By PHYLLIS KORKKI
Published: March 12, 2013
THERE seems to be a rule that if retirees move to a communal environment, it must consist only of other retirees. But some older adults are challenging that notion by choosing intergenerational cohousing, living side by side with people of all other ages, including singles, childless couples and families with children.
Residents of cohousing make major decisions collectively, but these are not communes. Group meals and activities are optional, and members maintain separate residences.
“You have a choice between privacy and community,” said Charles Durrett, 57, an architect who has designed more than 50 cohousing communities, including the one where he lives in Nevada City, Calif. The community has 34 units, and out of around 100 residents, about 20 are age 55 to 95, he said.
Some communities that live by cohousing principles are for retirees only, and that is the best choice for some, Mr. Durrett said. Children can be quite raucous, he said, and sometimes people just want to spend their time in peace with like-minded friends and a nice glass of wine.
But other retirees prefer the energy and variety of cohousing, he said. The arrangement has value for younger residents, too: Children learn to respect their elders and “everybody’s seeing all of life,” Mr. Durrett said. That includes “what the end game looks like,” he said. Several residents of the Nevada City community have died at home, without going to a nursing home.
Moving to cohousing is a way to avoid the isolation and depression that older people can face when they live alone, said Mr. Durrett. Cohousing residents are also more likely to check up on and care for their neighbors, he said.
Meg Palley, 95, lives in a four-bedroom house in Nevada City that she shares with two care givers who receive reduced rent in return for services like driving and shopping. She said she chose intergenerational cohousing because “it’s logical to have people of various ages together.”
She would be lonelier if she were living with other older people, she said, and suspects she’d hear too many people “complaining about their complaints.”
At Ecovillage at Ithaca, in upstate New York, residents range from a few months old to 80-plus. Ecovillage has two communities of about 30 units each, with one more community in development. Legally, the communities are co-ops, and as the name implies, Ecovillage emphasizes the environment by operating two organic farms and using solar energy. Like most cohousing communities, it includes common areas where people can share meals, and it offers many group activities.
Barbara Chasin, a retired sociologist, has lived at Ecovillage with her husband, Dick Franke, a retired anthropologist, since 2009. They live in a 1,600-square-foot house with two bedrooms and a study for each of them.
Ms. Chasin, 72, said she would find living in a retirement community alienating and prefers to be among people of all ages and physical conditions. She is a member of a committee on aging at Ecovillage.
“We want to find ways that people can remain here as they grow older and more infirm,” she said. That could involve retrofitting homes and finding ways to notify people of medical emergencies, she said.
The cost of cohousing varies greatly depending on the region, Mr. Durrett said. In general, it is similar to what a two-bedroom condo would cost, he said. Many people make a down payment and pay a mortgage on their homes, he said.
There are a few ways to join a cohousing community. One is to participate in the formation of one, in which case people can influence how it is structured.
But financing new construction can be hard, Rebecca Lane, executive director of the Cohousing Association of the United States, said in an e-mail.
“The failure rate is high for forming communities, though there is no data to describe this, as most failed forming groups disband and fade into the sunset,” she said.
The best way to form a cohousing community “is to have a solid architect on board from the beginning, who knows the model and can assist in the entire process, including advising with financing,” she said.
Obviously, it is simpler to find an existing community, Ms. Lane said.
Cohousing is definitely not for everyone. Some people realize that “it’s a lot of work living with a group of people and making decisions together,” and they aren’t willing to make that investment, said Bill Hartzell, board president of the Cohousing Association of the United States.
Conflict is inevitable — most commonly it revolves around money, children and pets, he said. People may disagree about how pooled money should be spent, the disciplining of other people’s children, or whether dogs should be able to run off-leash, for example. Residents may resolve disagreements among themselves, or sometimes mediators are brought in, he said.
People do not need to be extroverts to thrive in cohousing.
“One of my personalities is quite the hermit, but I also recognize that I can spiral too deeply into not being around people,” said Dan Fallon, 67, who formerly worked as a psychologist in Chicago. He and his wife, Anna, bought their residence in a cohousing community called Manzanita Village in Prescott, Ariz., in 2003 and rented it out until they moved there in 2011.
Mr. Fallon said Manzanita Village was no retirement community.
“It’s pretty wicked noisy around here sometimes with the kids that are running around,” he said.
But Mr. Fallon said he preferred living among a range of generations. He said some of the older residents had recently helped some of the children build a fort in a ravine.
With cohousing, he said, it’s comforting that “there are structured opportunities to get together and share what’s going on in your life.”
A version of this article appeared in print on March 13, 2013, on page F8 of the New York edition with the headline: In Retiree Housing, Talking About Multigenerations.
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