The Globe and Mail 2012-06-01

Better aging with (social) chemistry

Published Friday, Jun. 01 2012

by Erin Anderssen

When they move in together this summer, the residents of Wolf Willow plan to share cars and weekly dinners. They will walk to the theatre together and to the farmers market on Saturday morning and, perhaps, start their own yoga class in the courtyard. If someone falls and breaks a hip, there’s a guest room for a caregiver, and a shower that fits a wheelchair. They will bring meals to each other during illness, and collect mail when anyone’s away. In the evenings, there will be jam sessions in the music room.


The 36 soon-to-be residents of this Saskatoon residence range in age from the mid-50s to 80, and none of them wanted to go to a retirement home where strangers would live next door and a for-profit company would make the rules. They certainly wanted to avoid a nursing home for as long as possible. So they designed and built their own place to age; this August, Wolf Willow will become the first senior co-housing development in Canada.

“Many of us have come through looking after our parents. For many, that meant nursing homes and wrenching demands on all sides,” says Margo Day, 64, who with her husband, Ken Wiggins, 61, will leave their acreage outside Saskatoon for Wolf Willow in a couple months. “We hope that our senior years might be a little more graceful.”

In co-housing arrangements, residents have private apartments and share communal space and resources. The movement began in Denmark in the 1960s, and today Canada has about a dozen family-oriented co-housing locations. But as baby boomers begin to worry about the loneliness and limitations of old age, the burdens they may place on their adult children and even their own ecological footprints, senior co-housing has begun cropping up across Europe and North America. In addition to Wolf Willow, projects are under way in the Sooke community on Vancouver Island, as well as in Chilliwack and Smithers, B.C.

The numbers revealed this week from the 2011 census emphasized how quickly Canada is going grey and how many more Canadian will live into extreme old age. More than a quarter of seniors – and nearly half of all Canadian women over the age of 65 – live on their own, which research has consistently linked to a higher risk of health problems, particularly falls that lead to lengthy hospital stays or expensive home care.

Research has shown that most elderly Canadians could live independently for longer with just a little help – getting groceries, for instance, or a daily check-in, the kind of assistance that an overwhelmed home-care system and faraway adult children often struggle to provide.

“Everyone wants to age in place,” says Margaret Critchlow, professor emeritus at York University who studies communal living and will be part of the senior co-housing project in Sooke. Ultimately, she says, the draw is building community into her retirement plans. “Think how much people devote to their finances. What if we put a similar amount of effort into developing our social portfolios?”

“We have a lot of seniors who are increasingly cast adrift and warehoused,” says Charles Durrett, a California architect who has helped to spearhead the North American co-housing trend and recently published The Senior Co-Housing Handbook. He cites Danish research that has shown that seniors in co-housing eat better and are more active and socially connected – factors that can help them live independently for eight to 12 years longer than their more isolated and sedentary peers.

“If the government ever wanted to do something to save themselves billions of dollars,” Mr. Durrett says, “they would help catalyze new projects. Unfortunately, they aren’t that forward-looking.” Governments do boost co-housing initiatives in Denmark and Sweden.

Co-housing projects are specifically designed to construct an instant neighbourhood. The Wolf Willow complex is shaped like a horseshoe, to create “casual contact” between residences, Mr. Wiggins explains. The 21 accessible and green-friendly private residences open into an airy courtyard; the shared laundry room is beside the communal kitchen so that people can meet serendipitously for coffee. (Unlike in most retirement homes, residents are permitted up to two pets, and there are guest rooms for visiting family members.) The residents will already know each other well – they have worked together for four years to design the project.

Wolf Willow is located within walking distance of parks and downtown and will cost about $7.4-million to build, but the costs of the units will vary from $275,000 to $475,000, and some may be rentals. Compare this with the cost of retirement living, which, according to the Canada Mortgage Housing Corp., averages $26,000 a year but is often much higher (and there’s no place to sell at the end).

Clearly, however, co-housing’s allure depends on the individual. “You have to like the idea,” Dr. Critchlow says. “It’s not a commune or an institution. You share resources, but you also have your privacy. But it’s not a turnkey condominium where you don’t have anything to do with your neighbours.”

For Eileen MacKenzie, this was precisely the appeal. She recently sold her home in Saskatoon because she was spending too much time on upkeep when she would rather be playing tennis. At 77, she will be one of the oldest residents at Wolf Willow. “I just like the idea of growing old with a bunch of people I really like.”

Erin Anderssen is a Globe and Mail feature writer.


11 Responses to The Globe and Mail 2012-06-01

  1. Anthony Gifford says:

    Great ideas but is sounds like another type of living that’s reserved for the wealthy. Is anyone doing it in a way that can be approached by average or below average finances? If people want to share, there must be a way or ways. Certainly we each don’t need more than a large bed-sitting room if there is respect and a good amount of shared space and resources.

    • Margaret Critchlow says:

      Affordability is something we’re working on here at Canadian Senior Cohousing. And we’re not alone! Fellow Victoria, BC area resident Sharon Rempel wants to start a Baba Yaga group here: Maybe you can start an equivalent for guys? Or for all seniors?

  2. Barbara Cundari says:

    Any plans for a cohousing project in Ontario?

    • Normand Jasmin says:

      We are starting a project in Eastern Ontario 25 minutes west of Ottawa in Calabogie You can see us at the Zoomer Show May 4&5th 2013 in the Greater Madawaska Tws booth and in Toronto in October same show.

  3. Normand Jasmin says:

    I first came in contact with cohousing in the early 1990. The concept is actually perfect for the seniors. In Europe presently for 20 cohousing being implemented, 19 is for seniors for only one for the multigeneration. The problem resides with the planning process which requires an important technical support where consultants, architects, developers sees a nice cow to milk. Seniors with a pot of gold. In the early 60 when cohousing came to root in Denmark with people dissatisfied with the ” commune concept” the costs where kept to low level. In reality, cohousing does reduce capital costs for the dwellings. Savings that will be needed to cover the additional costs of the Common house. The larger savings will come in the long term operating costs, with the pooling of resources and free labor. In the building phase, on the average the new dwellers reduce their needs by 30 to 40% in infrastructure only, and with the pooling of resources in materials and labour the annual operating costs should provide very large savings. The secret of using the concept with it’s inherent value of savings is in the recruitment of members where you need to keep an in-house expertise to develop and implement the project. We hope to start a project in Eastern Ontarion soon.

    • Nancy Mohan says:

      Question to Nomand J.
      My husband died a year and a half ago and I currently live on a country property outside of Kingston in Eastern Ontario. When visiting in Victoria recently, I read in a seniors magazine about the cohousing movement just in its early stages in Victoria and in Sooke, BC .
      The articles sparked my interest and when I took to the Internet, I discovered Normand’s comments about cohousing and his reference to hoping to establish a cohousing project in Eastern Ontario. My question to Normand is just what area was being considered?
      I am interested in receiving any information about this project. I have included my email above and hope that I will receive more information regarding this very interesting topic.
      Nancy Mohan

      • hi you might want to look up she is starting a series of houses. iris kairow murray

      • Normand Jasmin says:

        To Nancy Mohan The project will be near Calabogie expected date of occupation late 2014. We will be at the Zoomer Show in Ottawa CE Exhibition Center near the airport May 4&5ht 2013 in the booth for Calabogie Greater Madawaska twsp. 613-752-1226

      • Lesley Ben says:

        We are seniors living in KINGSTON, Ontario, interested in connecting with others who want to explore co-housing opportunities as an alternative to for-profit retirement residences. If interested in joining a discussion, email

      • Dear Nancy,

        I live in Kingston and am very interested in Cohousing, particularly Seniors’ Cohousing. I just came across your letter of 2013. Are you still looking for a group?

  4. Win Fuller says:

    I’m so happy to see this happening! Please tell me there’s one in Alberta? I’m 75 this year and definitely not ready for a nursing home anytime soon. There’s so much to enjoy every day and how nice it would be in this type of community I’m really looking forward to more news about this and being a part of it.

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