Monday, 2 January 2017

Cohousing - A brilliant concept whose time has come?

Happy New Year 

Firstly I would like to wish readers of this blog a happy new year (unless of course you read this in say June or July in which case I hope the year is going well for you).

I wanted to start 2017 with a post that teemed with positivity and good news after the fairly grim world news of 2016. This particular piece of good news literally turned up on my doorstep a few weeks ago when diggers started preparatory work for a cohousing project sited at the end of my garden.No, diggers at the end of my garden is not the good news story, but cohousing is! Although some of you will doubtless know about cohousing, I knew nothing until a cohousing group purchased the land near me and started talking to the local community about their plans. I found their vision and plans exciting, bold, hopeful and inspiring. Cohousing, in principle, appears to provide a template for living that answers many of the troubling questions we may have as we approach the more senior phase of our lives although as a concept it is applicable to all ages.

Good news but let's get the not so good stuff out the way first  

So let's start with the not so good stuff before moving on to extremely positive stuff. This blog started life as a way for me to reflect on retirement and to look at the opportunities and challenges that retirement brings. Retirement is also a time when one takes stock, looking back at one's accomplishments and disappointments and also looking to the future and anticipating what may be in store

This is when things can look decidedly less rosy. I shall use my dear old mum as an example. When she and my dad were in their early 60's they moved to be near me and my family. They were fairly fit, solvent and looking forward to enjoying the opportunities of retirement and being doting grandparents. That was their "here and now" but what would happen if one of them was left alone, became ill, got dementia, needed care? There were no plans for these scenarios, they were simply too difficult and uncomfortable to contemplate and in the place of thought out plans my parents' refrain was one familiar to others I'm sure; "I never want to go into a retirement home." That was it. They would never go in a home, no matter what, and I must never try and put them in a home. Plans A,B and C. End of story. I suppose you would call it denial.

Then in 2007 my dad died and my mother quickly developed a mixture of dementia and psychotic episodes. She made increasingly self defeating decisions such as moving to a retirement bungalow out of town that isolated here from friends, family and neighbours. I'll spare the depressing details but her dementia plus increasing psychosis meant that after two enforced stays in hospital I was told that my mother needed to be in residential care; she was not safe to be on her own any longer. I found a home, sold her house to pay for it and then spent 4 years watching the grim sight of my mother become someone I barely recognised and in the process not being cared for as she should have been until I finally found a care home that treated my mum with respect and dignity. None of this, of course, was in her basic plan but because there were few alternatives for my parents' generation my mum's story is one common to many elderly people. 

So now it's the turn of my generation to face the future; what plans will we put in place for that time when we can no longer live in the way that we used to? What are our choices? Some will actively choose to go into residential care and if you have enough money that could be a fantastic choice. Yet many of us have seen our own parents depressed, isolated or being poorly looked after in very expensive care homes. Some like retirement villages and sheltered housing, great for some but usually owned and controlled by companies and not the residents. We also know the care system (in the U.K. at least) is not just creaking but falling apart at the seams so even care in one's own home is increasingly problematic.  We are a generation where many of our children are living in far flung locations so the cosy idea of living as wise grandparents in a three generation extended family is just not going to happen for most of us. So not too many great choices there for us. We also know, unlike our parents, that generally we will live longer lives. The post second world war generations have not been ones to simply put up with the poor choices that have been handed down to them. They have been used to creating their own destinies and coming up with new solutions and now as we collectively approach the more elderly phases of our lives it becomes clear that if we don't like the choices on offer, if we want to stay in control of our lives, then we have to find and create alternatives for ourselves. I believe that one such alternative could be the expansion of co-housing. 

What is Cohousing?

I pointed out at the start that I only found out about co-housing because a co-housing group purchased a big plot of land at the end of my garden a couple of years ago. Immediately this group started to engage with the local community; sharing their plans and ideals, inviting our comments and even inviting interested parties to consider joining them. So what is co-housing? The following is a potted description from the website for the UK Cohousing Network:

" Cohousing in a nutshell

Cohousing communities are created and run by their residents. Each household has a self-contained, private home but residents come together to manage their community and share activities. Cohousing is a way of combating the alienation and isolation many experience today, recreating the neighbourly support of the past. This can happen anywhere, in your street or starting a new community using empty homes or building new."

There you have it. Housing developments designed by those who will live there, independent housing units with some shared communal facilities plus integration into a community based on the values of co-operation, sharing and mutual support. Although cohousing is not just for older people it does seem like an ideal way for older people to plan a different, shared way of living that could avoid the isolation and lack of support experienced by many older people up until now.For many it could also provide an alternative to the feared "ending up in a retirement home."

The group that have started developing the land near me (Cannock Mill Cohousing) have members that are 40+ years of age and their vision is one of independent living within a development where there will be shared spaces and a commitment to be part of a sharing community that will support one another. The members of the group have helped plan what the development will look like and an architect amongst them has designed the houses with input from the whole group. There is a commitment to sustainable development and they want to involve their new neighbours. The group will do things together, look out for one another and it seems inconceivable that any of the members will have to grow old in isolation and without proper care.  Never having heard of co-housing until this group bought the land, I thought this was a brilliant concept and a bold design for living. I also thought it was a new concept. Not so. When I looked into it I realised that co-housing has been a movement that took off in Denmark in the 1960's and has been growing for many years in the USA.  Then a couple of weeks ago there was a BBC news item about the UK's first women only senior co-housing project.
Some of the 26 women from the High Barnet group

26 women had finally moved into their new development In High Barnet. It was the U.K.'s first senior all female cohousing development. It had been many years in the planning but they had achieved their dream. What a powerful sight it was seeing those women, in control of their lives, moving into accommodation designed by themselves, all looking forward to new adventures whilst supporting each other. I know it's not a something that everyone would want but it does seem such an empowering and positive way forward.

Having seen the group of women realising their dream a few weeks ago and how excited and joyful they were to be doing it together and the building work going on at the bottom of my garden makes me convinced that co-housing is an idea who's time has definitely come.
The diggers have started ground works
Cannock Mill is the white building and will be the shared space for the community

It offers the prospect of looking to the future with confidence and joy instead of fear and trepidation. Hopefully as the knowledge of co-housing increases it will become easier for groups of people to set up such schemes and for people to join these schemes.

The group setting up near me are called "Cannock Mill Cohousing"  and I will finish this post by letting them speak for themselves. They do it so much more eloquently than me.

Why cohousing?

The simple answer is because it enables a caring, sharing way of life that eliminates the social isolation that threatens many today, especially in later life, and recreates the neighbourly support of the past.
In cohousing, we know our neighbours and look out for each other; we choose as much privacy or as much socialising as we want; we decide collectively what shared facilities we want to build — a common house where we can cook and eat together, say twice a week, where there will also be guest rooms, a workshop, library, laundry, space for music … dancing … a gym … the possibilities are endless.  We can share gardening, cars, skills, carers in old age — with common facilities and functions jointly owned and run by us.
As a cohousing group we do not have any central religious or social agenda, we are just individuals who see the benefits of an intentional community.  We have agreed, however, that we all aim for maximum eco-efficiency: low energy homes, water efficiency, solar power generation, growing fruit and veg — in other words ‘living lightly’. We will also integrate with and contribute to the wider community in Colchester.


  1. Absolutely fascinating. I can't believe I haven't heard of this! And there are several in NY state. I love the idea of coexisting for the common good, looking out for each other, sharing and enriching their own life and the lives of those with whom they live.

    I could see this as a great option for couples where one spouse has dementia, or some other chronic health problem. You are right; we don't plan or expect these bad things to happen to us. Part denial, part fear...

    Thanks for the uplifting post. How wonderful to be living so close to this wonderful community. You'll have to keep us posted as to how this all turns out.

  2. Hi Carole,part of the reason for doing the post was that until they started this development on my doorstep, I hadn't heard of cohousing either so the more publicity and speading the word, the better I think. They are also a lovely group of people, organising update sessions for the people in my neighbourhood and wanting to establish themselves not just within their own community but within the broader community surrounding the development. I'll defintely keep you updated. Thanks for your comment and interest. John

  3. Very interesting. Is this similar to the many retirement complexes we have in the UK? The ones I have heard of everyone has their own apartment/flat but they get together for entertainment and meals and have folk on hand to help in emergencies. I have been looking at brochures because I am unsure of my future. I am in my eighties so I think I need to get something positive going for my future.

    1. Hi Valerie the difference between retirement complexes and cohousing is that in cohousing the development is planned by the members and the members decide how to run things. They also have a commitment to do some things cooperatively. They are a smashing bunch of people so why not have a chat with someone who is involved. The group developing the site near me are Cannock Mill cohousing . Try this link and there will be contact us tab I'm sure. They still have a couple of houses available! Glad you found it interesting

  4. Hi John, I'm one of the Cannock Mill people and want to thank you for this lovely blog about our project. We're all very excited that the preparatory work has started at last and it's great to see the photos from your back garden.

  5. Thanks Sara, it was a lovely and relevant subject to write about. Look forward to having you all as neighbours. I think I will also do updates as work on the site progresses. Good luck.

  6. John, I have been following the development of a co-housing project in a little village in a northern part of Canada near where I used to live. I love the idea of being part of a supportive community as we all age in place together. I know one of the couples, and another single woman who are building their homes there. There are two lots left! Rob and I have discussed it as a possibility. Yet, the location is very far away from our two sets of grandchildren. And, in truth, we don't feel old enough for that kind of living arrangement yet (possibly we're deluding ourselves; we're both in our sixties). Places to go! Things to do!

  7. Hi Jude - it's interesting just how wide spread the cohousing movement is and it does have some really appealing features. I can see that location is an important factor especially in such a massive country like Canada. I think that the way the movement is going, it won't be long before it's seen as a viable way of living regardless of age. Good luck with the places to go and things to do!


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