An interview with Charles Durrett

Senior Cohousing: The First Three Years

Architect Charles Durrett has designed over 30 cohousing communities in North America and has consulted on many more around the world. His work has been featured in Time Magazine, the New York Times, the LA Times, Architecture, and a wide variety of other publications. He and his wife, Kathryn McCamant, have received numerous awards for their work including the most recent World Habitat Award, presented by the United Nations, and the Mixed Use, Mixed Income Development Award, presented jointly by the American Institute of Architects and HUD. Contact them at

Charles Durrett was just finishing his book, Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living, when I snagged a ride with him up to Nevada City, California, where he and his family were living in temporary quarters as they waited for his latest intergenerational cohousing neighborhood to complete construction.

 In the interview (published in the Summer 2005 issue of Communities Magazine), Chuck shared how his own frustrations in his effort to find a reasonable housing solution for his aging mother were the catalyst for him to return to Denmark and research the emerging senior cohousing movement there. As co-author — with his wife and architectural partner Katie McCamant — of the first U.S. book on cohousing, he had a wealth of stories about why these intentional neighborhoods so effectively assisted and empowered seniors in their later years. Recently, I was able to repeat the journey with Chuck.

After spending some time in Berkeley, we took the train to Sacramento, giving us several hours to catch up on the state of senior cohousing in Denmark, Europe, and the US. Again, he told great stories of his experiences in his new home in Nevada City Cohousing and of his ongoing efforts to create a cadre of people who can teach what the Danes call (loosely translated) “Aging and Quality of Life in Community” — a crucial but, as yet, still missing educational piece needed if senior cohousing is to enter the mainstream.


Senior cohousing in the US: the “big picture”

The role of education in creating a market for senior cohousing

An update on projects since the book came out

Beyond age segregation: “elder-rich” intergenerational cohousing

Overcoming fear of change: helping people make active choices for community living

How Chuck's own aging is affecting his understanding of community

Below, you'll find the highlights of the interview, with my questions in bold. Our interview ranged widely, and I've done some shuffling to keep the thread of the discussion focused. Those without time to read the full article can use the links in the table to the right to access the topics that most interest them.

Q: What’s the big picture of what’s going on as far as the senior cohousing model for aging in community is concerned? You’ve been busy for the last three years since your book came out. People are living in senior cohousing in the U.S. and creating new communities. Are you seeing some evolution of the movement?

A: The big picture, Raines, I hate to say, remains pretty unchanged from three years ago. Too many seniors don't know how much they would gain from living in the social setting a functional neighborhood community provides. At the end of the day, when a senior desires to be with others, nothing beats proximity. The aging process does compromise our abilities to get around. So, on the one hand I feel strongly that we’ve got a long way to go. On the other hand, it's clear that we’ve made inroads.

The experience in Denmark, where cohousing began, can be instructive. Just now, 36 years after it was built, Denmark's second cohousing community is seriously planning its future as a senior cohousing community. The whole movement is just 17 years old in the U.S. I expect that in the next 5-10 years, there will be increasing demand for us to go back to cohousing communities and retrofit them for more and more seniors, as these communities become elder-rich.

Still, I generally believe the market share for cohousing will probably be limited to one percent of the population—UNLESS, that is, our society becomes deadly serious about the need to conserve resources.

That may happen. You know, last year in this country service-providing organizations drove five billion miles in the care of seniors. Fuel costs are starting to dramatically depress that number. Meals-on-wheels food-delivery services, for example, are dropping from daily to just one day a week. All those volunteers across the country don’t get reimbursed for their gas costs.

Bill Thomas calls this the $3 trillion problem: In the year 2018 that’s how much more money it will cost to care for seniors at the level we care for them today. It's no longer a viable alternative. We have to get creative. And here’s the good part:—alternative solutions, besides being considerably less costly, are also much better!

But whether cohousing garners 1% of the market or 10% or 20%, one can argue — as people in Scandinavia today do — that cohousing has already affected much of the housing market—for example, the design elements in multi-family affordable housing that intentionally encourage neighbor interaction. Or, another example, single-family neighborhoods, where the residents of a street can vote to close the whole street to cars, create kid-play areas in the middle, and require people to park at both ends. A change like that vastly alters the behavior of residents and how well they know each other.

You know, we in this country spend so much money holding society together with laws and prisons and police. And yet, every study in the world has shown that if a neighborhood feels like a community, the residents will keep each other accountable. Delineating clearly what’s public and common helps neighbors feel mutual regard. They simply do things for and with each other which no municipality can afford to do. And the neighborhood bonds together, and it's apparent that police are less necessary. At some point in our society we’re going to see that.

I live in town of 3,000 people with an annual city budget of $4 million: $1.4 million on police, less than $100,000 for planning, virtually nothing for figuring out how to provide quality of life for seniors. That is an upside-down society. It’s not obvious that anytime soon that we’re going to be able to rely on government to play a positive role. So what if I turn to my neighbors instead and that way create a mutually beneficial society. I do things for them that are easy for me and hard for them; in return, they do things for me that are easy for them and hard for me.  BACK TO INDEX

Q: You, an architect, have personally devoted enormous time and energy creating what I would call an educational curriculum — what you call the Study Group Process — that focuses on the transitions that are a part of aging. What is your thinking behind that?

Let me answer that with an illustration: If you were to stop 1,000 seniors at random on any street in America, you'd find only five who'd put community anywhere near the top as a requirement for their senior years. If you were to stop 1,000 seniors who had taken some kind of successful aging or aging-in-place seminar, about 400 of those 1,000 would rank community as important to their quality of life. The number 400 comes from the research the Danes have done to evaluate their own educational efforts. In America, we have to bring that five up to 400 before we have a viable movement where seniors are moving into senior cohousing communities — or, for that matter, intergenerational cohousing — one after another.

The focus of most retirement planning is on financial well-being. Many seniors, for example, are clear that they have to have post-retirement income — whether it's from savings or from continued earning — income of, let’s say, $4,500 a month. Few, however, anticipate the many requirements for emotional well-being and the other challenges of aging. Few have fully gripped the implications of their children being grown and often geographically scattered. Their friends may have left town or died. Or they are divorced, or their spouse has died. And they’re vulnerable from an emotional point of view.

Having just finished planning Wolf Creek Lodge, a senior cohousing neighborhood, I’m rather astonished by the level of consciousness the core group participating in the planning develops. When elders spend time talking about the issues of the day and about what it means to be an elder, they get honest and open. They get out of denial. They come to grips with reality.

Several members of Wolf Creek Lodge have gone through the Study Group Process. But they’ve done it more organically (versus doing the workshop at the earliest stage of planning ). They ended up increasing their consciousness; but this happened in the middle of the planning phase, not the most cost-effective time to start rethinking design choices. So there's a clear advantage to the design teams to get the core up to speed at the very beginning with what they need to accomplish,  rather than having them figure it out as they’re planning the project. BACK TO INDEX

Q: So what’s actually happened on the ground in the U.S. since your book was published? What effect is this having on people’s lives and the world?

A: Since the book came out, we’ve had three senior cohousing communities occupied — Glacier Circle in Davis, CA; ElderSpirit in Abingdon, VA; and Silver Sage Village in Boulder, CO — and twelve in the planning phases.

Just now, 36 years after it was built, Denmark's second cohousing community is seriously planning its future as a senior cohousing community. The whole movement is just 17 years old in the U.S. I expect that in the next 5-10 years, there will be increasing demand for us to go back to cohousing communities and retrofit them for more and more seniors, as these communities become elder-rich.

Of the 12 communities in development, let me single out Wolf Creek Lodge, which is now ready to start construction. It’s a 30-household community, currently with 20 committed residents, in a semi-rural part of California. Three residents are moving from homes with 15, 17, and 20 acres each, all together with their neighbors onto 0.9 acres, a single building. It’ll be very energy-efficient, a cozy “euro-esque” environment, with many outdoor facilities around them. They’ll have access to three acres of outdoor space — including a thousand linear feet of mountain creek — that they can use without having to own them.

This community is using little resources and is walkable to downtown. The members’ goals are to live lighter on the planet and enhance their quality of life. In the planning profession, the more energy we put toward accomplishing the former, the more we achieve the latter.

Cohousing provides the opportunity to live closely with others — effectively playmates, not just neighbors. Everybody has a private house. The process results in an amazing emphasis on what can we do, what are the common facilities we can have. What can we do together to make my life more convenient, practical, economic and fun?

Living in community, it becomes increasingly obvious how people can leverage the things they own together to accomplish these feats they envision better than they can themselves on their own.

It’s like ping-pong. It’s hard to play by yourself. But in a neighborhood with 30 adults around, you are almost always assured of having the opportunity to play. And that level of engagement keeps you light on your feet, and mentally dexterous. BACK TO INDEX

Q: When I’m talking to people at national aging conferences about the senior cohousing vision, even people in their 80s and 90s sometimes say “I don’t want to live with all those old people.” I've experienced some push-back from people reluctant to leave their longtime homes or reluctant to embrace age-specific communities that don't include kids. How do you address this type of concern?

Besides senior cohousing, there’s an emerging concept of “elder-rich cohousing.” Over the last few years we’ve really learned to appreciate that cohousing groups may see themselves as intergenerational, because of the area's demographics or the initial recruiting by the core group. The pattern tends to be that they recruit a lot more people over 50 than under. Although there are children, they’re not the 30, 40, 50 children that were typical of the earliest cohousing neighborhoods in the U.S.

Cohousing started out being known as an incredibly child-friendly, family-friendly environment. But who joins can vary greatly, depending on the local market. One of our current projects, La Querencia Cohousing in Fresno, started out oriented towards families, but it attracted a lot of retired people.

It’s one thing to live with people who are all 50 or 60. Most senior cohousing encompasses quite a range, from 50 to 90. There are a wide variety of attitudes and abilities, but your neighbors in general are anything but old and decrepit, anything but staid—especially because people who move into senior cohousing are pretty can-do, thoughtful, proactive, and entrepreneurial. These senior cohousing communities are anything other than the places advertised as “active adult communities” of the sort Del Webb creates.

As I’m visiting senior cohousing, I’m repeatedly astonished by the heightened level of fun these seniors are having. It’s an atmosphere akin to a college dorm, versus “this is where the old people live.” (By the way, I think that seniors and 17- to 22-year-olds have a lot in common!) The agenda of these residents is not about kids, careers, recreational opportunities. It is more about “What kind of fun can we have today? What can I do to stay interested in my day, my neighbor?” BACK TO INDEX

Q: What do you say to people who are scared of senior cohousing because of the change it represents in their lives?

A: There are a lot of reasons that nearly every senior I see says, at first, “They’ll never get me into one of those.” It has nothing to do with the reality of the situation. It’s about a fear of losing control. And there’s only one way to get happier, which is to get in control.

It’s ironic that so many people think that the challenges of aging won’t happen to them, while at the same time they don’t have another plan. Cohousing gives them a plan, an option, an alternative. It’s so critical that seniors, if they’re going to come to any better solution, really need to come together, get organized, get a plan. It’s so straightforward.

Throughout Europe, where senior cohousing is well-established, they have planned guest quarters that can be utilized by caregivers when that's needed. They might be there for just a week, or for the duration of the project.

I just got a letter from a slightly newer senior cohousing project in Denmark (the first ones were built in 1985). After eight years in residence, they had the first occurrences of people being incapacitated.

The most common question around the model is “What happens when all these people get old at the same time?” The reality is that capacity has nothing to do with age. Many 90-year-olds are more robust than their 60-year-old counterparts. The key is to stop boxing yourself in with a scenario driven by fears.

A community may have one person with slight dementia. Living in community, she never sits by herself at dinner. Who knows whether a second person will become less capacitated and overwhelm the community’s ability to provide support. One day the degree of her incapacitation may require she move to institutional care, but even then she’s developed supportive friends who will visit her wherever she ends up and will continue to play a role in her well-being. As anyone who knows anyone who has been in assisted care or nursing homes, the degree to which patients get cared for is directly proportional to the number of people looking after them.

Senior cohousing doesn’t preclude other kinds of care. In it, more people are able to realize the possibility of dying at home, or not being in an institution longer than necessary. Too often somebody breaks a hip, gets placed in assisted care, and doesn’t come back out. They feel so bad from being abandoned there that they don't live as long as they otherwise would.

Research identifies three key components to longevity:

  • eat right, mostly light
  • stay active, mostly with low-impact activities
  • stay connected, with friends and neighbors

You remove all three as soon as you put someone in assisted care, no matter how hard you try. There are some phenomenal staffers out there. But giving up control is fundamentally incongruent with our personal image of the conditions for living successfully.

I was asking a couple of friends, “Why don’t you live in a cohousing community?” They live in a very progressive neighborhood, in Berkeley, California, in a cute single-family bungalow. They’re as nouveau as you can possibly get. You would think from talking to them that they would be ideal candidates for senior cohousing.

“Well, you know,” Mary said, looking over at John, “we borrowed money from our parents to buy this house. Our parents thought we would succeed, so they helped us with our transition into adulthood. And to tell you the truth, I feel very self-conscious. I think that our parents would think we hadn’t made it, that we have resigned from the mainstream, if we don’t move to something expensive.”

Frankly, there are a lot of seniors who feel that their friends would think they have resigned if they don’t live on their own. BACK TO INDEX

Q: How has your own aging affected your own understanding of community?

A: At 52, I don’t feel that old. In fact, emotionally I feel more like a 20-year-old. But, I’ve seen a lot of people older than me, uncles and aunts and relatives, fathers and mothers, who, once they cross that threshold of 60+, face big changes in their lives. I especially see their independence wane considerably. Their job, career, is not necessarily their life any longer, their kids are certainly not their life any longer, their friends are not as much their life as they would like them to be. I think that their lives are unnecessarily isolated.

I luckily live in a cohousing community with lots of kids, I love hanging out with the kids. We have lots of seniors and I love appreciating them. I feel very lucky. If I didn’t live in cohousing community, . I would very much want to live in small town.

When it became obvious I wasn’t going to be able to talk my wife into moving back into the small town where I grew up, I had to figure out how to simulate a small town, to the best of my ability in the more anonymous kind of suburban or urban environments we ended up living in. There was no model that consistently appeared as viable as cohousing for making the kind of relationships between neighbors healthy. BACK TO INDEX

Raines Cohen works to build community at home and at work, as a
Cohousing Coach and Co-working Coach, teaching, advising, and consulting on effective practices for creating enterprises of mutual support, sharing, and caring. He served two terms on the Coho/US board and is currently on the board of Fellowship for Intentional Community, an international support network and information clearinghouse. He works extensively in the online blogging and social networking world, creating connections between communities.