Nearly 13 percent of cohousing residents identify as Unitarian Universalists, according to a 2012 survey.
The Rev. Dr. Barbara Wells ten Hove and the Rev. Jaco B. ten Hove in the Great Room in the common house of Bellingham Cohousing, which he describes as the hub of their community and “an important intention of the cohousing model.” (© 2019 Mel Hoover)
Retired Unitarian Universalist co-ministers the Rev. Dr. Barbara Wells ten Hove and the Rev. Jaco B. ten Hove were eager for the last third of their lives to be as rich as the first two-thirds. Looking for a “radiant twilight,” in the words of their late mentor the Rev. Marvin Evans, the couple decided to move to Bellingham Cohousing, an intergenerational cohousing community in Bellingham, Washington. Retiring to Bellingham Cohousing has extended the interconnections that were an essential part of their long ministry. Now, whether he’s on his way to coffee, or a meeting at the common house, or greeting his youngest neighbors as they ride their tricycles, Jaco ten Hove finds it “a gorgeous thing” to step from their front door into the heart of their community.
“[It’s] the idea that, as we go into our twilight years, it isn’t just a reflection of the fleeting afternoon, but it’s actually beautiful in its own right,” explains Barbara ten Hove.
The couple is among a growing number of UU seniors who have discovered that cohousing communities—both intergenerational and those designed specifically for seniors—can meet many practical needs and bring new radiance to the later chapters of life. As UU World authors Joani Blank and Michelle Bates Deakin have written, UUs across the age spectrum have found that cohousing communities share core values with our faith, such as a reverence for interdependence, sustainable living, and inclusive decision-making. According to a 2012 survey by the Cohousing Research Network, nearly 13 percent of cohousing residents surveyed identified as UU, a notable segment given that fewer than 1 percent of respondents to a 2014 Pew Research Center study on religious affiliations in the United States identified as UU.
Among the 165 cohousing communities nationwide, fourteen—either established or in the building stages—are for seniors, according to a 2017 directory of the Cohousing Association of the United States, and more are in formation. Senior cohousing is defined differently by individual communities, with “55 years and over” a common demarcation. While these communities do not offer the personal or medical supports of commercially operated retirement or graduated-care settings, they can often extend the period of time in which individuals can live independently, within a mutually supportive community.
Within both senior and intergenerational settings, the question of how individuals and communities can cope with issues of changing health and mobility among seniors is an ongoing conversation, with answers varying by community and circumstance.
Quimper Village in Port Townsend, Washington, is a 55-and-over cohousing community, completed in 2017, which includes many members of the Quimper UU Fellowship. It consists of twenty-eight single-story condominiums, with a common house and shared outdoor spaces designed for accessibility and interconnected living, according to founding resident and UU Carolyn Salmon. Legally, Quimper is a condominium association (homeowners’ associations and LLCs are other common arrangements) in which residents own their units and share ownership and responsibility for common areas and buildings. What distinguishes them from a condo association is their shared vision of participatory community.
Quimper’s forty-three residents employ a governance method called sociocracy, which Salmon says “enables everyone to have a voice” on matters that impact the community, while allowing many decisions to be made and carried out “at the level where the work is being done,” through project-specific working groups. As in many cohousing communities, shared meals in the common house are a routine part of life at Quimper, with residents dividing the work of preparation and cleanup. Like many senior cohousing communities, Salmon and her neighbors agree that their community vision does not include personal or medical care. Instead, Salmon describes simpler “comfort services” she and her neighbors exchange: collecting mail and grocery shopping for a friend who is ill, carpooling, and just sharing the day’s news. “The idea of living this close to other people was a little bit daunting,” says Salmon, but she and her husband have found a balance of privacy and connectedness at Quimper.
Tode Oshin and Jo Foulkrod are founding members of Wy’east UU Congregation and of PDX Commons, a senior cohousing community in an urban neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. PDX residents bring professional and life experiences that help the community operate smoothly, from organizational management to banking and familiarity with the local area. Their four-story, twenty-seven-unit complex includes an apartment that could serve as housing for a hired caregiver, such as a home health aide, a common feature among senior communities.
Oshin finds strong connections between UU values and cohousing. “We make all our decisions [by] consensus, and that is completely congruent with the First [UU] Principle. It values the opinion of every person in the community,” he says. Oshin quotes a neighbor to describe a shift in perspective that happened during the planning process: “She always said, ‘We’re not trying to build our dream home. We’re trying to build our dream community.’”
Residents of Glacier Circle, a senior cohousing community in Davis, California, founded by members of the UU Church of Davis, have discovered that connections formed during community meals and shared activities continue through the phases of aging, illness, and the end of life. “This is my adopted community,” explains founding resident Richard Morrison, who was drawn to the idea of a stable community after a life of many relocations. His wife, Carolyn Langenkamp, says that they experience the bonds of community in many different interactions, from visiting with a neighbor’s new great-grandchild to sitting at the bedside of another neighbor during her final hours of life. “There’s an emotional intimacy that’s available to us,” says Langenkamp, “because we’re right here with each other.”
If cohousing and Unitarian Universalism share many values, they also share persistent problems, including a lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity. Surveys show that cohousing communities are predominantly liberal and middle- or upper-middle-class and overwhelmingly (95 percent) white. In such homogenous settings, notes Rosemary Linares, a member of a cohousing community in the Midwest, in a 2018 article on growing inclusivity in cohousing, white privilege and other unconscious biases can remain unchallenged. Another barrier is that the cost of building or buying a cohousing unit is usually comparable to that of a traditional home or condominium in the local real estate market, which puts it out of reach for many. Individual communities, and coalitions like the Partnership for Affordable Cohousing, are undertaking serious conversation and action to increase diversity of all kinds, but change will demand sustained and creative efforts.
“No question about it, [creating a cohousing community] takes a lot of people, resources, and knowledge,” says Salmon. Due to the many upfront costs, which in many cases include the purchase of land and the costs of design and building, “it’s, frankly, financially risky.” In addition to these hurdles, potential cohousers must also be prepared to practice interpersonal skills that may be new. Carol Agate, a retired judge and formerly active UU who lives at Cornerstone Village Cohousing, an intergenerational community in Cambridge, Massachusetts, notes that consensus-building may sound like “sweet harmony” to the uninitiated but is, in fact, a practice that requires patient listening, forbearance, and “a willingness to compromise.” Her neighbor, Phil Dowds, a retired eldercare architect and board member of the Cohousing Association of the United States, agrees. Even in a community of many shared values, Dowds notes, “there are going to be people who think quite differently from you, and you’re going to have to bargain with them. And that . . . may be [cohousing’s] hidden merit. You will grow in ways you never expected.”
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Suzy Sharp and other members of Heartwood Commons, a soon-to-be-built senior cohousing community, are nearing the end of an intensive, multi-year planning process, and will soon start construction of their thirty-two-home community. Sharp, a retired nurse and longtime member of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, says she can’t wait to open her front door and “know that I’m going to run into somebody that I know, that I’m going to want to have a cup of coffee with, or a glass of wine with, and a good conversation. That’s what [cohousing] looks like to me.” Creating that new home has been a lengthy journey, she says, but “it’s all worth it.”
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Kris Willcox is a contributing editor for UU World. She is a writer and Unitarian Universalist with roots in the mountain west and a home in the Boston area. She spends her days writing for universities and other nonprofit organizations. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Vela, Cimarron Review, Literary Mama, and other publications.