Is Cohousing a Viable Alternative for Seniors?
Written by Bonnie Munday

Monday, July 9th, 2018

Cohousing is a potential alternative for people who prefer a tight-knit community over a traditional seniors' care home.

Last spring, Margaret Critchlow, 70, had hip replacement surgery. "When I got home from hospital, our neighbours made it so easy for my husband and me while I recovered, helping us and providing meals," she said.

Not everyone has such great neighbours, but not everyone lives at Harbourside Senior Cohousing Community in Sooke, B.C., which opened in January 2016. It's one of many senior cohousing communities in Canada, developed and funded by the residents.

What is Cohousing?

Whether for multiple generations or seniors only, the concept is the same: neighbourhoods that combine the autonomy of private dwellings with shared resources and community living, according to the nonprofit Canadian Cohousing Network. Each person or family has private living quarters, including kitchen, but there are communal spaces for socializing.

Cohousing—whether for seniors only, or generations including children (there are 12 intergenerational models in Canada)—is an idea originating in Denmark. But Charles Durrett of Nevada City, California, has been credited with introducing it to North America with his and Kathryn McCamant's 1989 book Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves. He published a handbook to senior cohousing in 2005. Durrett's architecture firm has designed more than 50 cohousing communities around the world, including Harbourside. There are currently around 165 in the United States.

"I got interested in this after growing up in both a suburban area and a small town," explains Durrett. "In the small town, people knew and supported each other, but in suburbia, they didn't. My grandmother was bedridden for her last ten years, but neighbours cared for her."

Is Cohousing Affordable?

Cohousing at Habourside is comparable to buying a condo. "We have 31 units with some 45 people aged 50 to 86," explains Critchlow, a founding member of Harbourside who is also a director of the Canadian Senior Cohousing Society. "The average cost of units, which range from about 630 to 950 square feet, was $375,000." That covers all costs including development and construction. "The owners are the developers, and contribute minimum 10% of their unit's cost as a down payment." Everyone is on the condo board. Residents can sell their unit if they wish, although the concept is that people will stay for life, to age in place."

What's Included?

Residents also pay $300 per unit monthly in condo fees. That's used for upkeep such as repairs to common areas, lawn maintenance and snow shovelling—although, Critchlow says, residents do most of that themselves. Residents pay their own utility bills, and cleaning services they might hire for their unit. When someone needs specialized care, "we have a studio apartment for visiting carers, such as nurses," says Critchlow. The apartment's cost is covered by everyone, but the care is paid for by the person needing it. Residents pay for their own groceries, so the cost of food would be the same as if you were in your own home.

Cohousing Compared to a Seniors' Residence

It's tough to compare that to the cost of a traditional independent-living seniors' residence, as there are many variables across provinces, including whether the facility is private or subsidized. Plus, monthly rates vary based on whether food, personal care, parking and facilities upkeep are included or are extra costs. However, the latest 2017 numbers from the CMHC (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation) show that the average monthly rent for a 1-bedroom independent-living unit in a seniors' residence, with minimal personal care, is $2,740 in Atlantic Canada; $4,179 in Ontario; and $3,055 in Alberta and B.C.

There are so many options that you'll want to do some research to decide what feels right for your needs and your budget.

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