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Health & Wellness

A New Kind of Neighborhood Supports “Aging in Community”

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Four nights a week Kathryn McCamant and her husband Charles Durrett enjoy a home-cooked meal with a couple dozen of their neighbors. The dinners take place in a large communal dining room that doubles as a dance hall.

Cooking and cleanup duties rotate among the 61 adults who, along with 24 kids, live in the Nevada City Cohousing community. There’s also an organic vegetable garden, workshop, bike sheds, a swimming pool and hot tub.

There’s a sense of security and safety, emotionally and physically, that comes from being part of something larger than yourself.

If you haven’t heard of cohousing yet, you probably will. These booming collaborative communities offer a supportive and nurturing alternative to suburban isolation or urban anonymity. Each household has its own private home, but residents share a large common house, which is the heart of the community. Opportunities for connection abound, from shared meals or happy hour on rooftops, to working in the garden or taking part in resident-led workshops in sewing, woodworking, yoga, even home-brewing beer.

“Cohousing is a really good life,” McCamant says. “There’s a sense of security and safety, emotionally and physically, that comes from being part of something larger than yourself. You’re surrounded by people you can call on in a time of need. And, there’s much more spontaneity in day-to-day life. You run into people and say, hey, do you want to go hiking on Sunday? It doesn’t take ten emails and texts.”

McCamant and Durrett first came upon “living communities” when they were architecture students in Copenhagen, Denmark. Since the 1960s, a mix of young families and empty nesters, singles and single parents had been forming these self-reliant neighborhoods where people supported each other through the challenges of every stage of life, from childcare to eldercare. McCamant and Durrett designed the first built-from-the-ground-up cohousing community in the U.S. in 1991 and they have been involved in more than 50 others.

Today, there are 162 cohousing communities around the country. Another 125 are in the planning stages. Most of the communities are intergenerational. The residents of Nevada City range in age from newborn to ninety. But senior cohousing communities are also growing. A dozen “senior-focused” communities have been completed, with 15 more forming or being built. One of the first to open, in 2007, was Silver Sage Village in Boulder, Colorado. Today, 24 “sagers” live in 16 homes. While the community doesn’t offer assisted living or nursing facilities, their core values include a commitment to “aging in community.”

“We strive to create a community that fosters caring and supportive relationships,” their vision statement reads. “We strive to stay actively involved throughout our mature years and to maintain a healthy lifestyle and outlook.”

Residents seem to flourish amid all this support and sociability.  Community psychologist William Berkowitz, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell believes that close-knit neighborhoods fulfill a vital human function. “The need for connection with other people is wired into our biology,” he says. “There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that when people have strong social networks their sense of well-being and their physical health improve. Cross-cultural research even shows that people may live longer.”

You can learn more about these communities at cohousing.org.

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