Years ago, when first looking at assisted living facilities for my aging parents, I had a brilliant idea for how my husband and I — when it was our turn to be old — might age in a non-institutional setting instead. Surely there were viable alternatives. Why not get a group of people together to buy an apartment building, I thought, turn one of the apartments into a common space for regular socializing, reserve an apartment for the caregiver we’d eventually need and collectively pay, and retain the rest as private dwellings? This would provide the antidote to age-related social isolation, let us pool resources to make home care more affordable, and still ensure us privacy and autonomy.
We shopped the idea around to friends, and while several embraced it in principle, we couldn’t agree on where to live — not even on which coast, let alone in what specific building. Lifelong relationships, we discovered, didn’t trump personal preferences for oceans versus mountains, ample parking versus good public transportation, proximity to family or distance from them. It turned out that our shared commitment to progressive politics and good Thai restaurants was too wobbly a foundation for a future life together.
I subsequently learned that what I was proposing closely resembled the model for cohousing. In the late 1960s, a Danish woman, eager to break the solitude and exhaustion of parenting small children, wrote an article titled “Children Should Have 100 Parents.” It galvanized a group of about 50 parents to set up two residential communities where shared child care and mutual support were the social glue.
In form, cohousing communities resemble condo complexes, with anywhere from 15 to 40 individually owned homes clustered around a common house — the gathering place for shared meals, meetings, and celebrations. But unlike people living in traditional condos, residents work five to 10 hours a month at tasks like landscaping, preparing group meals, and babysitting. The work requirement lowers costs and condo fees. But more important, it fuels emotional investment in the community, strengthening mutual-aid muscles and ensuring frequent, easy opportunities to interact with others.
Since that weary Danish mother’s call to action, the idea has spread worldwide. More than 295 cohousing communities have been established in the United States — their number nearly doubling since 2016, when there were 160 such communities. And the pandemic has fueled even more interest in the model, particularly among older people. By highlighting the perils of social isolation, the pandemic lockdown led many to see cohousing communities as potential “pods” to counter it.
That wasn’t what motivated me to pursue the idea, though. Even during the pandemic’s peak, my husband and I had managed to avoid extreme isolation. The Cambridge home we lived in was on a small, tightly packed street where neighbors knew one another, stopped to chat on occasion, met up to plan Halloween extravaganzas, and even shoveled one another’s sidewalks.
But the vibe gradually changed along with our aging bodies. Friends and neighbors moved to be closer to their kids. As we slid into our late 60s, talk about illness and loss began to infiltrate our conversations. The hassles of hauling groceries, laundry, and ourselves up and down three flights of stairs multiple times a day began to outweigh the joys, as did the perpetual quest for coveted on-street parking spots. We realized that we wanted to be in a setting where both intergenerational socializing and mutual aid were the norm, where we could own less and do more, and where we could at least sort of live by our long-held value of “from each according to their ability to each according to their needs.”
Finally, my husband and I took the leap and bought a small house in a brand-new cohousing community in Northampton, Mass.
I confess that in my many moments of doubt before making the move eight months ago, I couldn’t imagine how cohousing would be substantially different from or better than what we already had. But the difference is this: In cohousing, we trade some measure of autonomy for some measure of commitment to one another. Many of those exchanges are trivial, like carnivores agreeing to group vegetarian dinners. But some are more substantial, like donating money to install solar panels on the Common House with no guarantee of full or timely repayment, or listening repeatedly and respectfully to other people who may, on occasion, drive us nuts.
When asked, I still flippantly characterize the move to friends as a return to our hippie roots. I describe the smallish single-family and duplex houses nestled around the community’s crescent-shaped walk as looking eerily reminiscent of the set of the movie “The Truman Show.” And to some extent, the people look that way too. But though we skew older and whiter, we also have some young families with young children and some young couples who may become bigger families.
“Life in America is cold and isolating,” observes Nguyen Luong, a 32-year-old member of my community. She is relatively new to this country, and her memories of growing up in a rural village in Vietnam are still fresh. “In my village, kids were in and out of other people’s houses all day,” she says. “All the grown-ups were Uncle or Aunty or Grandmother or Grandfather, and everyone knew what was happening in each other’s lives.” When she and her husband had a child, they looked for a similar environment in which to raise him.
We have a mix of married and single and straight and gay, and a modicum of ethnic diversity. We have people who go to church every week and die-hard atheists; people who run marathons and people who walk with canes; climate activists and merely sympathetic bystanders. Our members are teachers, writers, dog groomers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, and retail clerks.
Despite silently referring to our Common House as the Utopia Home Office, there is nothing utopian about this community. “Utopia,” after all, means “an impractical scheme for social improvement” or “an imaginary and indefinitely remote place.” But even with all of its messiness, intensity, and quirkiness, cohousing is a surprisingly pragmatic way to combat endemic loneliness and tangibly nurture the greater good.
That’s a lofty phrase, “the greater good,” but it’s enabled through daily, mundane actions like sharing lawnmowers, snowblowers, and soon, for us, a car. And as COVID subsides, shared meals will become routine.
I recently received an email asking for half a cup of raisins and another seeking a ride to and from a colonoscopy. (Yes, this does confirm what I said about our community’s demographic makeup.) But the offers typically outnumber the requests. My inbox is peppered with tenders of, well, peppers, along with other excess produce, furniture, concert tickets, small trees, lessons on how to cook Japanese knotweed, and a mind-boggling number of tips on composting etiquette.
Forty-eight former strangers are trying not only to find common ground but to define what ground should be common and what should be private. This, it turns out, is hard. We have different visions, values, and aesthetics. Are raised corrugated tin gardening beds, for example, for the serious gardener or the lazy one? Are they industrial chic or just industrial?
Cohousing is not for the meeting-averse. There are meetings and more meetings. Sometimes, feelings get hurt. Some people have unusual sensitivities to things like off-gasses from sofa cushions, say, or the tiniest hint of mildew. We honor those differences even when we don’t understand them. And there are what I suppose are the inevitable disparities of time and intention: Not everyone devotes equal hours or emotional energy to making things work.
But there is also satisfaction, even joy, when we get it right. We’ve already been in more neighbors’ homes and had more of them to ours than we did in 38 years on our old block in the city. We’re listening to music together, walking each other’s dogs, protesting investments in fossil fuels, and trading favorite books. We routinely provide service to one another, picking up something at the store, bringing food to an ill neighbor, helping one another with tasks rather than calling a contractor. Recently, as I convalesced from knee surgery, I was treated to near-daily short but pleasantly diverting visits and deliveries of soups, cookies, and plants (that I’ve yet to kill!).
Of course, this kind of help — episodic and untaxing — is easy to ask for and to give. But what about the daily, sometimes grueling work associated with tending to the eventually chronic needs of the elderly? After all, it’s one thing to propose sharing an electric vehicle charger with a neighbor; it’s another to ask them for help in emptying a bedside commode.
If I am anything like my own parents, I’ll feel at least some shame in eventually needing hands-on help. And if, like them, I dread burdening my children with the daily tasks of helping me dress or bathe or toilet, I’m unlikely to ask that of my neighbors, however close we’ve become. The sad, strange American truth is that even in a countercultural cohousing community, I suspect we will be far more likely to pool dollars to hire strangers to address our physical needs than to do it ourselves.
We may not be able to create a wholly interdependent future with people with whom we have no past. For those who may eventually need hands-on care each day, cohousing probably won’t be an alternative to the hired help or old people’s warehouse that so many people my age dread.
But until then, it’s making our todays richer. I’ve discovered that I’m already ensconced in an assisted living community — a dynamic hive of sometimes helpless but always helpful people challenging and supporting one another to engage with life.
That’s a gift that never gets old.
Julie Wittes Schlack is a writer, former market researcher, and avid soup-maker. She is the author of the memoir “This All-at-Onceness” and the novel “Burning and Dodging.” Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @jwschlack.