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The Future of Aging? Senior Co-Housing

Senior co-housing is on the upswing because increasing numbers of aging adults are looking for alternatives to institutional living.

Janis Mara | Berkeleyside

If Carmel Hara, 86, gets sick, there are a host of neighbors in her Oakland building ready to bring her soup. If she wants company, there’s a common room with a library and a kitchen, and she puts in several hours a week helping to run the management office.

Hara is part of a growing local and national trend — senior co-housing.

She lives at Phoenix Commons, a 41-unit senior co-housing community in Oakland’s Jingletown arts district, at 340 29th Ave., that opened in March 2016. Located right next to the Park Street Bridge, the four-story condo complex is touted as the first co-housing community formally dedicated to seniors in the East Bay.

Co-housing — defined as private homes clustered around shared space with a group of people committed to being a community — is an established phenomenon in the East Bay. Co-housing specifically for those over the age of 55 is relatively new, however.

“I wanted to age in place in my community,” said Hara, who has lived in the Bay Area since 1952. “Here I have people who care about me and still have my own home, my own kitchen.”

There are about 13 senior co-housing communities nationwide, two more under construction and 13 in the early stages, according to Karin Hoskin, executive director of the Cohousing Association of the United States, a national nonprofit that supports co-housing.

“The trajectory of senior-specific co-housing has increased in the last 10 years,” while non-senior co-housing growth is steady, Hoskin said. There are about 168 formally designated co-housing communities, both senior and non-senior, in the U.S., she said.

Hoskin noted that California is a leader in the senior co-housing movement. Glacier Circle, which some co-housing advocates describe as the nation’s first senior co-housing community, opened in December 2005 in Davis, with eight homes and a dozen individuals.

At present, there are five such communities in the state, according to Hoskin, and three of the five are in or near the Bay Area. In addition to Phoenix Commons, there’s Mountain View, named after the city, and Walnut Commons. The latter is in Santa Cruz and is described as “senior-focused” multigenerational housing.

It’s easy to see why senior co-housing is on the upswing. Increasing numbers of aging adults are looking for alternatives to institutional living. Folks like Hara and her counterparts are refusing to go gently into assisted living or nursing homes.

One of the biggest advantages to senior cohousing is the companionship, an antidote to what New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell once described as “the terrible loneliness of the old.” More than one-third of U.S. seniors are lonely, according to a 2010 AARP survey of more than 3,000 seniors.

On a rainy Thursday last week, Hara was hanging with her friends in the building’s management office.

“I read Karen’s New York Times in the morning,” Hara said. “When she goes on vacation, we (residents) walk her dog.”

As if on cue, the Rev. Karen Bloomquist swept in, fresh from a walk with her dog, Rosalina. Like many in the community, Bloomquist is a living contradiction to senior stereotypes: she hikes, bikes, kayaks, travels extensively and attends City Council meetings.

“I had to walk the dog first,” Bloomquist said. “There’s lots of dogs here.”

The group was gathered in the office on the ground floor, which is the common space. Each co-housing community is centered around a common space, where group meals are offered once or twice a week, along with activities and events. It’s probably more typical for the common area to be a separate house, but Phoenix is a four-story condo complex.

Residents also gather in the common area to make decisions about governance. Like Phoenix Commons, co-housing communities are often homeowners’ associations, with residents adhering to legally binding bylaws. However, with co-housing, there’s a critical difference.

“We are our own board, since most co-housing communities operate by consensus,” said Bloomquist. “Everyone who lives here is on the board,” she added.

“I like to think of senior co-housing as interdependent living,” said Raines Cohen, northern California regional organizer with Cohousing California. Cohen lives in a Berkeley co-housing community.

He noted that Phoenix is market-rate housing. Condo units there sell in the $520,000 to $730,000 range.

Folks who live in co-housing communities own their homes and can sell them on the open market. The homeowners’ association dues are used to maintain the facilities, among other things. Phoenix Commons is unusual in that it’s distinctly urban, while many others are rural or suburban.

“Senior cohousing is not a nursing home. There is so much more you can build through relationships. People step up for each other,” Cohen said. He added, “But you don’t have to just give and give. People can bring in outside services.”

Glacier Circle, the Davis community, employs a woman who provides house-cleaning services, Cohen said.

“Eighty percent of what we need, we can provide for each other,” Bloomquist said.

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