Cohousing: On Creating and Living in a Multi-generational Community
This is one of a series of essays related to cohousing. For more information, see the introduction here.
A goal for many communities in their forming and development stage is to welcome a diverse group of people from multiple generations. This is well and good, and if this is a goal for your community — you go for it. Bear in mind of course, that diversity presents certain challenges and so I would like to share a few observations that might not be immediately obvious at the outset. Let me first share with you the reflections of a member of one of Canada’s many multi-generational communities:
“if people want to have an inter-generational community, a lot of attention needs to be paid to the issue of life stages and phases. How it’s different for a single person, how it’s different for families with, especially, small children, how it’s different for people who are ageing in place. Each of those three groups are rather different, and this affects not only what they need, but it also affects what they are able and willing to contribute to the community. So, we knew we wanted families, but we didn’t pay sufficient attention at the beginning to what this would mean in practice. How will those families with children live differently in the community then, let’s say, the seniors?”
It turns out, that while young families are made up of young, often energetic people, they are also people that are very taxed for time. Most are two-income families, juggling children with full work and/or studies. When the children are young, they need a lot of time and supervision and as these children age they tend to take more than they can give to the community. While I have witnessed a few young women assisting one of their elder neighbors, it’s appears to be more common for elder neighbors to be watching over or cooking for the young families than it is for young families to be specifically supporting the elderly.
It’s no secret that in North America, ours is not a culture that always values our elders. However, I can say with some confidence that many cohousing communities in Canada would not function with out them. This is especially true with the “junior seniors” — people in their late 50s and 60s— those who are retired or semi-retired. They carry out a lot of the work done in multi-generational communities. In addition to administrative duties such as organizing schedules for community meals, managing the community’s books, and facilitation, I’ve witnessed these senior members digging ditches and harvesting full sized trees. They are both literally and figuratively doing the heavy lifting in many of these communities.
On the one hand, this points to the full and active lives that these community members are able to live in these neighborhoods. There is plenty of evidence that being needed in this way contributes to the well-being of people as they age in a world that often dismisses the contributions of elders. On the other hand, this is not the relaxing retirement that some folks had in mind.
Some advice from existing communities
- Check your expectations
You might be the kind of person that wants to do something with/for your community every day. Your neighbor may have a very different idea of what it means to live in community and what is expected in terms of participation. You will need to have this discussion at one point early on in the development of the community, and likely later on, once the reality of living together emerges. For example, you may be dreaming of a giant garden to grow all the community’s food, which you will all joyfully work collaboratively on over the years. This sounds like a wonderful idea. But you may also find that the day-to-day labor of this kind of garden can get in the way of travel and familial responsibilities. Sometimes flying across the country to help with your new grandchild can get in the way of all the weeding that needs to be done.
While the community may decide to develop guidelines around participation, you might find that policing these guidelines isn’t always a fruitful exercise as peoples lives are constantly changing. The same person that could give a steady 10–15 hours of help every week, may only have a few hours to spare when something in their personal live changes. Which leads me to point #2…
2. Provide opportunities for people to participate in the way they can right now.
It’s not uncommon for working parents to have a hard time committing to regular, on-going community work. While they might be very excited in the beginning, nothing tempers motivation like a kid with the flu, a sick relative, or a series of important deadlines at work.
A number of participants in my research mentioned that sporadic work events or short term projects can be a good way to involve members of the community who are juggling work and family within the community. For example, work-bees are excellent ways to get families involved. These are one- or two-day work events where all members of the community commit to working together to address a list of chores or to deal with a particular project, like building a garden, a play area, or finishing a new room in the common house etc.
These kinds of one-off or community-wide activities makes the cost of childcare, when needed, something that can be shared by multiple families. As children get older they can also participate in some of the work that is needed to keep their community vibrant and safe.
3. Recognise the invisible work that holds the community together
One community member described invisible work as the mycelium that feeds and supports the community. It’s underground, it builds resiliency, and it’s about connections. Another described it like cleaning… that is, you don’t notice it until it isn’t done. This is the work of people who check up on their neighbor to make sure they are doing OK when they notice they haven’t been at meetings. This is when someone takes a walk with a neighbor and has a tough conversation with them in order to work out their differences. It’s the person who is generous with their time and friendly with guests who visit the community as part of their thesis work. This work is on-going, it’s emotional, and it takes time and energy.
Because this work can be intimate and take place between individuals it’s often not seen (thus invisible). By “recognize the invisible work” I don’t mean hold a ceremony or bring it up at every meeting — though doing this from time to time might help. I’m suggesting that people should personally reflect on this. If you are not the person doing this invisible work, you may be the person benefiting from it. Don’t take it for granted. Emotional labor is labor and it’s often borne by the most emotionally mature and empathetic members of the community.
Recognizing that people at different stages of their lives can and will contribute in different ways — not only in terms of time — but in terms of the nature of contribution is an important means to adjusting your expectations of how a community functions. It’s not all cooking, roof repair, and ditch digging. It’s also reaching out, listening and connecting.
4. Provide space for specific kinds of peer support
One way of formalizing some of the invisible work is to specifically create space for it to transpire. In ageing communities consider having groups or events reserved for the elders in community. This provides a space where people at this stage of life can share in their experiences and activities without needing to accommodate for people who are at a different stage of life. This can be as simple as a reading or walking group for elders that meets every month. Valuing and encouraging the emergence of this kind of group can help build mutual support and care within this smaller network in the community.
Consider forming a committee for parents. While some feel that children can really bring a place to life, they do present particular challenges in the community. For example, different parenting styles can be a particular stress point among young families. Parents can learn to support and work out any potential issues related to children without needing to implicate the wider community in all of these decisions. Moreover, a lot of elders in communities have already raised their kids, and may not be looking to relive this experience in a time with different expectations around parenting.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous essay, personal growth is a big part of living in community. You’ll note that most of the above really has more to do with self-reflection than anything else in particular. Learning to better understand and appreciate the differences between people at different stages of their lives is something that happens internally after taking the time to challenge your own assumptions. This can be facilitated by group discussion and dialogue, but at the end of the day, this requires something of a shift in perspective within community members.