Bob and Arlene Stamp are spending their retirement eating meals with friends, doing work around the home and enjoying the great outdoors in British Columbia.

The Stamps are enjoying socially rich lives, and they owe it to cohousing.

How cohousing works

Cohousing was developed in Denmark in the 1960s and exported to Canada 3 decades later. It's the idea of choosing to live together with like-minded people in close-knit housing developments. Often the housing looks like small strata (or condo) buildings, or a cluster of smaller apartment buildings. Residents live in their own private units but share some space and resources.

“The heart of the community is our common house,” says Bob Stamp. There, residents of the 31-unit Harbourside Opens a new window in your browser.community in Sooke, BC, gather for Thursday soup lunches, Sunday brunches, Monday morning coffees, movie nights, potlucks and other events.

The common house also has guest bedrooms for visitors and a space for a live-in caretaker should the need arise. The cohousing group splits up work assignments into teams; members might tend a garden, do minor maintenance work or take on administrative tasks. The residents often like pitching in because it keeps them physically and mentally busy. Meanwhile, they work in such close, continued collaboration that their last annual general meeting lasted all of 9 minutes.

The Stamps joined Harbourside in 2014 after deciding against the idea of a retirement home.

“It felt too much like retiring from life,” says Arlene Stamp. They sold their condo and bought an 800-square-foot, 2-bedroom unit at Harbourside.

“We didn't spend a lot of time worrying about whether this was the best financial situation for us. We spent more time considering, ‘is this the best social situation for us?’” Bob says.

Their money bought them much more than a place to live. While they would have described their younger selves as more solitary or private, Bob and Arlene are thriving in their community. “It's up to us how much we participate in the group. I realized I could have the degree of privacy I felt I needed. But to tell you the truth, the community is so much more fun, and I spend far more time with other people than I ever would have imagined,” says Arlene.

“I think I have more friends now than I ever had at any time in my life, just here in this community of 45 people,” adds Bob.

New housing models in Canada

Cheryl Gladu is a researcher and PhD candidate focused on cohousing at Concordia UniversityOpens a new window in your browser. in Montreal. She counts about 35 Canadian cohousing developments either built or in the process of being built, and notes an uptick in such projects in recent years.

Gladu says that cohousing is a perfect solution for people who are looking to stay connected to their communities and with other people.

“(Retirees) have a very good idea of what they want. They want to stay healthy and active,” says Charles Durrett, an American architect who — together with his wife Kathryn McCamant — coined the term “cohousing.” He's also the author of “Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living,” a book that details the ins and outs of the lifestyle.

Finding community at home

The Stamps consider themselves fortunate to have found Harbourside, where they have both independence and community.

“The quality of your daily life is a very important consideration,” says Arlene. If a Harbourside resident needs a ride to a doctor's appointment, they just send out a message, and several people offer to help within minutes.

The Stamps couldn't have found or offered that kind of support in a condo or retirement home. While they know they may not be fit enough to stay at Harbourside forever, they appreciate the opportunity to live the best years of their retirement in a supportive community.

When planning for retirement, many people's first thoughts centre on downsizing from a house to a condo. Cohousing usually isn't cheaper; buyers still pay average market rates and must factor in condo fees. But it does give buyers something they can't get in a traditional condo setting: community.

“Living in a condo can be (isolating),” Bob says. “Things couldn't be more different at Harbourside,” adds Arlene. “We have a caring community so that when things go wrong, the community clicks in to help.”