Co-housing offers an alternative for people who prefer a tight-knit community to a traditional seniors’ residence
By Bonnie Munday
Over the 20 years between 2017 and 2037, the number of Canadians aged 65 or older is expected to rise by 68 per cent, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. Overall, this adds up to roughly 10.4 million people aged 65-plus by 2037.
Some will be living in their own homes, perhaps with visiting caregivers to help them out. Some will live in an independent retirement facility. And some will live in a nursing home. The different options will have different costs associated with them, but they will all cost money. The question is: How much?
There’s no definitive pricing guide to senior living arrangements—costs vary widely not only from province to province but from facility to facility. Monthly rates can depend on such things as whether the place is private or subsidized and what’s included versus what’s an extra (parking, food, personal care, facility upkeep, etc.).
According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom independent living unit in a seniors’ residence, including minimal personal care (up to 1.5 hours a day), is $2,740 in Atlantic Canada, $3,055 in Alberta and British Columbia, and $4,179 in Ontario.
Another seniors’ housing option has been growing in popularity in recent years, especially in Europe: co-housing.
The concept arose in Denmark in the late 1960s. Sometimes for seniors only, sometimes multi-generational, co-housing combines the independence of a private residence for multi-generational families with the advantages of common amenities and built-in community support. Typically, residents have their own private living space, while areas such as laundry rooms, dining rooms, kitchen areas, parking, and gardens are shared. The community is planned, managed, and often owned by the residents; decisions are made democratically.
Co-housing is now common in Europe, having spread to France, Spain, Belgium, the UK, and Italy. It’s especially popular in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden; in Denmark, for example, about one per cent of the population lives in co-housing developments. The concept has existed in North America since the late 1980s, thanks to an American named Charles Durrett.
Durrett became interested in co-housing because of his grandmother’s experience with aging. She lived in a small town and when she was bedridden, during her last 10 years, her neighbours cared for her. “People there knew and supported each other,” says Durrett, an architect who lives in California. In 1989, Durrett and his wife, Kathryn McCamant, wrote a book (which has since been updated) called Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves (McCamant/Durrett).
Pointing out that one’s senior years can bring increasing isolation and loneliness as social connections lessen, especially if friends and family members move away, the authors argue that senior co-housing fills a need for healthy, educated, and proactive adults who want to live in a vibrant community. These seniors, the authors say, already want to ward off the aging process, and so are unlikely to be keen on the idea of assisted housing. The authors contend that the many positive benefits of co-housing include better physical and mental health, lots of social contact, and a feeling of security.
Margaret Critchlow, 71, can attest to all of that. She’s a founding member of one of Canada’s senior co-housing communities, Harbourside, in Sooke, BC. The Vancouver Island community, consisting of 31 units, was developed and funded by the residents, of whom there are about 45, ranging in age from their 50s to their 80s. When Critchlow came home after getting hip-replacement surgery, everyone pitched in during her recovery, providing meals and helping with errands.
You’re Never Lonely
Another benefit of senior co-housing communities is that you’re never lonely; there’s always someone to do something with, although, unlike traditional care facilities, there’s no management team arranging activities. “It’s just us and we do what we’re interested in,” Critchlow says. “People participate if they want, and if they don’t, that’s okay.” Every week at Harbourside, for example, many residents will get together to cook and enjoy a communal meal, but it’s not mandatory.
Those living at Harbourside have cut down on all the stuff they accumulated over the years, too; for instance, everyone shares such things as lawn mowers, camping gear, cleaning equipment, and gardening tools. “We get to rid ourselves of all our extra things,” Critchlow says. “We do bulk purchases, too.”
The type of person who gravitates towards this kind of living arrangement is someone interested in the community aspect, Critchlow says. A disproportionate number at Harbourside are from the health-care profession—doctors and nurses who have seen in their careers that people tend to wait until they are too old to move. “They want to make a shift before it’s too late.”
In the planning stages of Harbourside, people considering the project had lots of question and concerns. “Some people worried that it would be some kind of commune or that it wouldn’t be soundproof,” Critchlow says with a laugh. But those kinds of concerns were addressed early on, so that people were comfortable with what they were getting into.
In addition to Harbourside, there’s a similar senior co-housing community in Canada located in Saskatoon, and another three are in development, two in British Columbia and one in Ottawa.
What might this kind of arrangement cost per month? Let’s use Harbourside as an example. If you’ve paid 10 per cent down on a $375,000 unit and you put the rest on a mortgage—let’s say, a three-year fixed mortgage at 2.89 per cent interest over 25 years—the payment would be $1,578 a month. Condo fees of $300 each month pay for upkeep services to common areas, and may include lawn maintenance and snow shovelling. Residents pay their own utility bills.
This kind of community gets started at the grassroots level, when people interested in exploring the senior co-housing option get together and start talking. There’s lots of information available online about how to get started, such as at the Canadian Senior Cohousing society’s webpage (canadianseniorcohousing.com).
Moreover, the Real Estate Foundation of BC, along with the Canadian Senior Cohousing society, worked with Harbourside founding members Critchlow and Andrew Moore to create a comprehensive guide. Here are some highlights:
• Nearly all co-housing developments in the world to date have been started by small groups of people coming together and forming communities to transform a collective vision about their aging intentions into a reality.
• The majority of these communities have been involved in developing new-build projects on sites large enough for approximately 30 households. But adapting existing housing is another solution.
• It’s advisable to look into whether care agencies—public, private, and not-for-profit—might become partners of and service providers to a new senior co-housing group. Many provinces run programs to support and subsidize retrofitting disability-friendly adaptations in individual apartments and in the common areas.
• Utility companies can often support improved conservation measures at both individual and community levels; for example, an apartment unit could get improved insulation and weatherstripping, as well as replacement of old appliances with new energy-efficient ones. Buildings could get improved roof insulation, access ramps, and more efficient lighting and heating of common areas. You may even discover that these are free of charge or at least highly subsidized.
• Considerations for residents include necessary adaptations to existing dwellings and common areas (e.g., ramps, grab bars, etc.), as well as social needs (e.g., how much programming would be included).
• Residents must decide such things as whether they’ll all have telephone contact so that everyone gets a daily checkup call; how people will work together to get everyone to appointments and run errands such as groceries; whether pets will be allowed; and how meals will be handled (e.g., how many will be communal).
• Here’s a checklist of quick-start projects to help those considering getting a conversation about senior co-housing under way with a group of friends or acquaintances. These types of discussions are usually fun, and through them, everyone gets to learn about themselves and their neighbours.
– Organize a potluck party or other social event for interested potential residents.
– Care for a neighbour as an individual or group effort.
– Investigate funding and subsidies for safety and disability adaptations, and look into energy conservation both for individual residences and common areas.
– Start regular gatherings and become informed by inviting outside speakers from public and private care providers and seniors’ service agencies.
– Meet for fitness classes and other entertainment outings.
According to the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP), social interaction improves seniors’ health and quality of life.
“Fostering social participation—defined as involvement in activities that provide interactions with others in the community—is crucial not only for allowing older adults to meet their fundamental human needs for socialization and self-actualization, but also for helping society to better face population aging,” writes Melanie Levasseur in IRPP’s magazine Policy Options.
The article goes on to explain that, currently, approximately half of older adults socialize too little. Social interaction is critical to the health of older adults, so much so that its decline has been associated with serious health outcomes—including a 29 per cent greater risk for premature death, according to a 2015 Brigham Young University study on loneliness and social isolation.
So, more than simply a new kind of housing, senior co-housing represents a conceptual shift in our cultural approach to aging and living in a community. Essentially, Charles Durrett says, co-housing is about community members looking out for each other. “People are living longer now,” he says, “and connection is a major indicator for longevity and happiness.” Senior co-housing could be the ideal solution for many people.