If she could pick one word to describe her community, Willow, 74, says it would be “adventure.”
“Most people who move into our community do have a sense of adventure,” says Willow, who helped organize Sand River Cohousing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “We encourage each other to keep growing, to stay alive and vital, to stay engaged in life. It’s a big advantage over a more traditional elderhood where one is more isolated and not involved in community.”
Sand River is among 161 cohousing communities in the United States (with nearly 100 more being formed). Cohousing is perhaps the most ambitious of the many grassroots models being created to allow people to age in a close circle of friends and neighbors, as I explore in my book With a Little Help from Our Friends—Creating Community as We Grow Older.
Unlike many alternative models, cohousing is an intentional community, built from the ground up. Each household is separate, so that members maintain privacy and boundaries. At the same time, the architectural plan encourages neighborliness. A large common house accommodates frequent community dinners and other gatherings and often includes guest quarters, an art studio, library—whatever the community wants (and can afford). Most cohousing communities are legally operated as condominiums.
Sand River is one of a handful of cohousing communities that were created for people over 55. The community, originally called ElderGrace, decided to change its name after running into negative perceptions of “elder.” “We have some men in our community who didn’t want to tell anybody where they lived–they felt it created an image of gray-haired people walking around with walkers,” says Marty, an early resident. “People asked if it was assisted living.” When she ran into someone wondering if there were still two units in “ElderCare,” Marty agreed a name change was in order.
Living sustainably in more ways than one
Like many cohousing communities, Sand River takes pride in being green. Members collect rainwater, landscape with native plants, heat efficiently, and garden organically.
Unlike most cohousing communities, which can be costly, Sand River offers many members a financially-sustainable lifestyle. The community was developed by the Santa Fe Community Housing Trust, a nonprofit which supports affordable housing, in collaboration with the founding members. When Sand River opened in 2009, homes ranged from $180,000 to $228,000, with one third of the 28 units designated as affordable, with mortgages under $100,000. (The balance is held as a “soft second mortgage” by nonprofit agencies and is repaid when the unit is sold.) Home prices have risen a modest amount since then.
Willow says the affordable program “was a wonderful blessing to me. Lo and behold I could have community, which I wanted, and also buy a house—this is a miracle!”
She became involved with the planning group in 2005. “We worked with the architect to design the houses,” she says. “It was a wonderful creative process. We were able to create a village concept that was really important to us.” For example, cars are kept on the perimeter of the property with walkways connecting the homes to the common house, in the heart of the community. There, members come for tai chi, for discussions on healthy living or end-of-life concerns, book clubs, and art exploration. In 2010, Sand River was given an AARP Livable Communities Award.
Willow is a veteran of community living. She earlier lived in cooperative housing and then in a land trust community in Missouri, in which members each purchased five to ten acres of land as a way to preserve a forest threatened by clear-cutting.
So cohousing was a natural fit for her. “I felt an affinity to living with people,” she reflects. “I thought a wonderful way to age in place was to age with other people who are also at that point in their lives where we were finished raising our families, and really embarking on a new adventure. For many of us, our career enthusiasm was something of the past as well. So the focus was more on living creative, vibrant lives as we were aging. And to encourage and support each other to live in a healthy way and to stay active.”
Sandy, 75, the self-described “newbie” of the community, says that turning 60 “was a real marker event for me emotionally, and I realized I didn’t know how to age gracefully. So I started a search and discovered cohousing.”
She and her late husband came to Santa Fe to attend a conference on “re-potentiating aging.” They had both retired from teaching and from raising their kids in Boise, Idaho, and were open to something new. They were drawn to the concept of living in community and of conscious aging. “If I wanted to be a hermit or live alone in an insular house in the suburbs, I could have done that,” she says. “But I wanted the opposite. I wanted community and the give and take and the communication.”
Consensus—a challenge and an opportunity to grow
For many people, the most challenging part of cohousing would be its consensus form of decision making. “Majority rules” does not apply. Instead, members discuss significant decisions until agreement is reached. In that way, proponents say, consensus is more democratic than voting because it honors and respects each voice. But the process takes time and patience.
“I really value the differences of opinion which help us see the whole picture and come out eventually with a decision that everyone can live with,” says Sandy. “That process of sharing and listening, it’s what we’re here for, to help increase the light as best we can.”
Although the learning curve can be steep, the opportunity to engage in consensus is an opportunity for personal growth, says Willow. “There’s a greater understanding of ‘I’m not the center of the world.’ I can open myself and learn from other people and I can let go sometimes of my own opinion.”
Growing old together
Like many communities, Sand River members wonder how they will meet the needs of those who eventually need more assistance. What are reasonable expectations for members to have of their neighbors and friends? The community already faces challenges. A founding couple in their mid-80s now both have dementia. With paid help organized by their children, they remain at Sand River. “The dementia has an impact because it’s affected their social connection,” says Willow. “It’s been more important for us to reach out to them because they’ve withdrawn.”
Sandy says she invites the couple and their caregiver over for tea now and then. She agrees that how to help each other over the long term is an ongoing question. The community is “still in the process of discovery,” she says.
It helps that the community has a good age range—from late 50s to mid-80s. Maintaining that balance will be important as they move forward, says Willow, as the oldest members will likely need more help with errands or chores.
Willow is on the well-being team, which is developing guidelines for emergencies. “If somebody falls or has a health emergency of any kind, how do we respond?” she says. “That’s a really important issue.” Her team will present its recommendations to the whole community, who ultimately will decide what guidelines to adopt. The community also has used the “Share the Care” system to support two members who lost their husbands. “That’s a really beautiful tool, a way to assist each other,” says Willow. “We just have to be careful to know our boundaries and limitations.”
Nationally, cohousing communities are wrestling with how to support members who may grow frail or who experience cognitive loss. One idea is to use the guest quarters in the common house or spare bedrooms in members’ homes for paid caregivers. “The cohousing communities are very rich in resources of that type,” Oz Ragland, a national leader in cohousing and shared housing, told me. Another idea, not yet tried, is to develop a Green House-type cottage or other assisted living home onsite.
Willow hopes their active encouragement of health and well being will extend members’ independence. “I know if I was living alone, I would be a lot less active physically and a lot lonelier,” she says. “I’m more of a quiet person, but because we’ve been friends with each other here, it’s so much easier to reach out. It’s really kind of an inspiring way to live.”
I found this article to be very interesting and i enjoyed reading how a cohousing community can operate. I think that it was very well thought to design a community around physical activity and healthy living. I also liked that in the Sand River Community they seemed to address issues and struggles together and help each other learn more about aging. I can see why many older adults would benefit from living in a community like this vs. and assisted living home. Sand River promotes being independent and healthy while also reassuring everyone that aging is okay. Also it still allows each person to have their freedom.
Melissa Pharris says
I found this article very insightful as it gave an inside look into how Sand River operates. I think this is a great layout for an intentional community through cohousing. I really liked that the community was designed to promote physical activity and social interactions to those living there. I also found it interesting how the community addressed decision making and how to help those who start to face greater challenges when growing old. I do believe that helping them to stay healthier longer will also help to avoid many of the harder obstacles sometimes seen with aging. I enjoyed learning about Sand River and would love to learn more about other similar communities for different age groups.
L2 Construction says
Informative and interesting Blog! Beautifully written, as usual, I like the post. Thank you so much for nice sharing with us. Keep posting!
Bethany Celio says
So happy to see the interest in cohousing and all the benefits it offers to residents! People here might be interested to know that there is a National Cohousing “Open House Day” coming up on April 27, 2019, in which many communities will be participating. This is a great chance to go visit a community and chat with the neighbors. Also, there is a National Cohousing Conference in Portland, OR happening May 31-June 2, 2019. More info at http://www.2019.cohousing.org.
L2 Construction says
Great information!! Thanks for sharing this informative information.
L2 Construction says
Great information!! I really enjoy reading this blog information. Thanks for sharing this informative information.
Jennifer Davis says
I really enjoyed reading this article! There seem to be so many benefits to cohousing communities. I enjoyed hearing about the encouragement within the community, the community dinners/ gatherings, and how many of them enjoy the landscaping. I can see this being a better option compared to assisted living and nursing homes for those who could still live on their own or partially on their own. I’m sure it is incredibly cheaper to live in one of these communities, but i still wonder how affordable it really is – especially for those who struggle a little more with money.
Megan Kendrick says
I think that this article makes a lot of good points and it shows the benefits of cohousing. I have honestly started becoming more interested in the idea of cohousing because of the benefits and the relatively cheaper pricing for housing. I think that overall there should be other places that provide cohousing on a less expensive scale because not every older adult can get up and move to another state to be able to live in a cohousing community or intentional community
I truly believe that this could change the world. I feel like growing up in today’s times aging is seen as bad or it can have negative consequences and I really feel like this community is putting a stop to that. It really gives me a sense of hope and realize that there are places out there for when you start to age. Not just your typical nursing homes. I do wonder though that wouldn’t assisted caregivers be expensive on top of the cost of living there? Maybe there should already be caregivers in expense of living there. It may help others in their decision to live there.
Ellen Arcadi says
I have believed in “Intentional Communities” since the early 80’s, and started creating one in Dec. 1999. The place is called “Madrigal” and it is located 10 miles from the beaches of San Diego. It has been a gift of learning and growing for all that have, and are living here. Website is callled -Petalsofmadrigal.com and I am listed in the co-housing directory. I am so glad that this movement is getting more and more attention. We are Social Animals. Loneliness and Isolation can cause Dis-Ease.?
Gaurav Luthria says
I am an AGNG 200 student at the Erickson School of Aging. This article complements the overarching ideas discussed in our class. I agree with the mission of the Sand River Community Housing and commend the administrators for introducing these programs to the elders. The Sand River Community Housing supports the activity theory of aging. The activity theory proposes that successful aging occurs when elders remain active in their communities. Furthermore, even though elders are part of a larger community they still live by themselves and plant their own gardens, activities that instill a sense of independence. It is very common for elderly patients, especially those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia to get feeling of helplessness and dependence, leading to depression. I believe each person has their unique story and the best way for elderly individuals to engage with the community is to share their experiences with others. In addition to the ideas proposed in the article, I suggest that r all senior homes to have a program for elders to interact with younger generations and discuss their experiences. Elders could serve as mentors in boy or girl scouts and even participate in programs at the local public libraries.
Dana West says
A wonderful 50+ cohousing community is starting in Pt Townsend WA – http://www.quimpervillage.com
Alexandra Blond says
Thanks for this inspiring article! Is there a list somewhere of affordable cohousing?
Beth Baker says
Yes, please see the directory of the Cohousing Association of the US: http://www.cohousing.org/directory
Excellent piece. Thanks for posting, Changing Aging! Certainly about a very timely topic – aging in community. I’d encourage anyone interested in joining a lively, weekend-long facilitated discussion on these topics in a cohousing context to consider attending the Aging Better Together Conference sponsored by the Cohousing Association of the U.S. Registration is open for this May’s Conference now, and you can learn more on their website: http://www.cohousing.org/2016aging
Alexandra Hart says
Dear Beth – congratulations on creating this kind of cohousing. I lived in and worked to create several different styles of cohousing in the Bay Area of California. Age range is a tricky choice to make. I’m delighted that you’re finding a good elder solution there. So many elders want to live in multi-generational housing, but if there are not enough elders and the population is over-balanced by young families, the elders can feel isolated even in the community. This has happened in the one I relate to now. David Goff, a contributor here, lives in this one, and the solution we’ve created is our Elders Salon where older folks from the wider community come to the common house on several occasions during the month to gather for connection and support.
My husband who died 8 years ago was a cohousing architect – Michael Black. We worked for over 20 years putting together a variety of styles, but never got a strictly elder group together. We did visit the Boulder group, however.
Beth Baker says
Thanks Alexandra–just to be clear, I did not create this–I’m only the messenger. But I appreciate your kind words.
Alexandra Hart says
Even so, you’re pushing the concepts ahead further and reporting your experience which is helpful!