From the Los Angeles Times
Communal housing is coming of age
Seniors are beginning to see the advantages of shared-living complexes.
By Maria L. La Ganga
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
December 23, 2007
GRASS VALLEY, CALIF. —
Suzanne Marriott's brave drive into the future started with a traffic
jam, which gave her a lot of time to think about what she was getting
herself into -- and out of.
Newly widowed and recently retired, the lanky 64-year-old was making
her way to the Sierra foothills to meet a group of complete strangers
that she might just spend the rest of her life with.
Left behind in the rearview mirror was a sprawling ranch house in
Castro Valley, near Oakland, that managed to be full and empty all at
once, jammed with the stuff of a long, happy marriage but drained of
life since the death of her husband, Michael, from multiple sclerosis
six months before.
For decades, the couple, avid backpackers and mountain bikers, had
wandered the world together. Now she was striking out on her own,
placing big bets on the rest of her life and on a nascent movement
called senior cohousing.
Marriott was betting that she could join a group of like-minded people
-- all relatively healthy and not that old -- and together they could
build a community that would be something between commune and condo
She was wagering that they could all live there to the end without
burdening family members or enduring life in an institution picked by
somebody else. And she hoped they would have fun in the process.
So as Marriott navigated Interstate 80 toward her fellow pioneers in late-life living, she was more curious than terrified.
"I wanted to see if there was a way to make more meaning in my life now
that Michael was gone," she said. "We'd been together 30 years. I
thought I was being led to something that would be meaningful and be a
way to move forward."
In the 18 months since she hit the highway, Marriott and her future
neighbors have done something only a few groups of forward-thinking
seniors in America have accomplished.
Along with the architects who imported the idea of cohousing from
Denmark 20 years ago, they have designed their 30-unit complex from the
ground up, complete with an elaborate common house where they plan to
dine together several nights each week.
They've attended scores of meetings, made thousands of decisions -- all
by consensus -- buried one beloved member and welcomed others. They
have pledged to "support each other through rough times, whether
physical, emotional and/or spiritual." They have learned how to listen
and how to disagree.
And if all goes according to the meticulous planning of the 16 women
and four men who have so far signed on, Wolf Creek Lodge will break
ground in spring here in the heart of Gold Country. It will be
California's second elder cohousing community and only the fourth such
project nationwide; a dozen or so others are in the works.
"Many people don't have an extended family, or it's an extended
dysfunctional family," Marriott said. "We'll have this close community
for, well, the rest of our lives."
'A team sport'
The idea of cohousing was born in Denmark in the 1960s and imported to
the United States nearly three decades later by Charles Durrett and
Kathryn McCamant, husband and wife architects from California who have
written extensively on the topic.
There are about 100 multi-generational cohousing communities in the
United States -- more in Northern California than anywhere else -- and
they usually consist of town houses or separate residences built around
a common house and shared open space, Durrett said.
The basic premise of cohousing -- that life is better together
than apart -- is an even neater fit for people as they age, because
"aging is a team sport," said Dr. Bill Thomas, geriatrician and author
of "What Are Old People For?" But cohousing communities specifically
geared for seniors are just beginning to take off.
"For a long time, the team was your blood kin. Now the team, more and
more, is going to be the people with whom we choose to live," Thomas
said. "Elder cohousing is a response to the fading away of our
traditional understanding of family and care-giving."
It is also a search for the elusive ideal of community: that
remembered or dreamed-of network of people who won't cramp your style
but will make sure you're OK as you grow up or grow old.
In fact, many of Wolf Creek Lodge's members, who live throughout
Northern California and Washington, were drawn to cohousing after
watching friends or relatives founder alone at the end of their lives
and deciding they wanted better for themselves.
Butch and Virginia Thresh, both 69, live on 15 acres in rural Nevada
County. They chop wood for heat, revel in the peace and quiet of their
isolated hilltop homestead and have no intention of hanging up their
hiking boots, bicycles and petanque
But after reaching 65, they began to wonder what would happen if
one of them became disabled. Then one day, Butch was out fixing up a
house they own in Grass Valley. Their elderly tenant had called four
months earlier and said his wife had died and he needed to move.
As Butch labored away, Virginia recalled, "the neighbors came by
and said, 'What are you doing here?' They didn't even know the wife had
died or the husband had moved. We don't want that."
The Threshes each have two children from previous marriages, and "they all think it's a good move," Virginia said.
What they do want, her husband said, is to live in a place where
"if you break a hip, your neighbors will help you buy groceries. . . .
We're trying to re- create the neighborhood, so the neighbors will look
out for you."
The process has been a lot of mostly enjoyable work, from the
first two-day meeting of potential residents in June 2006 to the
current tussling over a proposal to ban smoking complex-wide. (What
about private property rights? Chemical sensitivities? Medical
One of the first lessons was how to reach consensus, which is a lot
harder than simple democracy. Everybody has to either agree with a
decision or at least be able to live with it, and a single dissenter
can bring the process to a standstill.
One early -- and easy -- choice was the name, inspired by the
creek that borders the 7.9 woodsy acres where the complex will be
built, just a short walk from a post office, grocery stores,
restaurants and gourmet coffee.
Also simple -- though legion -- were the environmentally conscious
decisions the members made to ensure their new home's sustainability.
No old-growth trees would die as it was built. Only the common house
would have air conditioning.
A third of the acreage would remain in a natural state.
Low-toxicity materials would be used whenever possible. Gray water
would be recycled for nondrinking purposes. Landscaping would be
indigenous and drought-resistant.
Although the idea of a Sierra summer without cold air on demand
makes Mari Kobus, 61, "a little nervous," she said, she is very proud
of her new home's deep green pedigree.
"All of us," she said at a recent group potluck, "are committed to living more lightly on the environment."
Such complex decisions were a snap compared with writing the Wolf Creek
Lodge pet policy, which took weeks of discussion in person and online.
The joy that animals can bring was weighed against their potential for
destruction, noise against security. Quantity was a serious sticking
In the end, the group decided on two pets per unit and nothing too
exotic. But the policy is flexible enough so the falconer who is
thinking about moving in would be welcome. Along with his hawk.
Exceptions will be considered case by case. Said Marriott: "We don't want to exclude someone on the basis of an extra cat."
Although the financial details won't be firmed up until
construction begins, the units are expected to run from about $200,000
for those designated affordable to $500,000. Seventeen have already
been sold, and the project's marketing committee is seeking new members.
The complex is designed for adults, and there are no child-friendly
amenities, although grandchildren are welcome and a multi-generational
cohousing project is planned for the same property.
So far, the denizens of Wolf Creek Lodge are decidedly 21st century
seniors. The common areas of their new home will include an espresso
bar, a hot tub and a computer room. The residents communicate via
listserv and e-mail and chide their future neighbors who don't bother
to sign on often enough.
The complex will also have two guest suites and a unit that could be
used for a shared caregiver, because these women and men are nothing if
They have no plans to slow down any time soon, but they realize that
someday they'll be glad their doorways were designed to accommodate
wheelchairs and walkers.
They have also faced the reality that there may come a day when some of
them will need the kind of intensive care provided by nursing homes.
But they are betting that Wolf Creek Lodge will accommodate them
through, say, cancer or heart disease, the kinds of ailments that
require some skilled assistance on a regular basis and a cadre of
supportive neighbors nearby.
"My preference is to die at home with hospice," said Virginia Thresh,
which would be possible at Wolf Creek Lodge. But "I am not at all
thinking that if I'm really in need of 24-hour care, it will happen in
Elder cohousing in America is so new that little is known about how it
will actually work when residents become old and frail and ill.
This country's first two elder cohousing complexes opened their doors
two years ago, Durrett and other experts said. Residents of the third
moved in late this fall. Only one person has died in such a community
in the U.S. And only one has been institutionalized for dementia.
Both were residents of Glacier Circle in Davis, near Sacramento, where
most of the members have known one another for the last 40 years and
belong to the same Unitarian Universalist church. The average age of
the residents who moved into the complex when it opened in late 2005
Glacier Circle resident Ellen Coppock, 81, says residents there have
only one regret: "We all wish we'd started five years earlier."
The future residents of Wolf Creek Lodge are at a distinct advantage in
that respect. Although they range in age from 59 to 84, most are in
And that, said Marriott, is "the whole point."
"The idea is to make lifestyle choices now that can sustain you through
your future but which provide a lot of fun," she said. "The idea is to
maintain control over your own life as long as possible."