Shelley’s father never thought he would live to see retirement. Her grandfather had died at an early age, and her dad thought he would likely have the same fate. Enjoying life to the fullest, in the moment, was a priority while saving for retirement wasn’t.

Well, Shelley’s dad did make it to retirement, and her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She needed long-term care, and her father could no longer afford the family home, located in the Muskoka region of Ontario. Shelley needed to find seniors’ housing for her dad, but it was expensive. Shelley was worried and upset about what the future would hold for the dad she loved so much.

“I was crying to a friend in a coffee shop one day,” recalls Shelley. “I didn’t know what to do. We talked about finding a shared living solution. An older man approached me, and asked if he could help. He said he and his wife had a home that he might be able to develop my ideas in.”

With a background in real estate and a husband who is a talented carpenter, Shelley had the idea of creating a shared housing property, where those living in it could share ownership of the home, age comfortably, help each other out as needed, and appreciate each other’s company. There would be all the needed personal privacy, but shared common areas like the kitchen and yard.

Her idea came to life. She created Solterra Co-housing, which became her dad’s new home, their first seniors co-housing renovation project in Bracebridge, Ontario.1

“The home was a side-split, so we renovated the home to include some accessibility and safety features. We made some much-needed updates, and created bedrooms, bathrooms, and sitting rooms for each co-owner,” Shelley says.

Since then, Shelley has been helping seniors who want to enjoy their retirement years with other seniors, without living day-to-day in an institution such as a long-term care facility or retirement home.

“Everyone participates to create a unique living environment .... The great thing about co-housing is that it takes into account everyone’s ability and need for socialization or isolation.”


SHELLY,
PRESIDENT,
SOLTERRA CO-HOUSING

What is Cohousing?

The concept was born in Denmark back in the 1960s. Originally, young families saw cohousing arrangements as a solution to ease the burden of child care for working parents: child care duties could be easily shared among a close-knit group who bought houses adjacent to one another.2

The term “cohousing” has come to mean many different types of communal living. Solterra, for instance, is a freehold tenants in common ownership model, which they call “co-housing” (with a hyphen). Other types of communal living resemble condominium or co-operative ownership, which may or may not be freehold. Regardless of ownership type, at its core, it’s an intentional community that embraces collaboration and sharing.

It starts with a group of people who have a common interest or experience and who want to share space and create a community. In the most informal of arrangements, the parties could be roommates in a rental property, or in more complex arrangements, they could be co-owners in a co-housing model or cohousing in a condominium style residence.

Shared Living Options for Seniors

Shelley’s Solterra Co-housing focuses on building a new shared home or renovating a home that works for senior co-housing. Solterra’s homes all have shared ownership titles and are located throughout Ontario. Each home has private suites and common living areas. Four to six residents share ownership and each home has some policies and standards developed by the home’s residents.

“Everyone participates to create a unique living environment,” says Shelley. “The great thing about co-housing is that it takes into account everyone’s ability and need for socialization or isolation.”

There are other senior cohousing models as well. Margaret of Victoria, B.C. was a founding member who helped create Harbourside Cohousing. The former university anthropology professor studied and taught about cohousing and, when she retired, decided to find others who were like-minded to invest in and hire professionals to develop new-build projects. The housing would offer strata (condominium) units for sale for seniors who want a private unit within a community that is committed to creating good neighbours, and where a resident can help or ask for help.

“I once lived in a bamboo house with my family in a rural village in the South Pacific, and I developed deep local friendships, and came to understand that it takes a village to be fully human,” Margaret says. “Cohousing is my new village.”

Harbourside has 31 units and about 44 residents in seven buildings on a waterfront property on Vancouver Island. The location was strategically chosen for its proximity to groceries, churches, transportation, community centres and parks. Unlike a conventional condominium building, everyone is on the board. Every owner has a say in the decisions that need to be made around rules and operations.

The property offers a common house with guest bedrooms for family or friends who come to visit, a library and community space.

Don’t be fooled by the word “senior.” Many looking at cohousing are in their 50s, 60s and early 70s and are often pre-retirement, says Margaret. They’re in good health when they move in, but they know when they get sick or need help, there will be lots of helping hands and professional help when needed, she says.

Why Shared Living?

Both cohousing/co-housing concepts allow seniors to age in place, or be able to live in the same place while they age. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, evidence suggests that aging in place may yield cost savings for families, government and healthcare systems. It also says that aging in place has been shown to have health and emotional benefits over institutional care.3

“Social support is one of the best predictors of wellness and adjustment to retirement; those with strong social supports end up faring better in their later stages of life.”


DR. GINA DI GIULIO,
DIRECTOR OF PSYCHOLOGY,
MEDCAN CLINIC

One of the biggest perks of living in cohousing/co-housing is the chance to be part of a community where people look out for each other. Seniors who have trouble moving furniture or vacuuming can find a more able person to help them out. And along with giving each other help, people in cohousing/ co-housing often get together just for fun. In addition to having meals together, they socialize and share celebrations. According to Statistics Canada, social participation has been linked to health and well-being in older adults.4

“I had two hip replacements last year,” Margaret says. “I didn’t have to worry about a thing. I had meals cooked, necessary housekeeping done, and a ride to the doctors. My neighbours helped with all of it.”

“Social support is one of the best predictors of wellness and adjustment to retirement; those with strong social supports end up faring better in their later stages of life,” says Dr. Gina Di Giulio, Director of Psychology at the Medcan Clinic, a private health and wellness clinic.

“Having strong social supports in place is protective against depression, anxiety and may help slow the onset of dementia. Cohousing can offer a perfect environment to help facilitate social support and help the elderly take more control over their lives as opposed to more traditional retirement living arrangements, which may not always offer the most conducive environments for them to assert their independence fully.”

Retirement Living Costs

Shared Living:
$950/month + Utilities
(Mortgage of $200,000, 25 year amortization, 3% interest)

Seniors Residence:
$2210/month Canadian Average

Live-In Caregiver:
$3,461.50/month (plus HST, Toronto)

Sources: CMHC, CARP

How Much does this Cost? 

Living this way can save money. Sharing a living space is economical, but those in shared living arrangements can also save on utilities, food, and domestic help.

“Seniors are on a fixed budget,” says Joanna Mazin of TD Wealth, senior manager of the Wealth Planning Support Team, that helps financial planners and advisors consult with clients on complex investment and planning issues. “Even though many have homes that are paid for, they may need to sell their homes to access the equity to pay for care and housing as they age. Finding housing and care that is not price-prohibitive is an important part of retirement for many seniors.”

When you put together all the savings that cohousing/co-housing can yield, it can well outweigh the purchase price of the housing itself. According to the Fellowship for Intentional Community, a U.S. group that promotes cooperating living and cohousing, a survey of 200 cohousing residents found that living in cohousing saved them at least $200 per month on their entire budget. For some residents, the monthly savings came to more than $2,000.5

Developing, Purchasing, Financing Challenges 

If you are considering a shared living arrangement, and considering renovating a home to suit your purposes, there may be challenges. For example, Shelley had some issues dealing with the municipality when trying to work with them on the co-housing model. Although the municipality passed a zoning bylaw to regulate and control all Solterra shared homes, Shelley and her husband fought back at The Ontario Municipal Board. In 2014, the municipality repealed their zoning bylaw, setting a precedent across Ontario and clearing the path for Solterra.

“We had legal experts develop a variation of the traditional condo agreement and co-operative agreement to develop a co-ownership agreement. All coowners are registered on title as Tenants in Common and all are subject to the previsions of the agreement,” says Shelley. “All co-owners have an interest. Each percentage interest is individually mortgage-able and sellable.”

“Even getting a mortgage for shared ownership might be difficult,” says Mazin. “It’s important to discuss any intention to buy an ownership share in a home with mortgage and legal professionals so there are no surprises along the way.”

On the other hand, cohousing in Canada typically uses a Condominium ownership model. Even so, Margaret and Harbourside residents have experienced a tough time with traditional financing. Some financial institutions may be unaware of cohousing, and unsure of its marketability and resale value.

“One challenge was to educate lenders so they would understand cohousing,” Margaret says. “Contrary to lenders’ expectations, financing the cohousing development was less risky than financing other condominium projects because all the units were pre-purchased by the cohousing members who were also the developers.”

“Finding housing and care that is not price prohibitive is an important part of retirement for many seniors.”


JOANNA MAZIN,
SENIOR MANAGER,
WEALTH PLANNING SUPPORT TEAM,
TD WEALTH

The type of ownership model you have may determine how your piece of shared living can be sold or inherited. In a Tenants in Common model, like Solterra’s, the ownership is passed on by the estate or will of the current owner, meaning that it may not escape probate and there may be taxes as a result. The condominium ownership model that Harbourside uses allows owners to bequeath or sell the home. If you are considering shared living, discuss it with a legal real estate professional.

For seniors thinking about co-housing or cohousing, research options in your area and speak with a financial professional about financing options. Cohousing may be a good option for seniors who are looking for an affordable way to age in place, and enjoy a social environment and community feel at the same time. You might think that those who are introverts may not enjoy the experience as much as someone who thrives in a social, bustling environment. In fact, most of Harbourside’s residents identify themselves as introverts. Margaret says they like cohousing because it’s effortless to step into common areas and socialize, and equally easy to retreat to their private homes.

“Options for retirement living shouldn’t only be confined to institutional care homes,” says Shelley. “Finding the right home for an aging parent remains one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Shared living might make that decision a little easier.”

— Denise O’Connell, MoneyTalk Life