Cohousing helps ease worries of aging, tight economy

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By VIRGINIA LINN

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Three women in their 50s found themselves divorced, leading active lives with full careers, living by themselves, but never lonely.

But retirement loomed, and each grew concerned about the cost and responsibilities of maintaining their own homes. Other worries nagged at them: "What would happen if I had a medical emergency and there was no one around to help me?"

In 2004, Jean McQuillin, Louise Machinist and Karen Bush, of Mt. Lebanon, Pa., who met at a Unitarian Church, embarked on an adventure in "cooperative householding," and they've been living together -- but separately -- in a five-bedroom suburban Pittsburgh house for more than eight years.

They recently self-published a book about their experiences, My House, Our House ($15).

"People love the concept," says McQuillin, 67, a mother and grandmother who divorced after 39 years of marriage. "They're curious about how we manage to make it work, and many think, 'I'd love to do something like that.'"

The tight economy and aging population have prompted a rise in all sorts of alternative living arrangements, said Oz Ragland, a volunteer with the Fellowship of Intentional Community, a national organization and resource to cooperative households.

Ragland, 54, also lives in a shared home north of Seattle.

He's a former executive director of the Cohousing Association of America, which represents a different type of community -- where residents live in private homes but share a common area that might include kitchen, dining hall, child care, library and even laundry facilities. The concept originated in Denmark and has been growing in popularity here since the early 1990s.

Rebecca Lane, current executive director of the Cohousing Association, estimates there are 125 to 150 cohousing communities across the country.

A recent Census Bureau report shows shared households increased 11.4 percent from 2007 to 2010. Overall, such living arrangements accounted for 22 million households in 2010 -- or 18.7 percent of all U.S. households, compared with 17 percent in 2007.

In addition to saving money, such arrangements among older adults provide mutual support and reduce the carbon footprint, Ragland said. "It's much cheaper environmentally to have more than one individual in a home."

Still it takes a special kind of person to thrive in a shared household, said Joani Blank, 75, of Oakland, Calif., who has lived in two cohousing communities for 20 years.

"We live in a very individualistic culture, particularly if you have to share a kitchen or a bathroom," she said. "It's got to be a person with particular maturity and vision. When you come home, you're not coming home to an empty house."

The Pittsburgh trio made their plans carefully over time, hatching the idea of sharing a household -- which they jokingly referred to as "The Old Biddies' Commune" -- to save money and offer mutual assistance as they aged.

"This is a way to remain independent but with support," McQuillin said.

They also realized that if they bought a house together -- each being a co-mortgage holder -- they'd be able to afford a nicer home than what they could separately.

They forged a General Partnership Agreement to form a "voluntary association for the sole purpose of conducting all business related to owning and maintaining the house." Each partner contributes an equal amount toward the mortgage, taxes and other costs, and all house-related investments and debts are equally shared. They set up a joint checking account to handle household expenses.

They didn't agree on everything, of course, and one of their "thorniest disagreements" involved whether to stock their kitchen with a sponge or dishrag. Today, both reside on the kitchen sink.

Although they rarely have dinner together, they're often seated together with three laptops in the garden room, the smallest room of the house, because of its cozy view.

"We don't check in every day with each other's lives," Machinist says. "We just live them."

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