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

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