Shared Living Options for Seniors

Baby boomers have many housing options when they’re choosing where they’ll live out their golden years. Help them discover and plan the best situation by brushing up on these shared housing types.

May 28, 2014

Many home owners enjoy being on their own. Witness the rise in the number of single women buying homes—a group that has purchased at twice the rate of single men since the mid-1990s.

But as aging baby boomers—individuals or couples—head into their later decades, many find they need something different after their nest empties—namely, to remain active but also very connected, particularly as they’ve seen peers move away or pass away. Even many singles who might have lived in a condo in a downtown or suburban location might want another choice for their older years.

The good news is that there are many new possibilities available to home owners for the next chapter of their lives. Developers, builders, and architects understand this demand and are providing boomers a host of opportunities rather than a one-size-fits-all solution: single-family houses that can be shared, townhomes and apartments, and even communities with communal gathering hubs.

As a real estate professional, you can help your clients choose the best housing stock for their next phase in life—and years to come—by being well versed in the growing range.

Senior Communities

Being part of a community can make it easier to foster instant connections. Social interactions can not only improve one’s outlook but also improve health and help save on costs by pooling resources. The idea of living near or with others and sharing amenities is far from new in the world of planned communities—both for seniors as well as a wide range of ages. The first true retirement (age-restricted) community is said to have been Sun City in Phoenix, developed in 1960 by Del Webb. The concept spread nationwide.

Not all seniors wanted to live with those of just their age group, yet they liked the concept of a sense of community and closeness. Thus, a little more than 30 years ago, architects at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company pioneered another version by designing communities for residents of all ages, who could mingle in walkable towns with mixed-use structures. Their tenets of New Urbanism took the focus off streets and automobiles and placed it on walking paths and houses with front porches to encourage more neighborliness and socializing as people walked by.


For those reluctant to yield their anonymity, there’s another choice, which Nathan Freeborn, salesperson with Redfin’s North Shore Chicago office, thinks will only grow in coming years.

For two older female friends who wanted to downsize after each lost a husband, yet wanted to remain in a detached single-family home, he found them one ranch house that they could share. The women were adamant that they weren’t ready for assisted care, a condo, or any other type of attached housing, he says. “They sought a plan with two master suites in a suburban location near one woman’s family, and some property—but not too much—for gardening,” he says. “They were still healthy enough to live on their own.”

The home Freeborn found features the plus of bedroom suites at either end to ensure privacy, an open plan for entertaining, and an unfinished basement and attic, both of which could be made habitable, if needed.

“It was a unique request—and my first for this, but I think it’s going to become more of a trend because of the aging population and also the economics in this age group,” he says. “It makes a lot of sense to enter into this type of situation with someone else, compared to the cost of senior living.”

Pocket Neighborhoods

Rather than have a roommate, others may prefer to own a home with people close by, but on a far smaller scale than a New Urbanist or retirement community. This was the concept behind architect Ross Chapin’s pocket neighborhood. Chapin was inspired by Bungalow Courts, built in 1909 in Southern California, and Pine Street Cottages, built in 1916 in Seattle. Using these developments as inspiration, Chapin and developer Jim Soules built their first small-scale prototype of a pocket neighborhood in Langley, Wash., in 1997.

Today, pocket neighborhoods consist of homes clustered around an open space in any locale — suburban, rural, or urban. “They’re the antidote to uber privacy,” says Chapin, who wrote Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World (Taunton Press, 2011).

“So far, the idea is still a fledgling approach, with fewer than two dozen across the country,” Chapin says. But he has 10 more on the drawing board, and says architects, city planners, and developers nationwide are showing increased interest.


One of the newer prototypes was introduced in the United States by architect Charles Durrett and his wife, Kathryn McCamant, also an architect, in 1988 after they studied in Copenhagen. They coined the term cohousing; designed their first model in Davis, Calif., in 1991; and later wrote a book, Creating Cohousing (New Society Publishers, 2011), about the genre, helping to spread the idea. The freestanding condominium-owned houses in Davis, along with a community building and open acreage, are still the main principles espoused by the Cohousing Association. Residents also play a role in design, managing tasks, and choosing amenities for the community center, such as a kitchen, guest rooms, pool, or vegetable garden.

Durrett and McCamant live at Nevada City Cohousing in Grass Valley, Calif. Their firm has designed more than 50 in the United States and abroad.

Altogether, there are 121 cohousing communities in 37 states, but new ones keep popping up that vary widely in terms of:

  • number of homes—from about 11 to 64 houses;
  • type of home—single-family, townhouse, multifamily;
  • amount of land—less than an acre to 230 acres;
  • location—suburban, rural, urban;
  • price—from $100,000 to beyond $1 million;
  • age of structures—many are brand new; others are adaptively reused schools and office buildings.

Architects Mary Kraus and Laura Fitch, partners at Kraus-Fitch Architects, both live at Pioneer Valley in Amherst, Mass., a cohousing development they helped design. The development includes 32 houses that range from one to four bedrooms. They planned the kitchen in the communal facility with an oversized island for multiple cooks to work together easily and the mailroom to encourage residents to sit and chat.

The design, like many other cohousing communities, reflects an interest in sustainability; the houses have pine floors from a nearby lumberyard, EnergyStar appliances, and vegetable gardens. Both Kraus and Fitch have found that the community suits their needs. “I don’t like to mow, but I love to garden, and certainly love having the option of dinner prepared on Monday and Wednesday nights. People respect each others’ privacy,” says Kraus, whose firm has worked on 30 cohousing developments in various capacities.

Some of the newer cohousing iterations reflect awareness that residents are aging. Developer Jim Leach, president of Wonderland Hill Development Co. in Boulder, Colo., lives at one of his company’s communities, Silver Sage Village, where seniors occupy all15 homes. It’s near the multigenerational Wild Sage cohousing community, and both are part of the larger Holiday Neighborhood New Urbanist development, which shows how one bigger community can offer different subsets, all benefiting each other.

One significant question looms: How well elder cohousing communities adapt to occupants’ aging and desire to remain independent. “Nobody on the ‘Golden Girls’ TV show had a walker or wheelchair, used an oxygen tank, or had dementia,” says Andrew Carle, executive in resident and founding director of the Senior Housing Administration at George Mason University. “It’s hard enough for family caregivers, but neighbors can’t be expected to help feed, clothe, and bathe those in need all the time. They may need professionals.”

Zev Paiss, who cofounded the Elder Cohousing Network with his wife Neshama Abraham in 2004, says the goal is to have small neighborhoods where residents can bring in caretakers if they need to.

“This is not a medical but a residential model. They’re being designed with universal design features or the flexibility to add them,” he says. Abraham helped found Our Home-Colorado a year ago to inform seniors of the range of housing options available, from sharing a home to buying one in a cohousing development. Durrett’s most recent book, The Senior Cohousing Handbook (New Society Publishers, 2009), offers more help.

The bottom line: While all these concepts won’t appeal to every buyer, Leach says they are likely to generate greater interest in coming years for several reasons. Boomers will appreciate not only the intangible benefits of sharing a quality life with others, particularly those who are single or have fewer friends at that stage, but they’ll also rest easier knowing they have someone with whom to share cost-of-living expenses. In addition, recent resale data suggests that these types of homes are a good investment overall.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


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