The concept of cohousing often generates a fair amount of skepticism. Can individuals retain their privacy and a sense of self within a community? Can cohousing accommodate the different needs of a diverse group? Does cohousing truly address issues such as isolation and loneliness?
These are some of the issues that will be examined at the Canadian Cohousing Conference (CCC) taking place April 28–29 in Vancouver.
At the heart of cohousing lies the intention to form a community. Eating together creates bonds, and cohousing members regularly share meals in a common kitchen. This gives rise to the misperception that cohousing lacks privacy.
“When I explain to people that there will be a common kitchen where we can share meals, people often sort of think of it as a commune,” says Marta Carlucci, parent and member of Driftwood Village Cohousing. “Then I always make sure that I explain that we all have our own kitchen and bathrooms just like any other condo or townhouse.”
Another misperception is that cohousing is suitable only to those who are extroverts and enjoy continuous social interaction. Grace Kim is a founding principal of Schemata Workshop, an architecture firm with a focus on community well-being in Seattle, Washington. Having visited over 80 different cohousing communities, Kim has a theory on why many introverts thrive in cohousing. Unlike social events, members are not forced to make small talk or to participate beyond their comfort level. The deeper connections between members mean that actions are not judged purely on conventional social norms.
“There’s a member in our group who’s very introverted,” says Kim. “At dinner, he’s always on his device. He wants to participate in the conversation but he needs something to distract him as the idea that he’d have to chit-chat is too much for him.” Other community members understand his reasons. “In the community nobody would think it’s rude if he just shows up, eats and leaves,” says Kim. “Nobody’s offended.”
Addressing diverse needs
Carlucci, who holds degrees in community rehabilitation and disability studies from the University of Calgary, is a panellist at the CCC on the topic of disability in cohousing. As a parent of a teenager living with a disability, she advocates for a more inclusive society.
“People with disabilities are also members of society like everybody else,” says Carlucci. “It’s important to take a person as an individual and understand what their strengths are to participate in the community. Everybody needs something to help us at some point in time in our lives. You don’t necessarily need a disability to require certain accommodations.”
As an architect, Kim feels that physical accessibility is something that should be provided regardless of who the targeted population is. She argues that everyone faces aging and the risk of accidents and disability. It is unreasonable to expect to never need special accommodations.
“Most people, once they’re in a community, would want to stay there for a really long time,” says Kim. “People do not want to have to move just because they become frail and can’t climb the stairs.”
Kim also believes that cohousing supports people with developmental disabilities partly because social activities, such as common meals, are regular, scheduled and predictable.
Isolation is a health risk
Kim will be giving the keynote talk at the CCC on loneliness as an international health epidemic and cohousing as a potential remedy.
“Isolation is such a pervasive thing,” says Kim. “It’s not a surprise that there is so much literature about the health implications of loneliness.” The harmful effects of isolation on health and longevity is well-studied, with links to depression, heart disease, diabetes and other health issues. The importance of occupation to one’s identity and sense of self-worth is also part of the problem.
“It is really unfortunate there’s so much isolation based on what we do for a living,” says Kim. “People aren’t spending the time to think about what matters in life and the relationships that they are building.” It is important to initiate and cultivate social connections, and cohousing is a living arrangement that may make it easier to stay connected.
For more information on the Canadian Cohousing Conference, visit www.canadiancohousingconference.ca