Co-housing: Tackling Isolation in an Aging Population

By Eric Lindsay
Social Connectedness Fellow 2018

In 2015, the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs concluded that “population aging—the increasing share of older persons in the population—[was] poised to become one of the most significant social transformations of the twenty-first century.”[1] Accordingly, over the next decade the number of people living in the world aged 60 or over is predicted to grow by 56%, from 901 million to 1.4 billion. Moreover, by 2050 the number of the ‘oldest-old’ (80 years or over) is predicted to triple, rising from 125 million in 2015 to well over 400 million.[2] Undeniably, our world is aging quickly. In fact, our world is aging so quickly and in such large numbers that we cannot keep up with it. As a result, an increasing number of older persons are becoming socially isolated.   

In Canada, 30% of older persons are at risk of being socially isolated.[3]  Moreover, in Quebec alone, there are over 600,000 people in the 75+ age bracket, a number which is expected to double within the next two decades.[4]  By 2040, there will be approximately 1.2 million people over the age of 75 in Quebec; meaning that over 360,000 older persons will be at risk of being socially isolated.  In turn, we are challenged with caring for and supporting an ever-growing population. Accordingly, in the face of this unprecedented challenge, ‘co-housing’ has emerged as a possible solution. 

So, what is co-housing? Co-housing is a type of residential development designed around a mutually held belief in the positive impact of creating community. And as such, co-housing developments are built in ways that increase the togetherness of their residents while still maintaining the privacy of living alone. For example, within co-housing developments, residents each have their own home complete with a standalone kitchen, bathroom(s), and bedroom(s).  However, the conjoining spaces of the development are articulated so that interaction among residents occurs often and easily.  This curation of space entails the existence of shared environments such as: community kitchens, dining rooms, R&R rooms, gardens, and play areas. It facilitates daily, social interactions amongst its residents and promotes inclusivity and togetherness. Additionally, because co-housing developments are built with input from their residents, designs often place emphasis on environmental efficiency.  And, because of the emphasis placed on community, residents can achieve certain economies-of-scale through the communal usage of household accessories such as washing/drying machines and repair tools. 

Evidently there are many social and environmental benefits to downsizing, sacrificing the picket-fence, and moving into a co-housing development; especially regarding social isolation.  The social benefits and the possibility for increased connectedness among residents have been noticed by concerned older persons groups and advocates, and in turn, a number of co-housing developments paying specific attention to age inclusivity have cropped up in recent years in places like: Barcelona, across the UK, Portland, and Ottawa.  Accordingly, the Canadian Cohousing Network has found that older persons living in co-housing developments are cared for better, live longer, and have fewer incidences of dementia. Moreover, in-home support systems allow older persons to stay in their homes 8 to 10 years longer, saving the government $50,000/year per person.

 Co-housing has shown itself to be a powerful tool in combatting social isolation among older persons. Furthermore, co-housing has demonstrated success in connecting individuals, couples, and families with one another; improving the quality of life of all those impacted, especially older persons.  And this success spells promise for the future; a future that will see an unprecedented need for innovative solutions for social isolation among older persons as the population continues to age at a rapid rate.  For further inspiration, take a look at this how-to guide for creating your own co-housing environment from existing homes and communities or sit-back, relax, and listen to this radio podcast about a co-housing initiative in Sooke, BC.    

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[1] World Population Ageing, report, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (New York, NY: United Nations, 2015), pg. #1.

[2] Ibid., pg. #2.

[3] Janice Keefe et al., Final Report: A Profile of Social Isolation in Canada, report no. 2006/491 (Halifax: Mount Saint Vincent University, 2006), pg. #3.

[4] Who’s at Risk and What Can Be Done About It? report (Ottawa: National Seniors Council, 2017).