The skinny on cooperative householding

My House, Our House:
Living Far Better for Far Less
in a Cooperative Household

by Karen M. Bush, Louise S. Machinist, and Jean McQuillin
St. Lynn's Press (2013)


 

A Review by Marilyn Hartman

In 2004 three energetic, independent-minded women in their fifties pooled their financial resources to buy a house and form a cooperative household. Nine years later, they pooled their creative energies to write this engaging testament to the success of their endeavor. Beginning with an invitation to vicariously visit the home they call Shadowlawn, the three women let us into their lives and take us behind the scenes. As the book unfolds, they relate the events that brought them together, the steps they took to co-create a shared household, and their adventures in living together.

Woven into their tale is a guide to “cooperative householding” and a template that others can follow to establish their own shared living situation. The book details the issues that are important to address ahead of time and provides guidance on creating a legal partnership, on joint decision-making, and on laying down rules and guidelines for day-to-day living. The authors describe potential pitfalls to consider, as well as some of the conflicts that arose for them and how they resolved them. They candidly discuss the process they put in place to establish healthy personal boundaries and create a comfortable balance between independence and interdependence.

My House Our House additionally places their personal story into a larger social context. Since creating their cooperative household, the three women have educated themselves about the range of possible shared living arrangements and become active in the Cohouseholding Project. Their own website, myhouseourhouse.com, provides a list of resources where one can learn more about cooperative householding, cohousing, and other types of intentional community.

The success of Shadowlawn is evident. Karen, Louise, and Jean are not reticent about the challenges of living together, but the overwhelming themes are enthusiasm and a deep sense of contentment and appreciation for one another. It is a delightful story and a remarkable one. So much has been easy for them to work out. They have never had to assign household tasks, and their arrangements for sharing food and living expenses seem to work seamlessly. One has the feeling that the trust they developed early on enabled them to tackle the hard stuff with clear heads. The depth of their friendship has allowed them to accept with grace the compromises that have sometimes been necessary, while motivating them to work hard to find consensus on issues that matter deeply.

Of particular interest to me are the ways that the authors write about some of the larger questions: What are the benefits of forming a cooperative household? What does it mean to be simultaneously independent and interdependent? How much of cohouseholding is relevant to elders seeking ways to age in community? It is interesting to read what they say — and what they don’t say — about these questions.

The women describe their initial motivations for creating Shadowlawn as primarily economic and practical. It was obvious after doing some initial calculations that, compared to living alone, a cooperative household offered the possibility of living in a nicer house at a lower cost with the added advantage of sharing the burdens of home ownership and day-do-day household management. Indeed, living at Shadowlawn has allowed them to achieve a higher standard of living than otherwise would have been possible and to save more towards retirement.

There were also hints early on of other needs that would be met at Shadowlawn, as the women had come to acknowledge that their separate lives were sometimes lonely. Karen says it the best, writing that, “I had constructed a solitary world for myself, one where I was happy enough, but one that lacked the warmth and spontaneity of people living together.” These were three women who had careers that they loved and who were connected with friends and family, and yet they also experienced loneliness. It is hard to judge how much their desire for community factored into bringing them together, but it is fair to say that they did not fully anticipate the emotional and social benefits they would come to enjoy and value. Louise declares that she is a happier person now. “I love where, how, and with whom I’m living. In this special house, the spirit of shared adventure makes every day feel new and fresh.” Or in Jean’s words: “We have become sisters of the heart, completely trusting one another and accepting one another as we are, imperfect as that may be.”

In addition to communicating the joy of living together, these self-aware women reflect on how the need to accommodate their differences has helped them grow. There are amusing anecdotes of how they deal with aesthetic disagreements or incompatible views on dishrags versus sponges, and there is an especially long discussion of the lessons learned from downsizing. “Letting go of excess possessions, and sharing most of what remains, has actually felt liberating,” they write. And in describing her own journey, Karen says, “I’ve learned how to better fulfill my own value of helping other people. I’ve learned to be more attentive to and respectful of the views of other people.”

The relationship between the three women also seems to pivot around the meaning of the words “independent” and “interdependent.” They are critically important words, perhaps even the defining features of cooperative householding, and yet they are also difficult to pin down. From the first page, and in every chapter, these women declare they are independent, and they warn of the dangers of trying to create a shared living arrangement with “someone who needs your help.” They proclaim loudly that they do not need one another: “We do not expect to meet one another’s personal needs for happiness or companionship. We do not expect to be dependent on one another, although we can totally depend on one another.” What exactly does this mean?

A partial explanation emerges in the attitudes they express towards the idea of “dependency.” They admit they depend on one another but insist they are not “dependent.” They depend on one another to keep their cost of living low and to create a household that is easier to manage. They depend on one another for assistance in solving the problems that arise as homeowners, for deep camaraderie, and for a sense of community. And, despite their claims of independence, when one of them underwent surgery, the others provided nurturing care and practical caregiving assistance. There was no hesitation, no holding back. It’s not always clear in reading their book how to distinguish between interdependence and dependency. Nevertheless, the three women sometimes drew the line very sharply to protect their independence; there were multiple instances when help was offered and refused. “Sometimes it was annoying to be helped, because feeling capable and in control is very important to each of us.”

The book unfortunately does not delve more deeply, but it leaves the reader with the impression that for the authors, being “dependent” is a negative to be avoided at all costs. At its core, dependency seems to create the potential for being asked to do more than one is willing or able to do, and it arouses fear of not having a choice about whether to help. Here is an interesting statement they make about their current circumstances: “Because no one asks for too much help, it balances out perfectly.” It seems that dependency could potentially breed resentment, in contrast to interdependence, which supports “each person’s independence and competence.” But what would happen if one of the three women became unable to hold up their end of this bargain? There are many things in life that are not under our control, and despite our independent natures, we can become dependent on others. As we get older, the likelihood of this happening increases each year. What then?

   

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For me this is the greatest disappointment of My House Our House, that the authors do not address the future and never fully consider the implications of aging for the cooperative householding model. At the writing of this book they are in their sixties, with at least one of them approaching 70. If they are lucky, they may have 10 or even 25 years of good health ahead of them, but they have not presented a vision of living together under circumstances when their capacity to be independent erodes, and their interdependence — or is it dependency? — grows. One can infer that these women would not accept help that is not freely given, and this is healthy, but they also do not offer a model of shared living that can accommodate situations of legitimate need.

And this is where the book ends, with the three women happy about their years together so far and enthusiastic about cooperative householding. When they look forward, they imagine continuing to live in a shared living situation, but so far Karen is the only one who has the beginning of a plan. She has purchased a condo in a location with easy access to activities of interest, and she expects to alter the house design to accommodate assistive technologies. She hopes that her current housemates will make the move with her. Yet there is no discussion of what it would be like to live together when their needs for assistance are greater, nor what kind of arrangements they would make when they need more help than they can provide one another.

So for the moment, Jean, Karen, and Louise have modeled for us how to create the strong bonds of community in a shared house, but we will need a sequel to answer the question, “What next?” It would be wonderful if these women were able to transform their model into an effective place to age in place, but it may fall to others to write that sequel. For now their adventure at Shadowlawn is inspiring and lovely, but it is not yet a blueprint for “happily ever after.”


Marilyn Hartman has worked in the field of aging for many years, first as a faculty member in the Psychology Department at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, and more recently as a consultant to several nonprofits that provide support to caregivers and the people they care for. She lives in Durham, NC and is interested in the intersecting threads of community-building, spiritual practice, service, and aging in place.

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Notes

1 See “The Roseto effect: a 50-year comparison of mortality rates” at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1695733/.