Tensions were running high at PDX Commons, a co-housing community for adults 55 and older in Portland, Ore. Several people wanted to keep visitors off-site until all 35 residents were vaccinated. Others wanted to open to family and friends for the first time in a year.
How do communities with dozens of members decide what to do during a public health crisis when members have varying tolerance for risk and different opinions about safe practices?
Co-housing communities have grappled with such questions throughout the coronavirus pandemic. These are groups of people committed to communal living who own homes in complexes with shared common areas, such as clubhouses, laundry facilities and gardens.
This past year, these communities have been a godsend for many residents, with ongoing virtual activities and a sense of camaraderie that has shielded them from the relentless loneliness and boredom so many older Americans have faced.
“All you have to do is go out on your porch and someone will come and sit with you,” said Elizabeth Magill, 60, who lives at Mosaic Commons in Berlin, Mass., with her husband, Ken Porter, 70. “I can’t imagine not being in a place like this during the pandemic.”
But as the country has emerged from over a year of lockdowns, percolating differences among residents about appropriate precautions heightened as people longed to return to normalcy.
“You have this tension between personal freedom and respect for other members of the community,” said William Aal, a Spokane, Wash., consultant who recently advised PDX Commons about strategies to improve communication.
The pandemic upended their rituals as in-person activities and communal dining — typically offered several times a week — were canceled and relationships sustained by regular contact began to fray.
“It’s created all kinds of challenges for community living,” said Mary King, an organizational consultant and a resident of Great Oak Cohousing in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Disagreements arose over everything from when residents should wear masks to how laundry rooms should be used to whether visitors are welcomed, and with what restrictions.
“Some people have felt at super-high risk and have wanted to take really strict precautions, while others have felt, ‘This is no big deal, it’s going to blow over,’” said Karin Hoskin, a resident at Wild Sage Cohousing in Boulder, Colo., and executive director at the national cohousing association.
Because residents are independent homeowners, some feel they should be able to do whatever they want. Yet co-housing communities see themselves as more than a collection of individual homeowners and typically adopt policies by consensus.
On the positive side, communities adopted strategies to keep residents safe and connected during the pandemic. Great Oak Cohousing, an intergenerational community, created a buddy system for each resident, with one or two people who would check in regularly. King said one resident became seriously ill from COVID-19, and “a couple” of others had mild cases.
Communities have hosted outdoor parties or concerts, organized activities such as weekly poetry readings, formed walking or hiking clubs, planned communal takeout meals and arranged to have tech-savvy members help other residents schedule vaccine appointments.
The advent of vaccines has inspired an even more complicated round of conversations: Should common areas reopen as residents become fully vaccinated? What level of vaccination in the community provides enough protection? What about residents or visitors who decline to be vaccinated?
At PDX Commons in Portland, most residents have been eager to set aside strict policies adopted when the pandemic took hold last year. Unlike many other co-housing communities, PDX members live in the city, in a single, U-shaped building with shared entrances, with three floors of condominiums facing an inner courtyard.
Out of an abundance of caution, the PDX COVID-19 committee decided early on that no family members or friends could come inside the building. A discussion of how to host visitors outside took four months to resolve, provoking frustration. Strict cleaning and sanitation protocols were seen as overbearing.
In the end it wasn’t what everyone wanted, but it was something they could all live with.
And that, ultimately, is what co-housing is all about. “How do we deal with tensions in our community? We talk it through. We have work groups. We compromise,” said Janet Gillaspie, 65, a PDX co-founder. “And we think about what’s best for the community as opposed to ‘What do I need?’”
Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)