‘This is the future of aging’: Senior co-housing communities provide alternatives

Interior of Phoenix Commons in Oakland, which bills itself as the first co-housing community in the East Bay formally dedicated to seniors. Photo: Phoenix Commons

If Carmel Hara, 86, gets sick, there are a host of neighbors in her Oakland building ready to bring her soup. If she wants company, there’s a common room with a library and a kitchen, and she puts in several hours a week helping to run the management office.

Hara is part of a growing local and national trend — senior co-housing.

She lives at Phoenix Commons, a 41-unit senior co-housing community in Oakland’s Jingletown arts district, at 340 29th Ave., that opened in March 2016. Located right next to the Park Street Bridge, the four-story condo complex is touted as the first co-housing community formally dedicated to seniors in the East Bay.

Co-housing — defined as private homes clustered around shared space with a group of people committed to being a community — is an established phenomenon in the East Bay. Co-housing specifically for those over the age of 55 is relatively new, however.

“I wanted to age in place in my community,” said Hara, who has lived in the Bay Area since 1952. “Here I have people who care about me and still have my own home, my own kitchen.”

“I wanted to age in place in my community… Here I have people who care about me and still have my own home.”
— Carmel Hara, 86

There are about 13 senior co-housing communities nationwide, two more under construction and 13 in the early stages, according to Karin Hoskin, executive director of the Cohousing Association of the United States, a national nonprofit that supports co-housing.

“The trajectory of senior-specific co-housing has increased in the last 10 years,” while non-senior co-housing growth is steady, Hoskin said. There are about 168 formally designated co-housing communities, both senior and non-senior, in the U.S., she said.

Hoskin noted that California is a leader in the senior co-housing movement. Glacier Circle, which some co-housing advocates describe as the nation’s first senior co-housing community, opened in December 2005 in Davis, with eight homes and a dozen individuals.

At present, there are five such communities in the state, according to Hoskin, and three of the five are in or near the Bay Area. In addition to Phoenix Commons, there’s Mountain View, named after the city, and Walnut Commons. The latter is in Santa Cruz and is described as “senior-focused” multigenerational housing.

It’s easy to see why senior co-housing is on the upswing. Increasing numbers of aging adults are looking for alternatives to institutional living. Folks like Hara and her counterparts are refusing to go gently into assisted living or nursing homes.

One of the biggest advantages to senior cohousing is the companionship, an antidote to what New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell once described as “the terrible loneliness of the old.” More than one-third of U.S. seniors are lonely, according to a 2010 AARP survey of more than 3,000 seniors.

On a rainy Thursday last week, Hara was hanging with her friends in the building’s management office.

“I read Karen’s New York Times in the morning,” Hara said. “When she goes on vacation, we (residents) walk her dog.”

As if on cue, the Rev. Karen Bloomquist swept in, fresh from a walk with her dog, Rosalina. Like many in the community, Bloomquist is a living contradiction to senior stereotypes: she hikes, bikes, kayaks, travels extensively and attends City Council meetings.

“I had to walk the dog first,” Bloomquist said. “There’s lots of dogs here.”

The group was gathered in the office on the ground floor, which is the common space. Each co-housing community is centered around a common space, where group meals are offered once or twice a week, along with activities and events. It’s probably more typical for the common area to be a separate house, but Phoenix is a four-story condo complex.

Residents also gather in the common area to make decisions about governance. Like Phoenix Commons, co-housing communities are often homeowners’ associations, with residents adhering to legally binding bylaws. However, with co-housing, there’s a critical difference.

“We are our own board, since most co-housing communities operate by consensus,” said Bloomquist. “Everyone who lives here is on the board,” she added.

“I like to think of senior co-housing as interdependent living,” said Raines Cohen, northern California regional organizer with Cohousing California. Cohen lives in a Berkeley co-housing community.

He noted that Phoenix is market-rate housing. Condo units there sell in the $520,000 to $730,000 range.

“Eighty percent of what we need, we can provide for each other.”
— Karen Bloomquist

Folks who live in co-housing communities own their homes and can sell them on the open market. The homeowners’ association dues are used to maintain the facilities, among other things. Phoenix Commons is unusual in that it’s distinctly urban, while many others are rural or suburban.

“Senior cohousing is not a nursing home. There is so much more you can build through relationships. People step up for each other,” Cohen said. He added, “But you don’t have to just give and give. People can bring in outside services.”

Glacier Circle, the Davis community, employs a woman who provides house-cleaning services, Cohen said.

“Eighty percent of what we need, we can provide for each other,” Bloomquist said.

Twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays, residents cook a group meal in the kitchen on the ground floor and serve it in the adjacent dining room. There’s a movie night, a game night and a communal TV room, obviating the need to brave congested streets or the ills of public transit to get to an evening’s entertainment.

“Right now, none of us need care. But we are looking forward to what we might need to do when the time comes. Perhaps nursing care on some level,” Bloomquist said. “Maybe you would only need a few hours and someone else needs a few hours and you hire one person to combine them.”

Many senior co-housing communities, including Phoenix, have units presently used as workout rooms or guest rooms that could eventually be turned into living quarters for nursing staff. The workout room at Phoenix could be redesigned for a visiting physical therapist, for example.

“Our wellness team is working on the issue,” said Patrice Woeppel, an artist who worked for many years as a hospital administrator. “Phoenix has only one paid staffer, a part-time maintenance person. We do everything else ourselves,” Woeppel added. The group has created teams to address the variety of concerns facing any group of homeowners, such as finance and decor.

“Coming out of a hospital administration background, I looked at the design of the homes (at Phoenix) and I was impressed,” said Woeppel.

The homes have what are known as universal design features. This includes wheelchair-accessible kitchens and bathrooms; extra-wide doorways for wheelchairs; 18-inch-high toilets; no-step walk-in showers; lever-style door hardware; lever controls on all plumbing fixtures; easy open-and-close windows; advanced sound insulation technology, an especially important feature for seniors, who are often more easily awakened by sound from the street; and an emergency response system.

Quizzed about the drawbacks of senior co-housing, Bloomquist acknowledged that the presence of a cement plant across the street — though set back from the roadway — could be an aesthetic stumbling block for some. Jingletown, situated between the Park Street and Fruitvale bridges, is an artists’ district known for its mosaics and art studios. Crime is low in the immediate area around the building, according to a Trulia crime map.

Bloomquist, a nationally known Lutheran pastor, noted that the group operates by consensus, an often time-consuming process.

“We have teams that sometimes meet endlessly,” she said.

“Some of us are more rule-oriented, some not so much. There can be clashes,” Bloomquist said. “But we are committed to working together.”

“We (residents) worked together to set up our goals and went through training classes about living in a cooperative situation before (Phoenix) ever broke ground,” said Bettie Grandison, who was working the computer and answering the phones in the office while chilling with Hara, Bloomquist and other residents. Grandison was one of the first to move in when the building opened in 2016.

Cohen worked with the developers of Phoenix Commons, Chris Zimmerman and his daughter Lauren Zimmerman Cook, as they planned the community. Zimmerman’s family business, AEC Living, has a group of independently operated senior living communities and a Medicare-approved rehabilitation agency, each developed by the Zimmerman family to serve seniors in the East Bay.

“He is the first developer to put his staff, then all future members of the cohousing community, through the class,” Cohen said.

“The class is ‘Aging Boldly in Community,'” said Stephen Zimmerman, the COO of AEC Living and Chris Zimmerman’s son. The class was developed in collaboration with Cohen and AEC Living to discuss the various aspects of aging and how residents can come together as a community to support each other through the journey of aging, Stephen Zimmerman said.

“He has been seeing the needs of seniors evolving, as well as his own needs,” Cohen said of Zimmerman. “Nobody wants to live in an institution, nobody wants to lose control. He saw the demand was there for places where people could live their own lives but get their needs met,” Cohen said.

Zimmerman developed and financed Phoenix Commons. His brother Jeff Zimmerman, an architect, designed it, and now Chris Zimmerman lives in Phoenix Commons with his wife Darnelle Zimmerman, an RN who is in charge of all the care and nursing for AEC Living.

“He was looking for the kind of place where he would like to live as a senior, and he created it,” Cohen said. The building was designed specifically for senior co-housing, which is not always the case with these communities.

“The two elevators are together, not on opposite sides of the building, so people will run into each other at the elevator,” said Lauren Zimmerman Cook, CEO of AEC Living, during a tour of the building. The common area is on the first floor, with a kitchen, TV room, library and workout room, plus a view of the water. Every element is overseen by the seniors, she said.

“It’s self-managed. We are only here as support,” Stephen Zimmerman said.

Seniors who downsized and moved into the building donated the furniture in the common area, Zimmerman Cook said.

“This is the way I want to age,” Zimmerman Cook said. “This is the future of aging.”