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Elder Cohousing

A new option for retirement — or sooner!


Neighbors examine the architect's model of their Silver Sage Village, senior cohousing that combines privacy and community. — Courtesy of The Cohousing Company

Durrett, author of The Senior Cohousing Handbook, estimates that an individual household can save as much as $70,000 (and gain a 4,500-square-foot common house) in a low-market, 20-unit cohousing community and $337,5000 in a high-market project. Of course, it depends on the condo, amenities and setup desired.

The nuts and bolts

The biggest draw, though, is that residents are in complete control. They make their own rules and reach decisions by consensus. They can decide to cook a communal meal or weed the shared garden themselves. Or the group might opt for potluck rather than take turns whipping up dinners, or choose to hire a gardener instead.

They can join at any stage, including after the project is completed, but those involved from the start usually find the land, and always work closely with the architect plus the developer, contractor, town zoning board or bank. An emerging field of cohousing specialists — architects, developers, consultants — is walking newbies through the complicated and time-consuming process of creating a community from scratch.

Susan Burwen, 64, says creating elder cohousing in Silicon Valley's Mountain View, Calif., is as demanding as any paid 40-hour-a-week job. The group wanted its site to be within walking distance of public transportation, restaurants, a performing arts center, a library and a farmers market, knowing that as they age, they will be driving less. (Cohousing residents drive 60 percent less than those in single-family housing.) In 2009, after a three-year hunt, Burwen found a little over an acre in downtown Mountain View with a farmhouse.

The farmhouse will be used for guests and eventually caregivers, and they're planning to construct a three-story building with 19 condo-style units designed by Durrett. Unlike most projects, where the common house is a separate building, theirs will be under the same roof as the residences. Gathering nooks, gardens and pedestrian walkways will be bountiful, as will the we're-all-in-this-aging-business-together spirit.

In the 1960s, as a newly married couple, Burwen and her husband, David, lived in a run-down Victorian near Boston with a bunch of students. "The key was that we all had enough private space and our own friends and we also had shared space and lots of wonderful, spontaneous interactions," she recalls. Now with their two sons grown, the Burwens are hoping to recapture that dynamic, without the shabby digs of yesteryear; units at Mountain View will sell for $750,000 to $1.25 million. They hope to move in two years from now. "We didn't know one another when we started and we are already a very bonded group," says Burwen.

Next: A self-selecting process >>

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