Cooperative Living

by Joy Earls

Over the years I have written about aging in place, rightsizing, downsizing, making accommodations to existing homes and even moving to different towns. The most feedback that I received on my articles was the one in which I talked about exploring different living options. And the concept that piqued the most interest was about my son’s experiences with cooperative living in college. People asked why that can’t be an option for the aging population. Of course it is a viable alternative, as are others, outside of traditional single family housing. Since that time I have found out more about how inventive individuals are taking this matter into their own hands. There are more choices and once again the boomers are forging the way.

This past December, I was visiting my family in Boston. My sister’s friend Peg graciously offered my niece Rachel a place to stay, as space was filling up where we were sleeping. Her home was in walking
distance, so we accompanied Rachel to Peg’s home in Cambridge one evening. As we entered her courtyard, I was drawn in immediately. There were gardens and sculptures and lovely seating arrangements. Inside was a warm, inviting living room with a piano and other spaces that I could see around the corner. This felt like someplace I may have been before but I knew I hadn’t. I soon learned that I had entered a Co-housing neighborhood.

Peg welcomed us to her home, a private apartment in the building. My sister laughed and smiled, as I started asking a string of questions about this place. She knows me well and settled in for a visit filled with lively discussions about alternative living choices. It was obvious that Peg, a night person like me, truly enjoyed talking about her home and community. She was one of the original organizers. I was excited to hear her story.

cooperative-livingShe sold her home when newly single in the nineties and was trying to decide what would be her next move. She met other people in similar situations. They pooled their money and resources from the sales of their homes and not only found the perfect housing solution, but a rich lifestyle. I learned that cohousing emerged in Denmark more than thirty years ago and the first in the US was completed in 1991. Many are intergenerational, while some are designed specifically for seniors. The common thread is that they are designed to encourage social interaction while still maintaining individual living spaces and autonomy. There is some great information on cambridgecohousing.org

I particularly enjoyed the New Year’s card that someone posted on their website. It describes this lifestyle far better than I can. You can read it in its entirety, but here are some excerpts:

“In the spring of 1998, 90 of us moved into our new yellow complex of 41 units ….Our ages ran the gamut from newborn to 80, one third were single people, one third were groups of two or more (our category), one third were families with young children (27 kids under 15). Individual homes, or units …are different styles and sizes, 1-room efficiencies to 4-bedroom
townhouses. (We are comfortably ensconced in our own fully equipped 1,083 square foot apartment, never imagining we’d be able to write “comfortably.” We kept a spare house for the first 8 years!)

We enjoy using the many community spaces: a large living room with fireplace, kitchen and dining room with 2 children’s playrooms adjoining, plus a library, workshop, and rooms for exercise, recreation, laundry, music, bike storage, and 2 guest rooms. Underground parking allows us enough open land on our 1.75 acre lot for a large “pretty good lawn,” a few smaller lawns, a shade garden, an open area we call “the glade,” several compost piles and a large organic garden. We have planted many trees, shrubs and flowers and share the usual tasks. Unlike living in a single-family house, we can choose to specialize. Our responsibility— the shade garden, others shoveled the snow! The blessing of interdependence!

We use ground source heating and cooling, and changed all community lights and most household lights to fluorescents. We’ve decreased dependence on cars —7 hybrids, some car sharing, nearby Zip cars, plus the usual cars, but less of them (we own one car, a hybrid)—increased commuting by bike, foot and public transportation. We continue to ramp up recycling (learned how to recycle pizza boxes), composting, cut down on trash, reduce water and electricity use. This year we installed clotheslines and are looking into the feasibility of building a green roof deck and clothesline on the common house roof.

Our community has aged, we are almost 11 years older.

More of our 83 residents are retired, three founding members died, several youngsters grew up and moved away, six are at college. We now have only 17 residents under 17 years…..We’re eating more locally…… Three times a week we may sign up for community meals (costs based on the shopping receipts range from $2.50 to $5.00 per person, kids —half price.) Volunteer cooks prepare delicious, nutritional and environmentally-conscious meals. (We sign up for one or two each week, bringing our own basket of dishes and taking them home to wash up, just as people did at church suppers when Molly was a girl.) ….

Coho supports the wider community and world in other ways. The Fireside Reading series, curated by Molly, is now in its tenth year of readings. We host concerts of classical, folk and doo-wop; fundraisers for social justice organizations; support the Hospitality Program for Children’s Hospital; and we helped get a block party going on Richdale Avenue!

We are quietly content, wouldn’t want to live any other way, and never expect to move! We will join our community’s Carol sing, Hanukah party, Christmas tree trimming, solstice celebration and New Year’s Eve gathering in front of the fire, happy to be in a community able to enjoy as many celebrations as people will step up to lead! With love and best hope for the New Year!”

I feel enriched learning about Cohousing. Once more I learned that there are many ways to live depending on our needs and resources. It’s opened up another perspective of how many choices there are if we continue to explore housing opportunities.

Joy Earls is a Real Estate Broker/Owner of Joy Earls Real Estate. She truly enjoys your stories, calls and emails. You can find her at: joyearls@joyearls.com or 406-531-9811.