Durrett estimates there will be about 300 cohousing communities nationwide by 2020. Although some projects have been canceled or delayed because of the recession, building them "is getting more affordable because we're constantly refining the design. Extras we had to pay for to make a project green 10 years ago are now incorporated into the figure," Durrett says. "Boomers and others want a higher quality of life while living lighter on the planet."
Two years ago, when Barrett and Dempewolff downsized to their 900-square-foot, three-bedroom unit in Mosaic Commons in Massachusetts from their single-family home of 35 years, their son and daughter, now 30 and 33 and living in Los Angeles and New York, "thought cohousing was weird," says Dempewolff, a clinical psychologist. "But each has come and met a lot of people and now think it's great for us." Recently after work, her husband was walking on the path to their house when a neighbor on a porch asked him if he wanted a glass of wine.
"I thought, this is why I am here!" says Barrett. "If I had stayed in my old house, I'd be more isolated now. I like the fact that there's always someone around when I come home."
Being there for one another
But cohousing is about far more than superficial encounters. It is about developing relationships with members and caring about them. In January, Beezy Bentzen, 73, who is divorced and whose only child lives 3,000 miles away, had her hip replaced. A member of Mosaic Commons picked her up from the hospital in a snowstorm and others stocked her refrigerator and freezer with homemade soups. "I could see people passing by and no one had to go out of their way if I needed assistance with small things," says Bentzen. Cohousing members are not meant to replace hired help — Bentzen would likely have had to hire professional help or go to rehab if she had needed a lot of attention.
When a member of Craig Ragland's intergenerational Songaia Cohousing Community near Seattle was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, he paid for some outside help, but community members also pitched in to care for him. As a result, he was able to stay in his home until he died.
"Fred was a beloved man and almost everyone chose to be involved in one way or another," says Ragland, executive director of the Cohousing Association of the United States. "He had circulation problems. It was not unusual to see a kid rubbing Fred's feet."