You may have heard, but the public sector is having some money problems. As if that weren’t enough of an issue, people are rather inconsiderately getting older, not to mention living longer. If this people-getting-older trend continues we’ll be in a pickle because there’s not enough money to take care of everyone.
Nesta’s Age Unlimited programme is looking to generate innovative new public services for people in their fifties. As part of the programme they recently had an event on ‘Seniors Cohousing’, which is an innovation in housing for older people. I went along and have to say I haven’t felt that inspired for a while.
Cohousing started in Denmark ages ago when older people attended state-sponsored classes on ‘Ageing Successfully’. Sounds hideous, but attendees started to work out ways to all live together. They figured out what common sense (and incidentally research) tells us: People live happier, longer lives if they are healthy, active and connected. So they built a cluster of houses that make a feature of communal spaces.
In the USA there are 120 such projects across the States (the session was led by The Cohousing Company, a firm of architects which has worked on many of these projects). There is a model that works, which has four key components:
- The future residents themselves design the development. They draw up the plans, work with architects and planners, decide what they want and don’t want.
- The design of the community must facilitate connections with people in the long term
- The community must be self-managed. I.e. everyone has a share in the running and decision-making of the development before, during and after it’s built.
- There must be extensive common facilities based on needs of each specific group. No two cohousing projects are the same.
Having said that, there are a number of features that are often chosen, like a large dining space where community members can all eat together; developments are not usually built with cars in mind; and many of the house designs end up with large porches, a very sociable space, particularly in the States.
Here are the alarm-bells that started ringing when I heard about all this initially:
How do you balance the need for privacy with the communal elements? I wouldn’t want to live with a bunch of busybodies perpetually popping in to see if I’m alright. Sometimes I want some alone-time. But the experience from the US is that all communities seem to find the right balance. While there is plenty of communal space, each resident has their own privacy as well and the group designs it that way from the start.
If isolation is a problem for older people how do you find a group that’s prepared to go through the process together? This is part of the work NESTA is doing. The idea is that housing associations and local authorities will be able to give people the option of going into cohousing, especially as in the US they found partnerships with housing associations often get off the ground quicker than self-initiated groups. I don’t really like the idea as I think it muddies the waters but I’m struggling to think of many practical alternatives that let people come together to solve their own problems. I think a web-based approach could help – a place where people looking for cohousing can meet others, to start their own community and find the info and resources they need to make it happen, or to find communities they could move into that match their values.
Is cohousing appropriate for my generation – the children of Thatcher and Reagan who have only known a rich society? I’m concerned that cohousing might only appeal to our current generation of seniors who were raised in more community environments. However the prevalence of inter-generational cohousing shows that those from more individualistic generations can make it work, plus I suspect that seniors cohousing might enable the current generation of older people to show us young ‘uns how to live as a community.
Here are some other interesting things I learned:
- Life in cohousing is a bit like college dorms
- Sometimes you just have to go for it for cost reasons even though the accommodation might not be ideal e.g. some rooms upstairs and downstairs
- Guest rooms that residents’ friends and family can use often enable people to downsize
- Intergenerational cohousing projects tend to over-focus on young people
- Residents need to feel comfortable with talking about problems as a group.
- Cohousing means institutional care is deferred for 5-10 years but eventually nursing care is needed but less intensively as the community can care also.
- The key thing is that residents can hire and fire the care staff as well and the residents know them long before they’re in need of care (‘know me as a person before I’m drooling’).
- The care you get in an institution is directly related to the number of people who care about you outside of the community so if your cohousing friends are visiting you in institutional care as well as your other friends and family you’ll get better care.
- Cohousing could have big implications for UK planning law.
- Cohousing groups can work together to come up with adaptations to existing housing stock e.g. taking down a fence to make a garden open to the streets, as well as techniques like walking to the shops together.
- Cohousing projects can exist in cities and in rural settings
- Some cohousing projects benefit from a Community organiser (paid) who joins the community at the start and lives with the community to facilitate and transition.
There’s more info on cohousing in the UK here: www.cohousing.org.uk and I’m really interested to see how Nesta’s Age Unlimited programme develops.