Bumper stickers may try to convince the masses that “Whoever dies with the most stuff wins” but by now most have figured out that possessions don’t bring happiness.
After extensive interviews, the 2005 groundbreaking book, “Re-visioning Retirement” concluded that the key to a long and satisfying life is a supportive social network.
Unfortunately, today most people live many kilometres and perhaps a world away from their families. Increasingly, neighbourhoods and chosen lifestyles don’t contribute to socialization with neighbours. Social interaction often requires driving a distance and spending money in order to mingle with other people. Traditional forms of social support people once took for granted - family, community and a sense of belonging - now must be sought out.
Co-housing is the result of envisioning, designing, arranging and building the “boxes” that society lives in, in a way that maximizes the creation of positive and sustained human relationships.
A Co-Housing community usually has 20 to 30 smaller residential units grouped around a common green space with shared facilities for socializing and sharing meals. The residences “look inward” with their public face oriented toward the common green space with private spaces in the back of the units. Parking is on the outside of the community to make the inside area more inviting.
Hundreds of Co-Housing developments already exist in North America. In such developments, before the architect puts pen to paper or the contractor puts a shovel in the ground, the people who want to live there first meet to make sure the “human” issues are fully addressed. To facilitate this, workshops are held to encourage people to clarify their requirements, especially around the often unspoken needs for social contact and support.
The social, as well as physical, centre of a Co-Housing Community is the Common House, which features a large kitchen and dining room where people can share a meal or relax over a cup of coffee in front of the fireplace. In addition, there are rooms for activities such as exercise, kids play, arts and crafts; store rooms for the residents’ extra belongings; workshops for the handypeople; laundry rooms; and even a couple of spare bedrooms for visitors. All this means homeowners can substantially reduce the space (and purchase price) of their individual unit.
Co-Housing isn’t a commune for superannuated hippies: people own their units and manage their own financial affairs. The communities attract people from all ages and backgrounds, including singles, young families, and seniors. Most are university educated and work in a variety of fields.
Seniors usually enter between the ages of 55 and 65 when they feel able to actively contribute to the development of the community. Most look forward to the idea of aging in place.
Ann Clement and Gerry Kilgannon are two senior co-housers living next to each other at the Yarrow Ecovillage (YES), southwest of Chilliwack.
“I had retired from the big city to an acreage on Salt Spring Island five years ago,” says Ann. “I had lots of friends there but I wanted to have interaction with people as a natural part of my daily life, not to have to phone ahead to make an appointment and then drive over to see them. I wanted to be able to relate to people in a spontaneous, unprogrammed way.”
“And keeping up the house and the grounds on my own was getting a little too much work. When I came to YES, I was looking for a place where I could contribute my time and talents in creating something, where my contributions would be appreciated.”
Gerry came to learn about Co-Housing through a book she read - a Christmas gift from her children.
“When I was near retiring from my government job my kids gave me Chuck Durrett’s first book on Co-Housing and I was immediately hooked,” says Gerry. “His ideas about living in community really resonated with me. I wanted to help create something meaningful. When a group of people started to talk about building the Windsong Co-Housing community in Langley in the mid ‘90s, I immediately got involved.”
“I loved the community at Windsong, but I had grown up on a farm and liked gardening and being away from the hustle and bustle of the city, so I was one of the first to join the Co-Housing community at the Yarrow Ecovillage.”
But for both ladies, living in community has meant changes in how they relate to others.
“Before I moved in, my biggest concern was how I could balance my strong need for privacy with the presence of so many friends and neighbours passing by right outside my door,” says Gerry. “But from the very start, we all agreed on some very simple rules: if we had the kitchen blinds closed then that meant that we didn’t want to receive any visitors just then. With all the facilities, it is easy for one spouse to be out socializing in the Common House, working in the workshop or puttering around in the garden, and the other to have his/her ‘quiet space’ in their own unit.”
For Ann, the most challenging - and rewarding - aspect of Co-Housing is human interaction.
“Being able to take initiatives that encourage and inspire other people without undercutting them. Living in community, the consequences of our actions are more immediately apparent,” she says. “It is nice to be able to make mistakes and then feel free to follow through to rebuild the relationship. This really gets to the heart of living in community. Here, people are more able to step back and learn from their experiences, to work together and in so doing fine tune their communications.”
“What I learned most in my 10-plus years in Co-Housing has been about communication,” she says. “In life, it is normal to have misunderstandings and even conflicts with people. Ignoring these issues only makes them worse. We cannot always solve them, but the very effort to work on the issues that seem to divide us can often bring us together.”
The community makes decisions at regular meetings about issues such as maintenance, upgrades to common facilities, or community rules.
“I learned a lot about dialogue facilitation and consensus building,” says Gerry.
The skills and resources of the members, including electricians, handymen, computer techs, accountants and lawyers, enrich the community.
“None of my grandkids live in the province, so being able to babysit other people’s kids and watch them grow up is very satisfying,” says Gerry.
After moving into Yarrow Ecovillage, Ann penned the following poem “How Shall We Live”:
Husband the sun,
Marry the rain,
Collect the wind in trees,
Grow old with the young.
Someone once said, “We thrive in companionship: loneliness is the worst experience that a human can have.”
Chuck Durrett is the leading North American expert in the field of Co-Housing design. An architect, he has written several books including *The Senior Co-Housing Handbook*. A dynamic and entertaining speaker, he will make a public presentation at 7 p.m. on January 15 in room 2/3 at the Abbotsford Recreation Centre, 2499 McMillan Way (north on Sumas Way from the Trans-Canada Highway, right on Old Yale Road, right on McMillan Way) and at 7 p.m. on January 16 at the Kerrisdale Community Centre, 5851 West Boulevard, Vancouver.
To reserve a seat or request more information, contact Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org or 604-823-0232.
More info on Co-Housing, visit
JANUARY 2010 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER AND LOWER MAINLAND