Expert Explains How ‘Cohousing’ Can Help Seniors

Alexandria Levitt

As journalists are well aware, sometimes researching a column will uncover another topic or a person that is so interesting it deserves its own story.
So it is with Alexandria Levitt.
Readers may remember that I quoted her in a recent “Around Town” column concerning how seniors are coping during the pandemic without the senior center.
Researching that story also introduced me to Nicole Laborie, who as a girl watched the Allied troops come ashore on D-Day. Laborie’s story ended up being its own “Around Town” feature. Sometimes things work out that way.
Levitt doesn’t offer anything that dramatic, but her topic — housing for seniors — is timely and worth exploring in light of what we are going through during the pandemic.

Just before the lockdown, a book titled “State-of-the-Art Cohousing” was released and co-authored by Levitt, a gerontologist with deep roots in the South Pasadena community.
The title may not sound exciting, but it is to the point. And it’s a point worth exploring for those residents who are growing older in the community.
Cohousing is a group of often, but not always, like-minded individuals who come together to plan, shape and work through their own problems, to create a place which reflects their sense of true community.
The authors used the example of the conception of a place called Quimper Village, near Port Townsend, Washington. What the people who came together did not do is to have a developer design the project, solve all the problems, market and then let the sense of community develop from sales.
Cohousing involves having a group of people coming together to find a spot to set down roots, market, find someone to help them construct the village and then put down roots. A village of this type stresses a sense of community where people join together in fellowship for meals and activities, and set the tone for the community.
It is definitely not for everyone, and there is a certain self-winnowing that goes on as some people realize that co-housing is not for them. As I listened to Levitt, the concept sounded a lot like the idea of participation at town meetings in New England.
And there is some skepticism that such a thing could come true.
“It’s a brand new concept,” Levitt said. “It’s hard to believe. It’s like those rural meetings – old school democracy. It’s decisions made by all. It’s hard for some people to believe in such things.”
But the current pandemic, Levitt said, has shown the need for another housing option for those seniors still living in large homes, or in independent and assisted living communities.
“The pandemic has been a wake-up call on how much we need community,” said Levitt, who is a senior housing specialist and president of Levitt Coho, which aims to create cohousing in Southern California. “People have discovered their neighbors and started connecting with other people. It also throws new light on options that might be available in terms of housing.
“COVID has also changed our work environment as well as social environment,” she added. “People are going to be acting differently in some cases.”
Levitt noted that many seniors who are isolated can become victims of elder abuse, and she said that once the pandemic caused a shutdown, it also forced most residents to stay in their homes and the opportunity to see friends and relatives was greatly reduced.
“As we get older, we don’t drive to see the friends we had and often there are no opportunities to make new friends. That’s no good to us,” she said, adding that in many communities the number of service and/or social clubs is diminishing. (Fortunately South Pasadena is not among those communities.)
Cohousing greatly reduces the chance of feeling isolated.
“In this situation,” Levitt said, referring to cohousing, “you can be an introvert, but when you open the door, there will always be someone passing by. It is a great way to keep us safe and active as we grow older.”
The idea is that cohousing will have residents relying less on driving and more on walking or taking public transportation. Levitt said that if all this sounds familiar to South Pasadena residents, it is because they can already walk around town and shop and they can take public transportation to Los Angeles.
What is needed is land, and someone who is so excited about the concept that they will offer a promising location that can be used for this kind of community.
Cohousing comes in many forms. Residents can use an apartment and perhaps a neighboring empty lot, and have some people rent, while others buy their homes. This might help break through the problem of housing costs.
Other seniors might want a community which is multigenerational, and where they can be around younger people. Some communities are more ethnically diverse than others.
“There are all sorts of models,” Levitt said. “You just need ways to make a community healthier, happier and safer. The key is finding a group that sees joy in concept and way of life.”
These kinds of communities can be found in Stillwater, Oklahoma; Boulder, Colorado; Durham, North Carolina; and in the northern California cities of Davis, Santa Cruz, Grass Valley, Emeryville and Mountain View. There are 50 cohousing communities in the United States with more under development. Other nations such as Denmark and Canada are also home to cohousing communities.
“Southern California seems to be ripe for such a concept,” Levitt said. “South Pasadena might be fertile ground because of the population of older adults, the city is environmentally friendly and the people are very thoughtful.”
She also noted that in South Pasadena and Pasadena that there are many things for people to do and enjoy during the year.
Levitt is very familiar with the senior community in South Pasadena, where she has served as a commissioner, vice chair and chair of the South Pasadena Senior Citizen Commission, which oversees remodeling efforts and oversees activities for the city’s senior center. The commission also advocates with city officials on senior housing.