posters contact advertise cover archive subscribe

Common Ground | By Lauri Puchall

More than simply hanging up your hat, retiring to a cohousing community can mean connecting with peers, young families, and life.

go to Resources and Further Readings

When Louise Browning’s husband won a school board election in the town where they live near Mendocino, their entire household celebrated–all 12 of them. Then, when Louise Browning became seriously ill, her housemates took care of her during repeated cancer treatments.

For the past three years, Browning, 70, has understood more than anyone the benefits of living in a tight-knit community. She and her peers live together, sharing not only common living and dining spaces but also the ups and downs of life–all in a V-shaped cluster of buildings on 20 acres in Mendocino County, a cohousing community called Cheesecake.

When she wasn’t up to performing her usual chores, her partners "let me off the hook with love and compassion," Browning says. "I don’t have the words to express what that means to me."

Eight of Cheesecake’s members are retired seniors. Others in the group plan to eventually retire to Cheesecake’s bucolic scenery and live there year-round. For this dozen, living together as elders is a step toward a vital, connected life energized by one another’s companionship. Senior cohousing, experts say, supports an active participation in life. Retirement happens more gradually than in traditional arrangements, and the nearness of other people offers continued development and deepened interpersonal relationships. Ordinarily, once one exits the workforce, there are fewer such opportunities.

Shared living is nothing new. Before World War II, it was common for extended families to share small family compounds, with multiple houses on the same property. After the war, apartment buildings became urban cooperatives, some subsidized by the government and some financed privately.

Cohousing, too, is "cooperative" but the physical housing itself is unique. The classic footprint is a tight cluster of homes or units surrounding a common building that’s shared for dining and other activities. The model comes from Northern Europe, where inter-generational cohousing took off in the late 1970s. Today, seniors make up 20 to 40 percent of residents in 15 Bay Area cohousing communities. With a rapidly aging population here–the Bay Area is projected to become the oldest region in the state by 2040, with 41 seniors per 100 working-age adults–interest in mixed-age or seniors-only cohousing is sure to grow.

Seniors, who often become less mobile as they age, need social connections and engagement close by, asserts architect Charles Durrett. "What is going to facilitate seeing your friends more than proximity?" Durrett asks. "Nothing."

"No retirement condos for them! Twelve old friends chip in and buy a mansion," reads the dust jacket.

In the novel The Last Resort, members of The Purple Tongues wine-tasting group bump up against numerous obstacles while orchestrating their own retirement housing scenario–a creative scheme to bypass retirement homes and establish a senior-friendly household together. Zoning regulations and vehement opposition from grown children threaten their plans, but ultimately another senior with little money but a mansion to contribute to the project adopts the assorted dozen, so they may legally live under one roof as a "family." In the years to come, they plan to do whatever makes them happy–hire a cook, stroll along meandering garden paths, and listen to live concerts in the comfort of their own living room.

"Is this the wave of the future?" Tex asked. "Are all of us aging folks going to start shacking up together? . . . I feel like you are all onto something and it bothers me to death. Maybe I should rush out and start building places for folks like us to live together. There’s a gold mine in the idea, I can tell you that. Or maybe I should just ask you if you have any space for another couple of old folks."

Natasha and Emmett Eiland, Berkeley-based authors of The Last Resort and owners of Emmett Eiland’s Oriental Rug Company, are approaching age 65 themselves but have no immediate plans to retire in the style of their fictional characters. "It is so human not to want to give up one’s privacy," says Natasha. The couple is postponing long-term decisions for another ten years. "On the other hand, we should be investing in a place now," says Eiland.

The term "cohousing" was coined by architect Durrett and his wife Kathryn McCamant in a 1988 book of the same name. Durrett’s newest title, Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living, focuses on the history, group process, design, and benefits of cohousing communities for those 55 and over.

McCamant and Durrett’s Cohousing Company, originally located in Berkeley but now based out of Nevada City, California, has designed over 30 intergenerational cohousing communities. A few use buildings or space in urban centers, like Doyle Street Cohousing in Emeryville and Swan’s Market Cohousing in downtown Oakland. But most are based on a Danish model and resemble small villages with row houses surrounding a common house. They include, on average, 20 to 35 units, each with its own kitchen and full bath. The common house contains a kitchen, dining room, and other spaces for group meals and shared activities.

The Cohousing Company completed the multigenerational Pleasant Hill Cohousing in 2001. Founding member Sue Ferro, age 69, recalls that about 50 people showed up for their first meeting at the community church. "Whenever money had to be laid out, people dropped out," says Ferro.

When they set out to find property in 1997, little did they know they would be searching for 18 months. During that interval, group composition fluctuated and size waxed and waned, but they continued to meet every week. When the core group shrunk to seven, then to four, McCamant and Durrett organized a large outreach effort to attract more members. At one point there was a disproportionate number of single women approximately Ferro’s age. Shortly thereafter, several younger women with children joined in.

Pleasant Hill began as a three-way partnership between core members, the Cohousing Company, and Wonderland Development. The developer and architect assumed the risk by taking out the construction loan. After the complex was completed, households purchased individual units, essentially buying out the other two partners.

Typical of most cohousing arrangements, it is intergenerational, with 25 children under 15 and other residents ranging in age from their 30s to their early 70s. Ferro says she has had a connection with almost every baby in the community, and that this keeps her in touch with the young people. A potter, political activist, treasurer, head cook, and active participant in a support group, book club, and craft committee, Ferro likes to keep busy. "I take classes at Rossmoor," she says. "[But] it’s too quiet. I don’t want to live there. It feels so dead."

With 32 separate townhouses and condos, and a common building for meals and meetings, Pleasant Hill Cohousing is an established community with its share of expected challenges.

Residents manage the property themselves through committees. As with any large group, there are some members who don’t always meet their group obligations, such as attending mandatory meetings and performing the required three hours a month of physical work. The cohousing agreement, explains Ferro, lays out the requirements for members, but doesn’t specify consequences for not meeting them. In spite of the challenges, Ferro appreciates the built-in social life and the weekly potlucks. "There is a continuum that I like," she says.

Cohousing, unlike assisted living or nursing homes, lacks on-site health care. In that regard it ascribes to the view that aging is not an illness. So far, Pleasant Hill has yet to encounter a situation in which a resident requires long-term medical assistance to remain at home. Ferro and another neighbor check in on each other every day. Neighbors help each other adapt to changing life circumstances, like illness or the loss of a spouse. The mutual support is akin to how extended families operated in previous generations and still do in other cultures.

"My children are the ones who would decide what to do if I couldn’t stay here," says Ferro. "They have power of attorney. But there are people here who don’t have family nearby . . . . That will be an issue for the community we haven’t addressed."

Architect Durrett, who had a hand in developing the majority of cohousing communities in the country, insists that cohousing is an ideal option for "aging in place." He says a higher proportion–70 to 80 percent–of elderly cohousing residents, as opposed to those who remain isolated in houses, die at home.

An agreement to help each other, but not to nurse one another through long-term illness, is a common approach for cohousing groups. "Typically in the [senior] communities that get together in Sweden, Denmark, and Holland, they have an understanding, not a pledge," says Dorit Fromm of ELS Architecture and Urban Design in Berkeley, who has studied and written about collaborative communities in the United States and abroad. "There is a lot of informal helping and social caring. In the case of illnesses requiring long-term care, relatives or the state would come in and deal with that."

Some older people like living with families or single young adults, preferring the connection to working life and the outside world.

"Intergenerational cohousing offers to seniors the diversity of age ranges, opinions, and exposure to what’s going on in the world," says Ken Norwood, a retired urban planner, architect, founder of the Shared Living Resource Center, and co-author of Rebuilding Community in America. "Any kind of segregation and isolation of social groups is a no-no. Social groups are enriched by interaction."

Norwood, who studied early cohousing developments in Northern Europe in the late 1970s, says the model is the extended family compound, with common spaces, shared pathways, and tightly clustered buildings to save space for orchards and gardens. Living with many generations is how Norwood himself grew up, with cousins, aunts, siblings, and parents all in close proximity. "It is a very valuable social force," he says "and what I have been trying to build and support since."

Other seniors might prefer not to share their retirement with young children and working families. Architect Fromm says she has heard older cohousers express feeling done with child-rearing and ready for more peer contact.

"Some say ‘Enough is enough. I don’t want to sit at the table with children running around,’ " Fromm says. Also, because of the age range, with a small percent of seniors, many intergenerational communities are very empty during the day leaving the older people all by themselves. "And then, when they’re tired at the end of the day, life is just getting going for the younger people," adds Fromm.

Glacier Circle in Davis (with an anticipated completion date of January 2006), will be one of the first senior-only cohousing communities in the country. Eight units on almost an acre of land at the end of a cul-de-sac, the project will house 12 people.

Members pooled their resources, paid cash for the land, and then got a two-million-dollar construction loan. They formed a temporary corporation to hire the contractor. Once the units are complete, a lawyer will transfer them to private ownership and residents will then form a homeowner’s association as required by the state of California.

Partner Ellen Coppack and her husband plan to pass along the investment to their children when they are gone, something they probably could not do had they opted for traditional retirement housing. "The money you put in, you never get back," says Coppack, of the standard retirement model. Each unit at Glacier Circle has its own kitchen, but a separate common building houses a shared kitchen and dining room. Most of the cooks at Glacier Circle are ready to retire their aprons, so they plan to hire help in the communal kitchen.

Coppack’s only regret is that she did not form Glacier Circle earlier. "One reason we had trouble filling our ranks at the end was that our younger friends felt like they would be taking care of us," says Coppack, who is 79. Her immediate neighbors range in age from 75 to 84.

No matter the age, the bonds between cohousers can grow strong over time. Sharing some of the daily routines of life, as well as the responsibilities of home ownership, can create a kind of extended family relationship. Members of the Cheesecake cohousing partnership have traveled to Australia together, to the Galapagos Islands, and, earlier this year, to New York City. Their network of friends and relatives often travel with them or come to Cheesecake for extended visits or holiday celebrations.

Frank Sclafani, 51, is a therapist who lives in San Francisco. He and his partner are already committed members of Cheesecake and plan to retire there. They entered into a general partnership agreement eight years ago when the construction of the facility was just completed. Until he retires, Sclafani uses his room there as a weekend retreat and commutes at least five times a year for meetings.

Participation in Cheesecake "has influenced all our lives. People grow from the experience," he says. "That is the richness of it." As a therapist, Sclafani believes that shared living is emotionally healthy and hopes that the Cheesecake model for retirement gets passed along.

There are seven bedrooms at Cheesecake’s semi-rural site (which was named for former owners of the land, the Casada family. "Casada" is Italian for cheese pie). One bedroom has a complete bathroom, some have their own half-baths, and the rest share communal bathrooms. Residents made sure that the buildings facilitate bringing people together, and in fact they share a kitchen, sewing room, laundry, library, workshop, and gardens. Fernau and Hartman Architects of Berkeley designed flexible spaces for different activities: Covered outdoor areas accommodate weddings or double as overflow sleeping porches–complete with hooks for hammocks. During holidays and summer vacations, when grandchildren pour in, there is even space for Camp Cheesecake and Big Cheese (for older kids), annual summer programs for the grandkids and their friends.

In order to protect the group’s cohesion, Cheesecake is organized as a general partnership. When a resident dies or wants to leave, he cannot sell or pass his interest in the partnership on to anyone. Cheesecake pays the deceased or leaving partner, or his estate, for his interest in the partnership and then controls who, if anyone, replaces that partner. This is an unusual arrangement for a cohousing community, and required the creation of a unique set of legal documents.

It’s a big commitment. And members tend to be just as involved in the Mendocino area where they live, as they are in Cheesecake itself. When she is able, resident Louise Browning attends a quilting circle designed to teach Spanish-speaking women English and has photographed the group to document its regular gathering. Another member created a community art show that raised thousands of dollars for the local schools. Another, a therapist, provided training to help members of the volunteer fire department cope with trauma on the job. During evening meals, all of these experiences add to the conversation. Sharing with each other "energizes you for your work," says Browning.

By the time Sclafani joins the ranks as a retired baby boomer he expects more friends and acquaintances will have moved to the area. Some have already bought property nearby. Other friends of his are in what he calls the "dating phase," checking out locations, and assessing whether or not they could imagine forming their own intentional community.

Many cohousing groups are formed from established relationships. The initial core at Cheesecake consisted of five women who can trace their 45-year-old friendships back to Southern California, where they had organized a preschool cooperative for their now-grown children. More often, contacts are made through religious organizations. Members of the local Methodist church founded Temescal Commons Cohousing, also in Oakland. Glacier Circle in Davis had its roots in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Davis.

Joani Blank, 68, lives in one of the 20 units in Swan’s Market Cohousing in downtown Oakland. Swan’s is a mixed residential/commercial development that includes affordable housing. Of 29 residents, there are four seniors and one young child. Opened five years ago, Swan’s members eat together three days a week (typical of cohousing communities) and take turns cooking.

Blank is a full-time volunteer for the Cohousing Association of the United States, giving tours of local sites, networking, and providing information.

Some cohousing groups, Blank says, have a screening procedure before accepting a new partner, but the vast majority do not. "Your interest and enthusiasm for being part of the community is what gets you in to a group," she says. Some do require potential members to pre-qualify for a mortgage before they will be accepted, she adds.

During development, groups often struggle to fill their facilities, or to strike a balance of ages. "It depends on how they start out," Blank says. A group started by older adults may struggle to attract young families, or vice versa. The entire process–from forming the group to moving in–can take anywhere from three to more than six years.

The biggest challenge for groups trying to form their own cohousing community, Blank says, is finding a place to build. Lack of available land is particularly acute in the East Bay. With the skyrocketing cost of land, finding large parcels to develop into multi-unit housing gets harder every year. Even in 1990, when Doyle Street Cohousing in Emeryville began construction, the cost of that .29 acre lot was one million. In the same year, outside of Boulder, Colorado, 42 units of cohousing was built on 43 acres. The cost of that land? One million.

But the hurdles seem worth the hassle, say cohousers. For those interested in participating in a cohousing community, living with others can be a huge plus. "Cohousing," says Cheesecake resident Louise Browning, "is good for anyone who is interested in it, no matter how old they are."


Fellowship for Intentional Communities |
Cohousing Association of the United States | Joani Blank, information and tours |
Shared Living Resource Center | Ken Norwood | (510) 548-6608
Pleasant Hill Cohousing |
Cohousing Company | Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, architects |

Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, 2nd edition, by Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant (Ten Speed Press, 1994)
Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living, by Charles Durrett (Ten Speed Press, 2005)
Collaborative Communities: Cohousing, Central Living, and Other Forms of Housing with Shared Facilities, by Dorit Fromm (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990)
The Last Resort, by Natasha and Emmett Eiland (Berkeley Hills Books, 2005)
Rebuilding Community in America: Housing for Ecological Living, Personal Empowerment, and the New Extended Family
, by Ken Norwood and Kathleen Smith (Shared Living Resource Center, 1995)


Lauri Puchall writes about architecture and the environment. She lives in Berkeley.