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Sunday, November 27, 2022

Building dreams of community life: Cohousing for the elderly

“What if we lived together? What if when we retire, we look for a plot or an abandoned building, and build a place where we can develop the projects we’ve dreamed of, the things we’ve left undone? We could learn from each other. We would have a good time! We would take care of each other, keep each other company…”

“But I don’t want a commune. I want to have my own space, a complete apartment, even if it is very smal. I want to get rid of lots of my stuff, and share others with you.”

“No, of course. None of us want a commune. We want a place to be together when we want, and alone when we want. That encourages us to stay alive, to continue with our own projects and goals, precisely because we are together. By the way, just imagine the library we’d have if we combined all our books together! And when we get old we can keep each other company, comb each other’s hair, have one read aloud if another can’t see to read. Or maybe we’ll be just slightly aware of each other. We could look for someone to help us; split between all of us, it wouldn’t cost as much.”

“That’s right. I don’t want to be a burden to my children. I don’t want them to experience what I went through with my mother. I am convinced that there are alternatives, and that we can find those alternatives within ourselves…”

For years this type of conversation has been heard in cafés and at Sunday lunches in Spain, and in many other countries around the world. It starts as a crazy dream, a first dialogue that builds castles in the air; then another that builds on the idea with another friend; then it’s repeated months later. Finally, one day, someone shouts: “I have seen it on television! There is a group that has created this in a town near Madrid. They say it’s called cohousing and that for decades they have been creating this type of housing in Denmark, Holland, the United States…”

When we created the Jubilares Association in 2012, in addition to this growing interest, there was also a lot of resistance: “We are not Northern Europe. This is Spain.” In fact, we thought that the word cohousing (or collaborative housing) would not be understood. We started calling this type of housing “jubilares,” from the Latin, iubilare: to jump for joy.

Today, exactly 10 years later, there are a handful of initiatives thriving in our country, and several dozen cooperatives designing or building these intentional communities. The phenomenon has been discussed in the media. Leaders have convened information sessions on this topic and even changed some regulations to facilitate the necessary legal structures.

This residential trend is not right for everyone. It’s not that any one type of person isn’t eligible—it’s just that it requires a personal and group effort. It requires tenacity, trust in other people, generosity for dialogue and agreement, and the desire to build from collective intelligence. However, the rewards are immense. These communities provide resilience in the face of adversity, in the face of the often abrupt changes that old age brings—unexpected dependency, bereavement, and others. These communities provide a better quality of life, a sense of belonging, wellness and health.

Our association was created to disseminate, support, advise and create networks to facilitate the process of building these communities. We followed in the footsteps of other similar European entities, and now countries in Latin America and the Caribbean can continue to build on our experiences.

Courtesy Javier del Monte Diego / El Colectivo 506

Society is changing. Older adults are changing. Our systems of care are changing, too. Having an aging population is a wonderful achievement for a society, although it poses great challenges and opportunities. As one example, in Spain in the year 2000 there were six middle-aged people for every person over 80 years of age; by 2050, that ratio is expected to be one to one. Our conclusion is easy: we will take care of each other!

In Spain there is a “hinge generation” made up of older people who have taken care of their parents, but no longer want their children to do this for them. Older people who, from the second half of the 20th century to the present moment, have had more and more resources, higher levels of education, and increasing ecological awareness. They are proposing changes of perspective and alternatives to live more coherently with their values.

Changes in family, couple, or parent-child relationships; the growth of cities; climate change. All of these force us to rethink ways of life and direct them towards the construction of more humane and sustainable, accessible and friendly environments. Many factors are contributing to a deep reconsideration of housing models, social services, and care for old age, disability or dependency. These include the recognition of certain rights such as personal autonomy or independent living, that included in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, or in Spain, the Personal Autonomy Law; the right to decent and adequate housing, expressed in our Spanish Constitution; and other indisputable rights such as the maintenance of dignity, respectful treatment of the elderly, and gender equality.

For all of these, cohousing is becoming an important benchmark, since it provides a community and highly participatory approach—even self-management—that is applicable to other environments or scales such as nursing homes or “aging-friendly cities.”

The collaborative housing or cohousing model that we facilitate at Jubilares is a type of self-promoted, self-managed community, with a collaborative, democratic design, made up of free people who want to remain so until the end: making the decisions that affect their lives, even when there is dependency.

From an architectural point of view, it is a set of 15-30 apartments around large common areas that are understood as part of the home. However, it is not the physical form that defines cohousing, but rather the lifestyle—and above all, a creative process that involves building the community before the building.

Most of the people who dare to make the aforementioned dreams come true are older adults, mainly women, but it is not a model closed to any type of person. Entities like ours, and other people or organizations that accompany the processes, offer legal, architectural or caregiving advice; methodology for community participation; group culture training; or person-centered care training. In any case, the motivation, the decisions, and the control of the project always belongs to the cooperative, to the group of people who embark on this adventure.

We say that cohousing projects are, more than social innovation projects, “retro-innovation” because they come to redesign what has been done throughout history in villages, what generations prior to ours lived in communities or extended families. Today, this is being reshaped through the improvement of the processes for creating intentional communities, more conscious about recognizing the needs of others. These communities can prevent conflicts through their focus on building a good neighborhood.

Cohousing initiatives are “communities of care” or mutual support projects because they offer comprehensive care systems based largely on the commitment and co-responsibility of the residents. They are not isolated from the wider community: their values ​​of solidarity, collaboration, empathy, equality, democratic participation, and care for the environment, are all shared with the broader neighborhood, town or city. Some of the cohousing communities that are being created have initiatives such as community gardens, classrooms open to all, harassment-free safety zones, or public spaces for sports or leisure. In many cases, these are humble resources—a room, an activity—but they are significant in reinforcing social cohesion and improving the sense of community.

“I don’t want to be a burden to my children. I don’t want them to experience what I went through with my mother. I am convinced that there are alternatives, and that we can find those alternatives within ourselves…”

Yes. Yes, there are alternatives, and people who are building them. If you are interested in exploring this topic further, I invite you to join what is becoming a global conversation.

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