Cohousing: A Way for Solo Agers to Build and Maintain Community


This article details the difficulty of loneliness in older adulthood, lays out the concept of cohousing as a solution to many challenges of aging, and describes one cohousing project from conception to years down the road as it thrives. Also addressed are ways to encourage a more diverse group of people to embrace the concept of cohousing.

Key Words:

isolation, loneliness, cohousing, community, Quimper Village


The best advice for someone aging solo and looking for a fulfilling elderhood is to do it in a community, yet we make “community” so difficult to accomplish. Loneliness has become an epidemic (Killeen, 2002) and the kind of community that most people want, where everyone pitches in to support one another and provide help in times of need, has become a thing of the past. Or at least this seems to be true in the United States; many such communities still exist in other countries. Cohousing offers a modern path to recreate that kind of community. The cohousing movement—both intergenerational and senior cohousing—is a proven way for these kinds of supportive communities to exist in the United States. Included here is the story of how one cohousing community was built, from the ground up, with passion, determination, and a steady eye on the future.

Searching for Community ... Combating Isolation

As we age, in the absence of good non-institutional care, we fall back on the single-family house (aging-in-place), where we have complete privacy but also ultimate seclusion. The University of California San Francisco has chronicled that 40% of older adults are lonely—both when solo and in pairs—and that it takes 10 years off of their lives (Dreher, 2020). Loneliness is now a widespread pathology. How does community combat isolation and what kind of community is right for us?

The answer could be: A community where you are in absolute control of how much togetherness and how much solitude you have. Even better, a community where you know, care about, and support your neighbor, and vice versa. In a cohousing community, you have as much community as you want, and as much privacy as you need, and you are an active participant in the structure and style of your life. That’s the kind of community that cohousing provides.

The Price of Isolation and America’s Fierce Fight for It

Some isolated elders argue that they have adjusted to their aloneness. They have their routine, their favorite shows, their walks, and their small network, although this will become increasingly challenging as they settle into a later life alone. Perhaps they prefer to be alone, but we now know the devastating impact of isolation on one’s health, and there is no pill or procedure a doctor can prescribe to remedy it. Too many older adults admit to going to the doctor just to be with another person.

Older adults, especially those who live alone, are often cautioned about falling and a plethora of other risks of aging. But being alone is deleterious to life itself, to the pursuit of happiness, especially for most elders, and to the health of a viable society in general. The budgets of local governments—especially counties—are severely taxed, forced to provide care for which they are ill-equipped, and therefore putting a greater burden on citizens. Too many people languish alone, leaving the government to try to fix this lack of community in ways that are piecemeal at best. Meals on Wheels, nurses on the go, and the like cannot work long term—this system is not sustainable. Nurses, aides, and therapists in 2013 had to drive more than 7 billion miles in the United States alone helping older adults aging at home (Foundation for Hospice and Homecare, 2013).

This country must figure out a neighborhood-level care system soon. It is not sustainable to have older adults chronically under-cared for until their health, especially their mental health, is irreversibly compromised. Like being lost in the woods, at some point there is no finding your way back. Society cannot afford the thousands of required services for elders in a quasi-healthy but estranged senior-care scenario. It is too expensive.

‘This country must figure out some neighborhood-level care system soon.’

In one small California county, a million dollars a year was spent getting 2,000–3,000 older adults to the doctor, pharmacy, grocery store, friends, and so on (Nevada County Executive Office, n.d.). This was about 30 trips per older adult per year, totaling 64,000 trips. Some argue that 30 trips per older adult is far too few, while the fiscally conservative argue it’s far too many.

In either case, data shows that last year the same county had a $285,000 shortfall in their paratransit subsidy and had to accommodate the shortfall by using police as taxis, driving older adults to and from their doctors’ appointments. This is clearly not a good use of resources.

Community neighborhood services can be sustainable, and that’s where cohousing comes in. In cohousing, folks will be there for anyone in their last 10 years—with no money exchanges and no contract needed.

Evidence that Cohousing Works

Many countries have figured this out and are getting older adults into functioning neighborhoods, cohousing or similar arrangements, as quickly as possible. Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, England, Norway, and Cuba are a few countries taking quality care seriously from both the cost and neighborhood points of view.

In our cohousing community in Northern California, we have 21 older adults. One of them, Meg, recently died, three weeks before her 100th birthday. It was sad of course, but we have great memories of what a pleasure it was taking her to the store, even if she just handed over her list while she waited in the car. For 18 years, no big lumbering transit bus has entered our neighborhood to take anyone anywhere. We don’t need it—we build community with every shared ride. That is a what a functioning neighborhood looks like, and it’s an appropriate approach to no-cost care.

Starting a Cohousing Community

Cohousing communities are normally started by one highly motivated person—a “burning soul” as they are called—and the project propagates from there.

A book I wrote, Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living, describes “Study Group One,” a workshop that originated in Denmark in which the goal was to prepare a group of older adults for success by raising consciousness of the challenges of getting older, including:

  • Communication and cooperation
  • The physiological aspects of getting older
  • How co-care happens in a village (cohousing)
  • Co-healing—the emotional well-being of being with others who know you, who care about you, and want to support you
  • The economics of getting older
  • Spirituality and mortality: the inner work
  • Sageing: what you have to offer the world, the outer work

Cohousing is a lifestyle choice. Do I proactively choose my waning years to be lived in conjunction with others, or do I let the chips fall where they may? Bill Thomas, an aging activist, once said, “if you put 20 older adults on a boat and send them out to a deserted island, they will do a better job of providing for their needs than any institution that we have yet created. And certainly, better than being left at home alone” (Thomas, 2004).

Indeed, when older adults do get together to create their future neighborhood or mutually supportive village, they focus on making their lives more convenient, more practical, more economical, more social, in some cases more private (i.e., moving out of assisted living), more healthy, more interesting, more safe, and more fun.

Building a new cohousing community is no small task, although it only requires two things: a vision of a happy elderhood in a village setting, and a clear set of steps to get there. This article focuses on the latter. How do you put one foot in front of the other and march up the proverbial path?

The Story of Quimper Village

It all started in 2013, when Pat Hundhausen looked around at her fellow churchgoers at a Unitarian Universalist church in Washington State and thought how nice it would be if some of them could live more closely as they aged. Her husband, David, was having some mobility issues, and she wasn’t as flexible or energetic as she used to be. Even though there was already a sense of community at her church, the folks in the congregation really didn’t know each other that well. So Pat posted the following notice in the adult education section of the church bulletin:

“The Hundhausens have been thinking about where we want to live in the years ahead. Maybe you have too! How long do we want to (can we) stay in our two-story home? We know we don’t want to pay a big corporation for an independent living apartment or an assisted living arrangement. What if we lived in a small complex with our own one- or two-bedroom homes on one level? What if there were friends who owned the other living units around us? What if the complex were built as “green” as we could afford to build it? What if the people living there were in charge of all decisions about the management of the property? What if there was a community house on the property where we could spend time together and eat some meals together? If this interests you at any level, please join us to begin the discussion.”

In a few words, Pat Hundhausen had summed up the intangible longing so many have for more meaning, more connection, and more community in their lives. We may not even know what that looks like, but we know what it feels like from previous experiences in our lives. Maybe it was a fun and lively dorm experience in college. Maybe it was spending time camping with friends. Maybe it was working on a project with thoughtful, engaging people.

With that simple notice, Pat struck a chord in her town. Three years later, Quimper Village (QV) was the result. And it all began with a simple invitation. Let’s talk. Let’s break bread. Let’s discuss what we think our future might be like, and along the way, get to know each other a little bit better.

The director of the adult education program heard what Pat was thinking about and asked her to do a presentation.

‘Do I proactively choose my waning years to be lived in conjunction with others, or do I let the chips fall where they may?’

Pat found a book, The Senior Cohousing Handbook (2009), before the presentation and she thought what it described sounded pretty interesting—a community where people would share community-owned resources such as a large common house; where they would have meals together frequently and engage in other social activities; where they would live close to one another but have their own home and income; and where they wouldn’t become lonely, isolated, or bored as they got older. Pat and David took inspiration from this book and prepared their first presentation.

Sixty-four people showed up to that first presentation at the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Church. They wanted to hear Pat talk about the mythical place of “Quimper Village,” which Pat had lovingly named her vision.

Fortunately, Pat, who was a retired teacher of special education and school administrator, and David, a retired associate professor of speech and theater, had an eye for details and a delivery that encouraged people to connect. Pat and David began with a small presentation on cohousing, a summary of this option in Denmark, and held up The Senior Cohousing Handbook for those who wanted more information.

They talked about key cohousing characteristics for almost five minutes, and why it appealed to them personally. They then asked each table of participants to become a small group; to introduce themselves to one another; select a notetaker; and to answer three questions, going around to each person in the group. The prompts were:

  • “I might like to live in senior cohousing because . . .”
  • “I would be worried about living in senior cohousing because . . .”
  • “Questions I still have about senior cohousing are . . .”

Upon comparing notes, they discovered that across groups there were no unique statements, which was evidence of the universality of these issues.

Pat and David then described the next step for those who wanted to continue the investigation of elder cohousing as an option for their future. That next step was enrollment in a 10-week course called “Study Group 1: Aging Successfully (SG1).” I had brought the concept of such a class back from Denmark and have found it to be a key tool in developing successful cohousing communities. Pat had prepared a handout for each participant that summarized the 10 sessions, and she briefly went over them.

Emails were sent out, and 20 people (the number the Danes recommend) signed up to take the course. Participants were charged $55 each for the workbooks and couples were asked not share workbooks because answers could be, and should be, unique to each individual. The church gave them the space to hold the class. Pat had not taken the SG1 training before she led this workshop, but she didn’t want to lose a season nor the momentum, so she jumped in. Time was of the essence of course—the average participant was 70 years old.

Pat created her own format with the help of the workbook. The most powerful thing in the SG1 class, according to Pat and David, was breaking up into small groups of three to five peo¬ple. Pat would prepare two to three thought-provoking questions each week based on the session material, such as “What were the last years of your parents’ lives like? What was that like for you?” Each week, people sat with different participants so that by the end of the course, many participants knew each other on a pretty deep level. The last session involved a field trip to an existing cohousing community (more easily done in some parts of the country than others), and to assisted living in that same town.

'Be deliberate, take action, stay on the critical path, get out of denial, and you can build community inhabited by vibrant elders.’

Pat could not emphasize enough the importance the SG1 course had in laying the foundation for moving forward to begin building Quimper Village. It was not until the course was over that Pat realized how much people had bonded and shared with one another, and “how much alike we really all were as we face the years ahead, I just love the people here. I mean there’s just no question about it. There’s just a whole variety of people. I think of what this means to people that are sin¬gle here, if someone needs something or if they don’t want to go by themselves to Seattle—there’s always people here that are willing to go. It really adds so much richness as well as support to their lives, all of our lives.”

What was being built here was fundamentally a community of peo¬ple who could envision embarking on this sort of adventure together. When the participants finished the course, everyone wanted to move forward and build a senior cohousing community. Everyone stayed with the project through the summer until the Getting-It-Built Workshop. At that point, some people dropped out because their spouses weren’t on board, or they determined it would be too expensive for them.

It should be noted that the group held a total of four public presen¬tations about cohousing. There were panel discussions, outreach to other Unitarian Universalist congregations in the area, and a large public presentation about senior cohousing, which I provided, illuminating in great detail life in Senior Cohousing around the world. More than 100 people attended, and it really closed the deal—the majority of people attending were on board. There was growing enthusiasm for the project, and the group began to solidify. These factors led them to schedule the Getting-It-Built Workshop (see Durrett, et al., 2022), and they were on their way. In less than three years, Quimper Village had gone from a gleam in Pat’s eye to the teapot sitting on the stove in her own cohousing home.

What Pat did is not the only way, but it is the most deliberate and best way. She put a plan in place and fulfilled it! In Pat’s words: “Be deliberate, take action, stay on the critical path, get out of denial, and you can build community inhabited by vibrant elders.” The Danes would say that we’re not doing anything new—just recreating what used to occur naturally in cultures across the planet.

Achieving DEI in Cohousing

To achieve cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity, cohousing groups around the country are deliberately reaching out and having success. One community in Nevada City, California, started with one Latina mom. She and others reached out, and as of this writing, there are four African-American residents and 11 residents of Asian descent. To date, most of the 150 cohousing communities in the United States are on the coasts. Where loans in Europe are often guaranteed, these communities are typically privately funded in the United States. Privately funded means people are coming up with 20% of their down payments before moving in. Having consumers participate in the creation of these developments makes them state of the art.

One senior cohousing community established the mission statement, “Have as much fun in the second half of my life as in the first.” That group was started by five households (singles and couples) in their early 50s. They moved in with five teenagers. They were not in denial when it came to the vagaries of aging, and they also saw the future—empty-nesting and all.

The overall aims of Study Group 1 are to help people get out of denial about aging and to see how community is at the epicenter of a healthier second half of their lives.

Charles Durrett is an architect who, with Kathryn McCamant, introduced the concept of cohousing to the United States with the book Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves. The latest edition is Creating Cohousing, Building Sustainable Communities.

Photo caption: Quimper Village

Photo credit: Courtesy Charles Durrett



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Durrett, C. (2005). Senior cohousing: A community approach to independent living. The Cohousing Company.

Durrett, C. (2009). The senior cohousing handbook: A community approach to independent living (2nd ed.). New Society Publishers.

Durrett, C., Yang, J. Lin, A., Spencer, N., & Kongkhajornkidsuk, N. (2022). Cohousing communities: Designing for high-functioning neighborhoods. Wiley.

Foundation for Hospice and Homecare. (2013). Home care delivers freedom: Home care nurses, aides and therapists drive 7.88 billion miles in 2013 to reach shut-in patients.

Killeen, C. (2002). Loneliness: An epidemic in modern society. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 28(4), 762–70.

Nevada County Executive Office. (n.d.). 2021-2022 Adopted budget Nevada County, California.

Thomas, W. H. (2004). What Are Old People For?: How Elders Will Save the World. Vanderwyk & Burnham.