Saving the World and your Sanity through Co-housing and Multi-generational living
Authentic Belonging means you can finally become who you really are
Who are you? Who am I? Are you living an authentic life? Am I? The honest answer: probably not. Have you sold your soul to the Devil to achieve material “success”? Have I? The honest answer: probably yes. These questions seem reasonable, but are they? Based upon what we now know about human development and identity it appears that “I” am both a part & product of the world I grew up in AND “myself”. This tension between being me and simultaneously needing to be recognized, acknowledged, trusted, respected and supported by others is the paradox of being an authentic human being. Looking at the world around me I see that this tension has snapped to two unhealthy extremes: 1. American individualism, where, as of yesterday, it is OK for anybody to carry a weapon anywhere, anytime because they have ‘the right’ to do so. 2. The Chinese group concept where any individual [other than the leader, of course] is expendable and practically speaking has no individual rights at all. Both are travesties and both are inhuman. In this age of ecological catastrophe could it be that we are destroying the world because we have already destroyed our true selves. I think so. Today let’s explore how our living arrangements can help create a healthy tension between being “really me” and my need to belong and be supported. Will this help save the world? Absolutely! Why is that? Well, in mental health circles [and I would say climate change and human caused mass extinction are fundamentally mental health problems] there is a saying: “Hurt people hurt people”. Got it? Let’s see one way we can have healthier people who have less need for “the stuff” that ends up destroying the world around them and their souls.
Did you see the mostly gruesome movie Apocalypto in which the hero tries to avoid being a victim of Mayan human sacrifice? Well, if not, you should. Not for the human sacrifice scenes, but for the very idyllic first 20 minutes which portray Indigenous village life in a way that is touching and very, very social. You can feel the connections between every person – nobody is alone, nobody is rejected, and yet everybody is unique. When I watched this I had the feeling that this intimate way of living was how we were meant to live. Later, I was rereading a little book my 92 year old mother [who lives with us] wrote about growing up in her little farming village in central Germany in the 1930s. What struck me was how social and interconnected life was for her: the metaphor “it takes a village to grow a child” was no metaphor – it was reality for her. Today, as I was brainstorming on what to write, this idea that many of our psycho-social problems stem from the loneliness, fear and mistrust that partially come from how we live – we live alone.
This old idea first hit home with me many, many years ago when I read an American historical fiction book from the 1950s called “Light in the Forest”. In it, a young British boy [1700 AD or so] is abducted by some “Natives” and raised as an “Indian”. When the boy’s new family was forced to return him to his “real” family he rebelled. He did not want to return to so called civilization, , and when he lived with his “real” family he hated and only thought of returning to his true home, with the “savages” of the forest. And that is exactly what he did, he [tried] to return to where his soul and heart lay, in the forest. Now this may seem like an idealized, romantic vision of the “noble savage” as popularized in J.J. Rousseau who believed that only the “uncorrupted savage” is in possession of real virtue, but the truth is this story is based upon many, many real stories of Europeans who choose to “go native” or who even if abducted refused to return to a European way of living. Historically it is fascinating to note that very, very few “savages” chose to become “civilized” [until they had no choice] but many “civilized” Europeans happily chose to become “savages”! Why is this? Well, researchers hypothesize that it had to do with the sense of belong and acceptance and communal living/identity that people experienced in Indigenous cultures that made people feel more truly themselves and made life much, much richer in the qualitative sense.
So, what does this have to do with you and I saving the world? Well, as I said before “hurt people hurt people”. When we are alone, or have so much money that they don’t need other people to help them get by, we suffer from some would call the “God delusion”. What does that mean? They feel separate from everything else and see ‘good’ as anything good for themselves, coupled with an inability to see that their ‘good’ is, when viewed from the 20,000 foot level, only ‘good’ if it is also good for those around them. Why is that? Am I a communist or something equally terrible? Far from it, but I do acknowledge both our primate heritage and our current very complex society as webs of interconnected mutual relationships that allow us to survive as a fundamentally social species. So, if we want to truly live as a healthy human being it means we have to live with others in a way that both acknowledges each of our uniqueness AND our need to belong and be helped when we have the inevitable bad day.
So, finally, let’s delve into multi-generational co-housing. The epi-centre of the co-housing movement is Denmark. Here is a brief aside. Canada was once a world leader in alternative, social housing models. We had a brief foray into coop housing in the 1970, but this world leading effort fizzled out. This is very similar what happened to Canada being a world leader in energy efficient passive solar housing in the 1970s – we led the world, then we just stopped. I often wonder what it is about our culture which generates world leaders, like the Avro Arrow, Nortel and Blackberry’s smart phone – only to be unable to capitalize upon our lead and become a dominant player like IKEA. If you some ideas on what our ‘defect’ is – I’d love to hear from you. OK, back to our topic. Here are now some brief excerpts about this Danish inspired way of living.
Why cohousing is so popular in Denmark?
More Danes would like to live in co-housing projects than there are homes for, according to a 2019 study conducted in Denmark. Co-housing projects come in various forms. Some revolve around two, three or even four generations living together. Others revolve around providing space for children in a community, preferably in the countryside. A third group of projects focus on establishing senior co-housing communities in urban areas, close to cultural activities and the city centre. We know from research that smoking shortens your life and that abuse of alcohol is also bad. But what most people die of is loneliness. It is a greater hazard, because it leads to people dying from cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and other ailments. It also leads to people feeling overlooked and abandoned. Contrast that with what happens in Greece, Sardinia or Japan, where older people gather in parks or squares, sitting on benches every day to chat about the world or the news or today’s catch of fish at the harbour. These are places where people care about each other — and about those missing — where nobody is left out, and where there is always a need for everyone. In such a place, it is worth getting old.
Could generational co-living help ease the effects of rising housing costs, expensive childcare and a lack of elderly social care?
A 2019 study by University College London (UCL), for instance, found that increased social contact between the ages of 50 to 70 is associated with a lower risk of developing dementia, while the University of Alaska and Anchorage identified that children who mix with older people see improvements in language development, reading and social skills. Ultimately, the study resulted in a concept for developments that are genuinely of mutual benefit to multiple generations. “It’s about understanding that housing has a social impact and a public health aspect to it,” says Karthaus. “That extends to mental health and wellbeing. Therefore, the way the housing is designed should be to support those good outcomes. You have to think about what those outcomes are before you start designing.” As a result, the design of a development should facilitate people of all ages coming together in order to share time, skills and experiences, Karthaus adds. “So, common parts and shared spaces become quite important, as well as the size and adaptability of the homes,” he says. “And then the last piece is about how the housing is operated and managed. The residents have a part to play in that and it becomes part of the sharing activity.” As a result of all this, there is currently a growing interest in different forms of multi-generational housing and how it can be best designed and managed.
OK, so much for the theory, but what are you going to do? What am I going to do? I can only answer the 2nd question and hopefully inspire you to find out a way of living with people beyond your nuclear family that works for you. What my wife & I have done is this: once our kids moved out of our rather large home in the country we had her mother, and years later, my mother moved in to live with us. They each have large sections of the house which are their private space: a bedroom, living room and bathroom, but no kitchen as we want to always eat TOGETHER. We have a house design that allows this to work for us. As they have gotten older and unable to drive or cook safely we have been fortunate to have government support for them to attend a senior day program once a week and a PSW to be with them and shower them twice a week. If any of you have taken care of family members you know that caregivers need a break or they burn out. Well, we have had friends of our children of University age and a daughter who lives locally and works from home help out with “Granny care” every month so we can get away for a few days – usually to our cottage. Now, ‘the grannies” needs are bound to eventually be more than we can provide so we are asking ourselves what we will do when they leave. One idea we are looking at is to turn both our basement and 2nd floor into apartments. Once again, we are lucky in that our house design has separate entrances for both of these spaces. We have already turned the basement into an apartment by building in a kitchen/washing machine area years ago [there was already a bathroom] and only have to add kitchenette on the 2nd floor to make this idea a reality. Will we do it? I don’t know, but both my wife and I see it as an option. Why would do it? Well, we have had a positive experience of community living as a way to both save the world and save our souls. We are not alone. We are needed, we have a purpose. It also helps that it reduces our cost of living. Yes, as long as we have somebody else to help us from time to time we have experienced multi-generational co-housing as a positive experience.
So, all the best in finding your way to living with other people as you find a living arrangement that does many things at the same time: save the world by reducing your ecological footprint, saves your soul by knowing you belong and are both a support for others and are supported in return, and saves your pocketbook all at the same time!