Why we can’t ignore college-based senior cohousing

Senior cohousing on campuses allows alumni to have a lifelong exchange with their alma maters and enhances the quality of life for the alumni as well as for students, families, friends and the institution itself—even during a pandemic.

You need to build strong healthy relationships in good times, so you are ready for times such as these. And preferably relationships in a community that is very proximate—like a village; common dinners, common workdays, common problems to solve, tai chi, common gardening, book clubs, yoga, and just plain discussing the issues of the day, you know, old fashioned village making, so when the you-know-what hits the fan, like COVID-19, community is in place! At Nevada City Cohousing, we get together each night at 7 pm to drum, even if it’s on the bottom of a five-gallon plastic bucket, though we do have a great rhythm section with real drums!

Charles Durrett, Durrett Architects, The Cohousing Company
Charles Durrett, Durrett Architects, The Cohousing Company

We meet each other at the circle, drum and then say good night after we are done, which is particularly important to those who live alone. It’s social distancing, not social isolation!

While Nevada City Cohousing exercises extreme caution sheltering in place, in recent months we have begun having meetings in a 20′ round outdoor circle, about 7.5′ away from each other in the circumference, even sharing a few common meals in the outdoor distancing circle. And thus we create some continuity in community, each day; to do yoga around the pool, harvest the summer gardens, and connect through group circle drumming (as shown in the photo below) just before dark at the “blue hour,” when moods can easily turn blue, and sometimes do. To say hello one more time today, and to say goodnight.

Historically, “aging in place” meant that seniors spent their elder years in the home where they had lived and raised their children, and where extended family members could care for them. Families remained close by and often daughters or sons would stay at home to take care of their aging parents.

Back then—when we enjoyed close-knit ties with family, community, and place—nursing homes or caretaking facilities for the elderly were a foreign concept to most of the population. People would age in place within the community where they had built their lives and relationships; it was the natural thing to do.

In today’s world, few of us enjoy the luxury of that type of support network. Society is increasingly mobile, as a result of work and other pressures. As family members and friends move across the state, country or the globe, we find ourselves saying goodbye more often, and those close, supportive relationships are not easily replaced.

These changes have led to a growing awareness of senior cohousing as an alternative housing model for active adults to successfully age in place. With over 150 communities built in the U.S., 20 of them for seniors, cohousing is well established as a custom high-functioning neighborhood. Senior cohousing is an ideal place for aging in place in community. For most seniors successful aging means maintaining control over their own lives, and “Baby Boomers” are redefining what it means to age successfully. As 70-plus million “Baby Boomers” reach their golden years, they are creating higher demand for affordable senior housing options that support an active lifestyle in a sustainable way. “College-Based Community Development” is a future emerging trend among the retirement options available that allow for successful aging in place.

Senior cohousing for alumni

“College-based alumni senior cohousing” is a trend in retirement communities for active adults that allows retiring alumni to engage in a lifelong exchange with their alma maters that significantly enhances the college community and the quality of life in higher learning institutions. This is a beneficial exchange for students, alumni, their families and friends, and ultimately for society at large and to college towns with friends and family, some bringing their continuing business interests with them. These retirees are looking for ways to continue to have purpose and meaning in their lives and tend to be good tutors.

The connection between campus improvement and retirees may seem distant from one another, but in reality they have a lot in common. Just as matured salmon return to their place of origin, it makes sense for retirees to return to where they came of age—their college communities. In addition, many elders are interested in moving back to college towns because of the active lifestyle and amenities they provide. For example, “college-based alumni senior cohousing” communities can provide seniors access to continuing education, college events, facilities and in some cases hospitals and campus transportation.

Likewise, universities benefit from the presence of the retirees. Retiring alumni contribute to the campus by volunteering, offering their professional experience and perspectives in the academic arena, as well as advising and attending cultural and athletic programs. Financially, the development of senior cohousing opens opportunities for the university beyond those of real estate investment; it also facilitates the creation of jobs and college growth. In addition to building stronger relationships with alumni, it keeps them connected with current students and programs, and as an added benefit, their career accomplishments provide inspiration for the student body. It all feels a little more like a village rather than just another institution.

Universities across the country have embraced the idea of associating themselves with retirement communities and found that there is considerable demand for senior housing near campuses. By associating themselves with these projects they can derive great returns, especially in strengthening alumni relations cohousing inspired projects provide a foundation to develop “college-based alumni senior cohousing” projects and they can enhance campus life.

“College-based alumni senior cohousing” is the perfect model for active adults seeking housing within college communities. It promotes an active lifestyle and encourages continuous learning. Unlike assisted care, or even independent living, senior cohousing puts elders in charge of their own lives and focuses on making the second half of life fun and engaging, while providing for their specific changing needs. Residents would be especially complementary for a college or university and their towns because they are lively people who want to be part of an intergenerational environment where they can contribute to their college’s culture. Senior cohousing can be created in the communities of institutions of higher learning, providing the basis for more diversified, educational, healthy, active and sustainable college culture.

Charles Durrett is principal at Durrett Architects. He is an architect, author and advocate of affordable, socially responsible and sustainable design. Bernice Gonzalez, was a planner at Durrett Architects. She has a masters in urban design from the Universitat de Barcelona, Spain, where she is a Ph.D. candidate in public space and urban regeneration. 


Most Popular