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My cohousing community helps fight coronavirus isolation

“Cohousing itself is an intentional awareness and saying, the world isn’t working the way it should... and we’ve got to start modeling a different way of being with each other”

COVID-19 is already starting to pull at the edges of society, throwing into sharp relief the limits of stringent individualism—long a cornerstone of American culture. The mutual aid groups being organized over Google docs, WhatsApp groups, and slips of paper left in mailboxes point to the capacity for residents in single-family-housing neighborhoods or apartment buildings to rapidly respond to each other’s needs. But it’s also an indictment, perhaps, of all the ways that we didn’t know each other, and of the isolated and isolating character of modern living.

For Marianne Dickinson, a design development consultant and affordable housing advocate in her 70s who lives in a New Mexico cohousing community largely composed of other seniors, the particular stressors of the novel coronavirus, such as resource hoarding and social isolation, have been defrayed by her unique housing situation. While each cohousing community has different features or amenities, chosen by the community members—a communal bike shed, a vegetable garden—they are generally composed of closely clustered private homes, along with a central common house that is a space shared among the residents. The concept is a Danish import, but there are more than 160 communities scattered across the country, and another 140 in the works.

Marianne spoke to me over the phone about life in her cohousing community right now.

I’m sort of a news junkie, so I was aware of the coronavirus as it was happening in China and have followed it since then. We had a regularly scheduled HOA meeting in February. By then, quite a few of us were aware and becoming cautious.

At the meeting, we didn’t discuss the virus or what we were going to do per se, and I have to say that we’re not as united in the way we approach it. But on the other hand, in terms of the things we are doing, we’ve been doing them all along. Several of us are members of Costco, so when we go to Costco, we ask, ‘Does anybody need anything?’ or ‘Do you want to share some packages of something?’ So there’s that kind of thing we’ve always been doing. Some folks here are very vulnerable and so they’re self isolating, but most of us are going and doing some things. It didn’t come to New Mexico right away, but now it’s spreading in communities. That makes us feel like we really have to pay attention now because your chances of being in contact with the virus are much, much greater. It’s weird because you used to stand two feet away from someone on the sidewalk, but now you stand six feet away from them.

One of the members made it clear to a bunch of people here that there are four of us who are at extra risk with this virus. So we’re trying to tell everyone that we all really need to be a little more diligent, more cautious. Just because we live in a community doesn’t mean that everybody understands everybody else’s health risks.

We all still live independently and you can’t know how stringent someone’s being, what exact precautions they’re taking. But we have probably a better level of trust than most neighbors do.

Several years ago, we had gone through an exercise: What would we do for each other? You know, should there be some kind of an individual problem, like someone being sick or having surgery. But in terms of walking somebody’s dog, buying them groceries, or the food sharing and stuff like that, we have already discussed what we would do for each other, and we do that spontaneously. If somebody’s hurt, we go and make sure that they’re taken care of and monitor each other in terms of our health. I had two knees replaced since I’ve lived here. I managed for myself and I healed well, but I also had neighbors who did things when I really needed them to. I couldn’t drive to doctors and that sort of thing. If we don’t see somebody for a day, we check in with them and that’s just part of the daily fiber of the community.

Panic buying is really annoying and maybe dangerous, you know? Certainly the fact that I have to find things for neighbors because stores are out of stock concerns me. And the other thing that’s been gradually growing is awareness of my own fragility and my near neighbors and people in my community. I just saw my neighbor, a Costco member, come in with two bundles of toilet paper. I looked at her, I said, ‘Really?’ And she said, ‘Well, I just don’t want to have to go out and wait in line anymore.’ But I know that if somebody was in need, we could go to her house and say, ‘Okay, cough it up, share a little.

We have been very lucky to have the grocery store nearby, but even then, they’re getting more and more stringent with their policies now. They’ve closed on Sundays. A neighbor was in the middle of making something, she went over there to get tomato paste and had forgotten that they were closing on Sunday. She walked back and said to me, ‘Do you happen to have tomato paste?’ It’s kind of like borrowing a cup of sugar, it’s totally normal for us. So that puts us definitely well ahead of the curve in terms of taking care of each other.

This virus has really affected people who didn’t think they’d be affected, and it’s hard for everybody to stay oblivious to other people. If they weren’t paying attention to begin with, other people are making them pay attention. Some of that is American society. This is a lesson in listening to what’s wrong with the way we live. Cohousing itself is an intentional awareness and saying, the world isn’t working the way it should, society’s not working the way it should, and we’ve got to start modeling a different way of being with each other.

It’s way different than living by yourself in the general population. One of the things about living in cohousing is that even though we, here, are feeling a sense that we can handle things or that there would be people there who would help us, I think it’s also made us prepared to help other people too. It doesn’t stop at our community line; it’s not inwardly focused.

Me and another politically active friend used to canvas for candidates in the area and we would go to homes where you can tell that there’s vulnerable older people living there. So my friend and I started a little company, because we’re both handywomen, to do modifications to older people’s homes that were not built for aging in place. The housing wasn’t even appropriate for the people living there.

And we realized that housing has to be built for people. We have to have more community. That was the motivation for starting this cohousing community. I looked at what AARP surveys would say, and they’d report that 98 percent of people want to die at home. That’s what they want. But that’s not necessarily what they get. It’s far from the reality for most people. Being alone is all too common, as well as having financial insecurity, especially among older women. To me it’s scary as hell. I think that older people especially would benefit from this kind of community. It’s a good social solution, rather than the isolation. To me, the isolation is terrible. And when you have any kind of crisis, it makes it all the more terrible.