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Intergenerational Cohousing

Clustered homes and a common house foster a community for making friends of all ages

A month after moving into his new home in Berlin, Mass., John Barrett received a call. Would he be interested in an alarm system, a security company wondered?

"Do you know where you're calling?" the 67-year-old corporate sales trainer asked. "I never even lock my door because I have all my neighbors around."

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No need for an alarm system here. Barrett and his private "posse" live at Mosaic Commons, a new intergenerational cohousing community, ages 8 months to 73 years old, 45 minutes west of Boston. He and his wife, Judy Dempewolff, are in good company; there are 124 mixed-age cohousing developments nationwide that include boomers and older adults. More than 40 are in the planning stages. (Elder cohousing, geared for those age 50-plus, is also gaining ground.)

What is cohousing?

In cohousing, a group purchases property by itself or with the help of a developer, and calls the shots at every stage, from design to construction to financing to defining the rules that will govern the community. Once it's completed, they also manage and maintain the property, with all decisions made by consensus. Most members buy their condos or attached homes, which range from $120,000 to $750,000 for one to five bedrooms. Some cohousing projects have only rental units; others are a combination of both.

In a typical project, 20 or so cohousing homes are clustered together. Usually, they have welcoming front porches that face one another or are attached to reinforce a sense of community. Walkways abound with kids riding scooters, or adults out for a stroll, and rather than individual garages, cars are parked at a distance to encourage a pedestrian-friendly, interaction-rich and safer atmosphere. Community members eat together a couple of times a week if they choose and jointly own outdoor space and a common house.

The common house, usually a separate building, contains a kitchen for preparing dinner or prettying up a potluck meal, and a dining room for communal meals. It also has a living room for socializing or holding meetings, and a couple of guest rooms that could also be used as caretakers' quarters. What else is in the common house depends on the community. Some choose a media or crafts room, office or an exercise studio, for example. "The common house is [seen as] an extension of their private home," says architect Charles Durrett, who has designed 50 cohousing projects in the United States and, along with his architect wife, Kathryn McCamant, brought the concept to this country in 1988 from Denmark.

Next: Being there for one another. »

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."

Informal encounters

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."

Next: Friendships with all ages. »

Friendships with all ages

The intergenerational component of cohousing is also a big draw. At Fresno Cohousing in Fresno, Calif., where the 28 one- to four-bedroom homes go for $200,000 to $300,000, George Burman, 71, has embarked on his third "career": surrogate grandparent. The retired navy engineer, who then became a high school physics and math teacher, and his wife, speech pathologist Patricia Looney-Burman, 68, "love the intergenerational aspect." Their own grandchildren live in Colorado and two hours away in California. "It's great to watch kids tear up and down the sidewalk on their scooters or stop to talk to us," he says. "Yesterday, a 2-year-old came to our front door and wanted to see our cats. It was delightful! Senior cohousing, I think, would be very boring!" He and others travel to hear his 14-year-old neighbor, a violinist, in concerts.

Charlene DiCalogero, 51, owns a 700-square-foot one-bedroom unit in Camelot Cohousing, a second intergenerational development built on property adjoining Mosaic Common in Massachusetts. One night after dinner she was playing a board game in the common house with other adults and children, and noticed none of the kids' parents were there. "I love that I get to have relationships with children in the community as well as older people," says the college grants administrator.

Too close for comfort?

Of course, when people live in close quarters, there inevitably will be conflict. "I've certainly had some disagreements with folks," says DiCalogero. "But we all know we're here for the long haul. Someone apologizes. Time passes and people get over it. That's real life. There are also lots of other people to hang out with." If members of Camelot's 34 households are unable to resolve an issue themselves, a committee helps deal with interpersonal friction.

Burman says resentment can build between those who pitch in more in the community and those who don't. While there may be a few scheduled workdays and many committees to keep the place running smoothly, rolling up sleeves is not mandatory. Most people, though, are participatory types, and that's why they choose cohousing.

Manoj Padki, his wife, Manisha Kher, their two children, Supriya, 11, and Aseem, 9, and his mother, Sarita Padki, 82, came to Camelot two years ago. "My grandma's a writer and wrote a play," says Supriya. "We got all the kids together and another older person here helped us make costumes for the play. We performed it at the common house three months ago."

Before they moved to Camelot, Padki and his family lived in a neighborhood that had few children. "We were always driving them everywhere," he says. "But here, it's awesome. My daughter gets up in the morning, has breakfast, and heads out and is on her own. I don't have to worry about her."

While Supriya may be thinking of Camelot as friend heaven, DiCalogero considers it "a major part of my retirement plan. I'm single and I know I will always have company and neighbors to help if I have any physical disabilities. In 10 years, they will be lifelong friends and will be another family for me."

Sally Abrahms, a writer from Boston who specializes in aging and boomers, has published in Time, Newsweek and the New York Times.