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Cohousing: A Social Living Alternative For Retirees? Cohousing: A Social Living Alternative For Retirees?
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Cohousing: A Social Living Alternative for Retirees?

Northwestern MutualVoice Contributor •  May 19, 2015 | Enjoying Retirement

By Sonya Stinson

Alice Alexander is getting ready to move into her new home, and she can hardly wait. At 55, she isn’t moving into any ordinary apartment or condominium; rather, it’s a cohousing community in downtown Durham, North Carolina, that offers both privacy and a sense of community, all in one place.

The Durham Central Park Cohousing Community comes with all sorts of benefits likely to appeal to Baby Boomers. A library, farmers’ market, YMCA, parks, shops, restaurants and even a senior care center are within walking distance. The renowned Duke University Medical Center is a short, free bus ride away. And Alexander is joining a close-knit community where residents can enjoy meals and activities in a beautifully appointed shared space.

“It’s an amazing, wonderful experience—and I haven’t even lived in it yet,” Alexander said.

Her cohousing (or “coho”) community is one of hundreds that have sprouted up in recent years as part of a burgeoning nationwide movement. These living arrangements combine private apartments or homes designed around a community space that typically features a kitchen, a large dining room, laundry facility and recreational area for social events.

How Cohousing Works

According to Alexander, who became executive director of the Cohousing Association of the United States while the development of her own community was still under way, cohousing is a grassroots movement. Residents usually take part in the design of the communities, which are tailor made for the needs, interests and values of each group.

The Durham Coho is a community of Baby Boomers, some of whom are retired, some still working. Its design was driven by the founding members’ dissatisfaction with suburban anonymity and their desire to reduce their carbon footprint by sharing resources.

The residents also have a common interest in civic engagement. The group supported the development of the adjacent Durham Central Park, including donating $1,000 to help build a small music venue. Some members also are actively involved in other downtown revitalization efforts.

Benefits of Cohousing

“For retirees, cohousing offers a more autonomous alternative to traditional retirement communities, which often impose strict rules on residents,” Alexander said. Instead of having a housing board make decisions from the top down, cohousing community members usually decide issues by consensus.

“Another benefit is that the typically smaller, more energy-efficient homes, along with the sharing of community resources, can lower the cost of living for each resident. Seniors who need caregiving can even save money by going in together to hire those services,” Alexander noted.

Cohousing communities are managed by the residents themselves, who also take part in maintaining the property. Individual skills and interests help determine the assignment of duties. Unlike most homeowner and condo associations, which have elected boards of directors, there is no hierarchical management structure in cohousing.

One of the qualities Alexander finds most attractive about cohousing is the “sense of belonging, of caring and being cared about” the lifestyle provides.

Choosing a Cohousing Community

If you’re considering joining a cohousing group, it’s important to choose a community that’s right for you. Think hard about the following questions:

  • Do the goals of the group reflect your values?
  • Do the location and the size of the community match your preferences?
  • What is the group’s process for making decisions and sharing responsibilities?
  • Will the community be intergenerational or for retirees only—and which works best for you?

The website contains some useful resources to help you consider these options.

“Every community has its own needs, and only the residents themselves know what is truly best for them,” Alexander said.

For retirees who want to age in a community while maintaining their sense of independence, cohousing may be the ideal choice.

Sonya Stinson is a writer for print and web publications, businesses and nonprofit organizations. She writes about higher education, careers, small business, retirement and personal finance.

Originally published on Northwestern MutualVoice on

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