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Co-housing: could it take off?

Choice and control are the driving force behind a growing co-housing initiative for older Australians looking for alternatives to the traditional aged care and retirement living options.

The AGEncy project founding committee (Source: Keryn Curtis)
The AGEncy project founding committee (Source: Keryn Curtis)

Popular in Scandinavia and several European countries, and even the United States, the concept offers individual living options among communal areas and with the company of friends within a local and familiar area.

Groups entering into co-housing agree to work together to create a place where they can all live close to one another – independently in their own normal, separate ‘homes’ – but sharing things as part of a broader community; such as kitchens, dining spaces and other things aligning with the group's interests and needs, like a garden, laundry, tools, equipment and energy.

Keryn Curtis is a co-housing advocate, and one member of not-for-profit group The AGEncy Project, who is working to introduce and create a viable co-housing model for herself, her friends, and other older Australians.

“I think co-housing for older people has been on the radar for a while now, although not in an organised way,” she says.

“But pretty much anyone over the age of 45 and even younger, will have found themselves at some point sitting around a campfire, dinner table or at a backyard barbecue speculating about life in old age.

“The idea of ‘clubbing together with your friends’ and creating your own bespoke post-retirement nirvana, doing whatever it is that makes you all happy as you grow old supporting each other, well it’s definitely not an original thought.”

Ms Curtis says a big factor in the co-housing debate is the emerging experience of growing older that isn’t like the experience of previous generations.

“We are informed, we are street smart and if we don’t know exactly what we want, we do know what we don’t want,” she explains.

“Many of us don’t want the mainstream ‘seniors lifestyle’ options that are on offer, much less the standard aged care offering.

“We are the same people that we always have been, just a few years along the life spectrum.

“Ordinary rights, choice, control and personal agency in our lives is what we want.”

While admitting that co-housing is not for everyone, Mr Curtis says for older people in particular it is very appealing and says there needs to be more choice available to people as they get older.

“The traditional retirement village suits some people – about 5 percent of over 65s – but I think increasingly people want diversity and choice that are simply not there with the current retirement village offering,” she says.

“It will never be for everyone – but neither will retirement villages and aged care facilities.

“People want choices and at the moment there are very few choices available.”

When looking at the co-housing model, Ms Curtis says the ‘breaking of the bread’ is a core element and adds that while there are many options available, it will always depend on cost and collaborative agreement.

For the model her and her choice of co-housing friends will live in, she says everyone will have their own apartment with additional communal kitchen and dining room areas to have the option to share meals together during the week.

“First and foremost it has been about us having a place to live in our local area as we grow old, where we can live well, supported by each other, close to familiar places and services,” she says.

“For other ‘facilities’ it will ultimately depend on the makeup of the final group committing to move in and their choices, but we are looking at things like a cinema room, a roof garden, gym and exercise area, consulting rooms for visiting healthcare professionals, a few spaces for meetings, classes or workshops that could be rented out commercially when not in use.”

She adds that they are also looking to include commercial elements like a café, convenience store, childcare service, doctor’s surgery and offices, as well as working on having an agreement with an aged care provider for when the co-housing residents need age related support services.

Though Ms Curtis admits AGEncy’s plan is still in the early stages, she says that at the very least they hope to be a demonstration project, and says that co-housing will, in time, become a component of the housing sector.

“It’s a great model... we think it’s a no-brainer,” she says.

“Co-housing provides or can easily facilitate all the requirements of ageing well.

“It offers the housing component plus the social support and participation component all at the same time.

“There is no shortage of evidence that supportive, intentionally designed, well located housing helps to preserve physical health and wellbeing and fosters strong social engagement.

“It can be much cheaper up front than any other form of purpose built ‘seniors housing’ because the biggest developer costs are cut out.

“I would definitely recommend other older Australians to consider it – because like I said it is a no-brainer... but making it a reality is definitely a challenge!”

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