description possibly off-putting to some but appealing to others. The key: Residents help design their community and decide what they want it to be. "We do all the management ourselves for the community, and everybody is involved in some way," Leach says. "It becomes a little more like an extended family."

He has built co-housing projects for 20 years. Until recently, they have targeted mostly families.

"There was some resistance in the past to having an exclusive senior community," Leach says. They're gaining in popularity now because they allow residents to shape how they want to live when they're old. Homeowners can hire a caregiver who lives in the common house and tends to all the residents.

"You can come up with a lot of agreements from a social point of view," Durrett says. "What I'll do if you get sick. You can give each other permission to care for each other."

Residents at Silver Sage have their own units — 16 duplexes and attached homes on 1 acre. The homes are somewhat smaller to allow more space for the common house, guest rooms for visitors and gardens.

"Three plagues of aging are isolation, boredom and helplessness," says resident Arthur Okner, 66.

He has no fear of that at Silver Sage. When he had a health issue that took him to the emergency room, "immediately people were checking on me."

Okner says senior co-housing is an alternative to institutional care. "Graceful aging belongs to people who say to themselves: 'I'm going to age, I'm not going to stay the way I am now and I'm prepared for it,' " he says. "We keep each other out of the old-age nursing home as long as is humanly possible."

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