Housing Alternatives for an Aging Population

Margaret Critchlow was invited to participate in a Cohousing panel at the 2014 John Friesen conference, “Housing Alternatives for an Aging Population” held at Simon Fraser University’s downtown Vancouver campus May 28-29, 2014. Here is what she said:

Canadian Senior Cohousing presentation to Cohousing panel at SFU Friesen Conference, Vancouver, May 28, 2014

Margaret Critchlow, PhD, President, Canadian Senior Cohousing Society

There is a lot of talk these days about the silver tsunami, the demographic surge of “Baby Boomers” born between 1946 and 64 who are turning 65 at the rate of 1,000 a day in Canada. (10,000/day in the US).  There is a lot of concern about the impact of the silver tsunami from those of us who are growing older, from those who are expected to look after us, and from those concerned about the people and the environment that will be our legacy.

Fear arises easily when I look at the options available to our parents and realize that I don’t want those options and, worse, I couldn’t afford them. Baby Boomers had fewer children than previous generations so our potential for being a “burden” is spread among fewer offspring, and for those without children, where do we turn for family-like support as we age?  We live 25 years longer than people did in 1900, so prospect of outliving our savings increases especially as our generation has saved so little for retirement. Beyond the level of the individual, the “system” worries about everything from Baby Boomers’ potential demands for medical care, to our history of degrading the health of the planet.

But I think fear should be a wake up call not a way of life. How about turning fear into a positive energy, a sense of possibility unlike anything the world has seen since the Sixties?  Ask yourself, “What would you do with a gift of extra time in what the poet Mary Oliver calls your ‘one, wild and precious life?’” Think about it. That’s the first step. After that, there are many paths toward flourishing as we age. What inspires you, activates your energy, makes you feel you could “be the change”?

Now is your moment. Perhaps your last chance? The world needs you. And, here’s the important part – we need each other. Do you know that social isolation is more likely to kill you than smoking? Social connection is the key to flourishing in old age. It is probably the key to flourishing at any age, yet social interaction is undervalued in our individualistic society.

For this conference, a central question becomes, how can housing support flourishing through social connection in an aging society? Harbourside Cohousing in Sooke, BC, is a prototype.  It is the second senior cohousing in Canada, after Wolf Willow in Saskatoon. It is the first, however, to include (1) a suite for a caregiver in the common house, and (2) an emphasis on development of “co-care” or voluntary, neighbourly support. (3) Harbourside is the only cohousing in the world, as for as we know, to have a required course weekend for membership.

Harbourside’s process has been to build the group beginning in late 2010, then find the site in 2012 – a spectacular waterfront site in the centre of the small town of Sooke. The site includes a resort building suitable for our common house and a commercial-grade wharf. We hired Ronaye Matthew as project manager in 2013. We expect to begin construction late this summer and to move in next summer. We continue to invest as much energy in creating community agreements and “glue” as we do in design and financial decisions. We have no age restriction. Our members range in age from 47 to 90, and include 3 generations. Every unit has a south-facing view of Sooke Harbour, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Olympic Mountains. Harbourside already has 90% of the membership in place and is taking a waiting list for most unit sizes.

Next steps beyond Harbourside. Canadian Senior Cohousing Society which gave rise to Harbourside, proposes to adapt the principles of cohousing to the needs of an aging population in Canada. Thanks to Charles Durrett, we know that cohousing is already well established in Europe. He has shown us that cohousing encourages social connection, affordability, reduced energy consumption, green building, participation, and a sense of collective responsibility. Tricia and Alan Carpenter and others at Windsong blazed the trail for cohousing in Canada.

We follow in their footsteps with Canadian Senior Cohousing (CSCS), a non profit society that (1) encourages the development of senior cohousing in Canada, beginning with Harbourside Cohousing. (2) CSCS created an experiential weekend workshop, “Aging Well in Community” now called “Dare to Age Well in Community,” that opens participants to many possibilities including cohousing. As I said, the course is required for membership in Harbourside. We offer it through Royal Roads University and also take it on the road. We trained Tricia and her colleagues in Source Facilitation to offer the course in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland.

(3) CSCS is seeking funding to document the development of senior cohousing in Canada and extract best practices. We see senior cohousing as a major social innovation. In 15 years’ time, seniors will be approximately a third of the population: 10 million people will be over 55 years of age in Canada. If just one per cent of this population wanted to take advantage of Senior Cohousing in its present model we would need 2,000 projects Harbourside’s size across the country. The reality is that we would be lucky to provide 200 projects, i.e. providing for 0.1% of the population.

As I see it, the demand for senior cohousing is limited by three barriers: (1) affordability. Cohousing is basically market housing. People need equity to buy into senior cohousing under the current model of strata-titled home ownership. (2) scarcity of project management capacity. It is limited to the energy and skills of a very few firms, concentrated in BC  and California (3) inertia. People want to age in place.  They are wary of change. They are “not ready.”

Working to soften these barriers, CSCS believes that senior cohousing can be a major social innovation if we focus on the “software” – i.e., adapting cohousing principles to a wide range of housing forms and potential demand – I said we would be lucky to build senior cohousing for 0.1% of the senior population. So what happens to the other 99.9% of the elderly population? This is where we get really inventive. How about retrofitting the culture of existing buildings and strata councils, neighbourhood houses for seniors, and housing co-operatives with the values (e.g. co-care, participation, shared leadership, social connection, reduced energy use) already developed in cohousing? In this way much closer to 100% of the elderly population can benefit from what co-housing has to teach us.

We have formed a partnership with the Community Social Planning Council and we are looking for other partners want to scale senior cohousing up and out through innovative ways of reducing costs, and encouraging shared leadership and responsibility.  We are developing an Aging Well in Community Matrix for expressing our holistic approach that is central to my poster on display at the conference: Senior Cohousing — Surfing the Silver Tsunami


In conclusion, I invite your to view our Matrix and contact me. I hope you will share my excitement about Harbourside and about the possibility that senior cohousing holds to become a transformative social innovation. I believe our kids will thank us for senior cohousing because we will be safe, happy, and not a burden to them. Those without kids will thank their own good judgment! I believe society will thank us for senior cohousing because of the dollars we will save the health care system. I believe the construction industry will thank us for coming up with a replicable model for housing that seniors want and will buy. Most of all, I believe we will thank ourselves for the gifts that senior cohousing offers: gifts of friendships, green, accessible and affordable housing, and the opportunity to learn, lead, and grow as we age. 

18 Responses to Housing Alternatives for an Aging Population

  1. Lillian BeAudoin says:

    Want to learn more about concept and design. Who can I talk to? How can I see more. Would like to invest in concept here ottawa, Ontario.

    • Margaret Critchlow says:

      Convivium Cohousing is listed on the Canadian Cohousing Network as “forming” an adult-oriented community in Ottawa. http://www.cohousing.ca/detailed.htm#ON. Their email address is conviviumcohousing@gmail.com.

    • Rebecca Aird says:

      Hello Lillian: I live at Terra Firma cohousing in Ottawa (one of the founding members), and am also currently involved in a project to explore and develop innovative approaches to accommodating older adults in the new Regional development in Old Ottawa East. Would you like to be included in the invitation to a first public meeting of that initiative?

      • Helene Fagan says:

        My research this morning has taken me to your comments which are dated 2014. I have attended some group meeting on senior co-housing in Ottawa which did not show any real solution, more questions.
        I am ready to take part, perhaps invest in some concept of senior co-housing and would like to speak with you about the development you are speaking of above as I am at the point where i have a much better idea of what i and hopefully many others really are looking for. Please contact me.

  2. Cornelia Laven says:

    Are there senior cohousing options available in Toronto. I have been net searching and find nothing tangible. Any information would be most appreciated. I am a near senior living on my own but would like to share an affordable apartment or house with a senior or pre-senior. Baba Yaga is an interesting concept but the meet-ups in Toronto seem to be no longer available.

    • Sarah Ayerst says:

      Hi Cornelia, I am just about to join a group here in Hamilton that’s on-track to build a small shared house. It’s good to be part of an actual doing-something project. Although I am whole heartedly invested in the concept of co-housing I feel the need to see and feel sprouts of activity. Keep in touch through Canadian Senior Cohousing Society. Let’s make it happen soon near you.

    • Mary Huang says:

      Hi Cornelia,

      There are 2 forming cohousing groups in Toronto…
      1) Wine on the porch which would reside in the same house and

      2) Canopy CoHousing which would be independent units with a common house

  3. Pingback: Communes Come Full Circle - Cohousing for Boomers

  4. Suzanne Gagnier says:

    Hi, I was wondering if you know of any cohousing projects in the greater Montreal area? I’d like to learn more about it.

  5. helene fagan says:

    my idea some years ago when we first started talking about senior cohousing was for 3 or 4 women or men to get together, purchase a 3 or 4 unit building and live independently/together. Big commitment, yes but in the worse case scenario, one person can always sell his or her unit or his or her share in a co op situation.
    . No takers then, and we are still talking about concept etc. and meetings about meetings. Even when there are leaders, the followers do not want to participate. I will continue to visit the Radical housing website and see what can come of that.

    • Shelia says:

      Helene – I have been talking about the same thing in the US. Have you seen Ross Chapin’s Microhouse House? It’s designed to be built on a single family lot and permitted as a four bedroom house. Why not a cohousing lite group of these in a regular neighborhood, or one sprinkled here and there? Or a whole subdivision/cohousing of them.

  6. Monica Pinch says:

    I am 69 and have lived in Victoria b.c. all but 5 years of my life. My mom, 2 sisters and spouses, 3 children and spouses and 5 grandchildren all live and /or work here.
    I am searching for a 50+ community oriented individually owned complex i.e co-housing. I have no health issues, so feel that this is still possible for me.
    Ready to buy and get involved, possibly Sidney.

  7. Carrie Renshaw says:

    I am looking for a senior’s cooperative living project in Alberta. I would enjoy sharing my later years with like minded people instead of being alone. How does one get started to find such a project?
    Many thanks!

    • David says:

      Hi Carrie, how did you make out with your search? I’m in the process of acquiring my first property for the purposes of developing an age-friendly coliving community near Calgary. I hope to connect with the author of this article for some guidance also.

  8. I would like to know about your two day course and if it could be modified and offered to people wanting to share their existing homes, or wanting to share homes that they would rent/lease as a group.
    We are working toward having a fully interactive web site created that would allow all individuals interested in community living, of all kinds, to safely create and post their own profile of what and where they would like to share, and read other individual’s profiles, as a way to begin the process of finding others of like mind.
    The sole purpose of this web site is to provide a free communication tool and link so that all individuals from all areas can find and choose others of like mind or similar vision to enable them to find their own home share or community living group.
    This site would also list courses, classes, or seminars that would help to guide them through the steps they need to take to make the change to group living successfully.
    I am hoping that your course could be modified to guide those that wish to live with others in a rented collective home, or wish to share their current home.
    I look forward to hearing from you.

    • Margaret Critchlow says:

      That sounds great, Twila, but I don’t have expertise in home sharing or rental collective homes. The demand for “conventional” cohousing is enough to fill my courses at the moment. Is there someone else out there who would like to create educational support for what Twila is proposing?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.