In contrast to cultures in other parts of the world, the inclination in North America is for nuclear families to live separately. This can prove a challenge as parents age and can no longer fully care for themselves. Taking in an elderly parent to live with you may not be a viable option for many reasons; the alternative has been nursing or retirement homes. A new concept for elder care is now emerging, however: co-housing.
What is Senior Co-housing?
Two primary challenges that come with aging are the reduction of mobility (limiting the physical capacity to do all the things you could do when you were younger) and isolation. Co-housing is the building of a community of seniors living in close proximity: each with their own private living space and including common community living areas (kitchen, lounge, fitness room, laundry, etc.). Forty homes per community have been found the maximum for efficient and reasonable living conditions.
By living among peers, seniors can more easily find people who share common interests and with whom to engage in similar activities. In addition, the co-housing model facilitates social, economic, environmental, and practical support because every resident is part of a larger community. (1)
Benefits of Senior Co-housing Vs. Nursing Homes
Nursing homes are medical facilities and most often feel that way. They can be depressing places for many seniors, as the perception of such a style of living is as the last step before death. Nursing homes play an important role in elder care, so it’s important to weigh the options for yourself or a loved one.
Both co-housing and nursing home communities offer planned activities, social events, and transportation for personal errands. They both offer the potential for making friends. The crucial difference between the two is that a nursing home is by its very nature an institution; co-housing is comprised of private homes.
Loneliness and depression among seniors living in nursing homes is common and its implications for mental and physical health are dire. (2) Residents are surrounded by a large building that’s often difficult to navigate, rather than in a natural outdoor setting that is easy to reach. Moreover, the incidence of elder abuse in nursing homes is more prevalent than you’d like to think, inflicted by other facility residents and staff. (3, 4) Conversely, co-housing communities are designed with lots of green space and interconnected thoroughfares among dwellings and common buildings.
Participation in social activities has a direct positive correlation with seniors’ physical and mental health. (5) Socially-active older adults are at significantly reduced risk for cognitive decline in their later years. (6) Regardless of the living environment, people of every age benefit from social interaction and both senior living models recognize this. A community-based development, however, focuses on seniors’ independence, their abilities to contribute to the collaborative, and the freedom to ask for assistance when they need it. (7)
Just as social interaction is a human need, everyone requires personal space and time alone. (8) Residents of nursing homes may have compromised privacy, depending on the amount of routine care they require. Sometimes they share a room with other residents. Because co-housing communities are comprised of individual residences, seniors can be as social or as private as they choose, when they choose.
Nursing homes are necessarily much more structured in their care and programs than a co-housing environment and that may not fit the personality or desire of a particular person. Autonomy is the most difficult thing to relinquish as we get older and seniors understandably want to retain their personal freedoms as long as physically possible.
3. Expenses and personal care
The cost of long-term nursing home care can be prohibitive, though some can be offset by government funding. Unfortunately, deciding on elder care usually has to take expenses into serious consideration. It makes sense that the more care you need, the more expensive the facility. Nursing homes employ full-time staff in various capacities and sometimes seniors need that level of regular care. (9, 10)
Before choosing a nursing home, be sure to do your research. A U.S. Senate report of poorly-rated nursing homes was published in June of 2019 that names names—you can find it here. At the opposite end of the spectrum, U.S. News & World Report compiled a listing of the 15,000 best nursing homes nationwide; you can find the nursing home locator here, along with the rating for each. When it comes to senior co-housing, the monthly cost of living is usually considerably less than a nursing home but the trade-off is less (or no) daily hands-on care provided.
Quality of Life
If you live in a nursing home, you don’t have to worry about cutting the grass, vacuuming, or grocery shopping and there are medical personnel available on-site at all times. With co-housing, you are responsible for your own living space and will be expected to contribute to the community to the level of your ability. Some assisted living services may be available (at extra cost) but they are not available in all communities.
Aging can be graceful and dignified. Whatever living situation best suits the individual is the ideal to assure quality of life. There are many factors that must go into making a decision regarding where you or an elderly family member will live, so the more choices available, the better. Co-housing may be a very attractive option to consider as it becomes more popular and new developments spring up across the continent.