We each have a vision of what we want from our retirement years. Mine involves a lot of travel, maybe on my own by sailboat or small plane, but always starting out from a friendly community of caring neighbors who swap stories over coffee, share fun projects, and help each other out when needed.
Whether or not the travel in my vision fits into yours -- it doesn't fit into my wife's, which will no doubt make for some lively debates in 20 or 30 years -- the idea of settling into a rich, close-knit community in your post-working years appeals to many folks contemplating retirement.
Such a community can be hard to find under the best of circumstances. As you age -- and as you or your old friends move to warmer climes or to downsized houses in different neighborhoods, grown children disperse, and interests long shared with friends start to diverge -- community can be a downright scarce resource.
Many developers and community leaders have tried various approaches to help older adults recapture the close-knit neighborhood feel that is increasingly hard to find in American life. Over-55 "adults only" developments suit the needs of some, and some of those developments have seen great success. But others say those neighborhoods feel sterile, with stilted "community activities" that few attend and a general sense of isolation -- exactly what they moved into the neighborhood to avoid.
In recent years, a few other developers and groups have taken a different path. Using an idea conceived in Denmark in the early 1970s, these groups have been building brand-new close-knit neighborhoods from scratch. The idea is called cohousing, and it's quickly gathering steam in the United States.
Do you know your neighbors?
Cohousing communities vary in particulars, but they share some basic features. Residents own and live in their own units -- sometimes built as freestanding houses, more often as townhouses or apartment-type condos -- and share access to a large range of community-owned resources. Those resources start with the common house, typically a large building at the center of the neighborhood.
Common houses typically contain a big kitchen, a large multipurpose room that can serve as a dance floor, a yoga studio, meeting room, and a dining area. Also in that building are exercise facilities, guest rooms, libraries, and workshops that the residents share. The neighborhood itself is usually clustered, with parking on the perimeter and walking paths designed to encourage interaction in the middle.
As I've noted in the past, choosing to downsize one's house runs counter to the way many of us think about our own paths to success in life, but it can make a lot of sense. A smaller house costs less to buy, heat, and maintain -- good aspects anytime, but even more so during retirement. And if you can have a smaller house without losing the functionality of a larger home, why not?
Here's another factor that might get your attention: Cohousing communities are often -- not always, but often -- designed and built with a green focus. Eco-hype aside, this often translates into bright, airy, durable homes that are heavily insulated. Green homes can cost a lot less to heat, cool, and maintain than traditional houses, and when you factor in the smaller size of your home, the ongoing savings can be tremendous.
In fact -- full disclosure here -- I joined a local cohousing community a while back, and my new home will incorporate a whole range of cost-effective green features, including double-thick insulated outer walls, triple-paned windows, and extra-durable siding made by James Hardie Industries
Better yet, the buildings throughout the community are oriented for maximum solar gain, so that we can install photovoltaic solar panels in a few years, after competition among companies like SunPower
I'm often skeptical of eco-hype, but after last winter's oil bills, I'm really looking forward to my new house.
For further information
Cohousing isn't for everyone, but if you're looking for a comfortable, friendly place to retire to, cohousing communities deserve serious consideration. Check out the Cohousing Association's web site to learn more and find local communities, and go check one out -- you might find it's a great fit.