The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated social isolation for most people, but especially those who live alone.
The profound effects of social isolation and loneliness on the human brain have been linked to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death, according to the American National Institute on Aging.
Enter cohousing, a type of collaborative housing that attempts to overcome the alienation of modern housing, where few people know their neighbours and there is little sense of community.
Cohousing combines the autonomy of compact, self-contained private dwellings with the benefits of shared, spacious community amenities that typically include a large dining room, kitchen, recreation spaces, meeting rooms, children’s play spaces, guest rooms, workshops, and gardens. Cohousing neighbourhoods tend to offer environmentally sensitive designs with a pedestrian orientation and have documented lower vehicle use than conventional neighbourhoods.
The Canadian Cohousing Network (CCN), formed in 1992 in British Columbia, is a registered non-profit organization that promotes the creation of cohousing communities as a model for sustainable development by raising public awareness about cohousing and by bringing people together to form communities.
Locally, Lesley Donald is a spokesperson for Kingston Cohousing, a group of like-minded individuals who would like to see cohousing become a more natural way of living in Kingston, and perhaps a way of alleviating the housing crisis.
“Kingston’s an interesting city because we have a very high senior population,” Donald explained. “I happen to live in the Lakeside District in the west end of Kingston, and I’m pretty typical in my neighbourhood: I’m widowed, and I live alone in a family-sized home. There are lots of people in my neighbourhood in exactly the same situation. We are blocking up family-sized homes that families could move into because there’s nowhere for us to go.”
She pointed out that even if people have equity in a home, they may not be able to afford one of the high-end retirement homes. And many people she knows wouldn’t choose to live in for-profit retirement homes: “I certainly wouldn’t want to live in one. My next-door neighbour, who was 85, moved into one, and she described it to me as going back to high school… You are forced all day to deal with people that you may feel you have nothing in common with, and you have to eat all your meals with them. It just is really not an appealing environment.”
Kingston Cohousing feels Kingston is an ideal location for a cohousing project because there is a significant amount of provincial and federal land sitting vacant in the city. Further, according to recent census figures, Kingston has over 20,000 seniors who live alone, at a time when elder care services are critically stretched.
The group also believes cohousing aligns with all of Kingston’s current strategic priorities: climate action/intensification, healthy citizens, vibrant spaces, age-friendly city, diversity, and affordability. Also, the vision and mission of Kingston Cohousing align well with those set out in Kingston’s 2021 Housing and Social Services Report, which emphasizes the benefits of community partnerships to meet the city’s housing needs.
Kingston Cohousing hopes to create a community of up to 30 modest private dwellings with shared indoor and outdoor spaces, with a goal of occupancy within city limits by 2028. Residents will finance and occupy small, independent units, while sharing a common house and resources.
“Cohousing is typically high-density and energy efficient,” said Donald. “We aim to showcase innovations in green construction and to design and promote an eco-friendly community with high walk and bike scores, access to transit, shared e-vehicles, community gardening, local food sourcing, and minimal waste.”
Cohousing isn’t just for seniors, however. Donald pointed out that it offers a new option for younger singles and families who are struggling to enter the housing market; in fact, it counts on them. “We’re looking to create multi-generational communities because the research shows that those are the communities that thrive best. And when you bring in, for example, young families, then there’s a sharing of resources. The younger people can mow the lawns and shovel the snow and do the heavy lifting, and the older people can help with child care, bookkeeping, things that people don’t have time to do when they’re working full time, necessarily.”
She continued, “So that mature community members can age in place, we hope to use models like Oasis Senior Supportive Living to maintain resident health and thereby reduce the burden on publicly-funded care services. To attract younger individuals and families, we’re exploring market-value rental options.”
The community will be intentionally diverse, Donald said, welcoming people of various ages, backgrounds, abilities. and means. They are open to the possibility of sharing their site with affordable housing, a daycare, or other compatible community programs.
Donald stated that Kingston Cohousing would like to engage actively with all levels of government and other community partners, as co-citizens sharing the common goal of sustainable solutions to Kingston’s housing crisis.
For more information or to get in touch with the organization, visit the Kingston Cohousing website. Click to see a nearly completed project in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia and a cohousing community proposed for Prince Edward County in a vacant school.