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To fight loneliness, Tampa Bay seniors to give ‘cohousing’ a try

The communities are designed to help seniors age in place and enjoy life together.
Cynthia St. Lawrence holds her calico cat, Callie, last week at her home in Clearwater. St. Lawrence is 72 and has a robust group of friends. But she lives alone in a 55+ community, and wishes there were more opportunities for senior cohousing in the area.
Cynthia St. Lawrence holds her calico cat, Callie, last week at her home in Clearwater. St. Lawrence is 72 and has a robust group of friends. But she lives alone in a 55+ community, and wishes there were more opportunities for senior cohousing in the area. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Nov. 26, 2021
Updated Dec. 6, 2021

Seniors in Tampa Bay will soon have a new way to live with each other.

A radical housing model — aimed at combating the loneliness many people experience later in life — is coming to Tampa Bay.

Known as senior cohousing, participating older adults live in individual homes or condominiums but have shared common areas, such as a kitchen for communal meals and socializing.

“It’s smaller (than a traditional retirement community) and more conducive to — okay, we’re all gonna cook a meal tonight,” said Cynthia St. Lawrence, 72, who currently lives in a 55-plus building in Clearwater. “You bring the meat, you bring the bread or whatever, and we’ll have a wine and spaghetti dinner.”

Harwood Village, to be located in Lakeland, is believed to be the first senior cohousing community underway in Florida.

These communities typically include features that help seniors age in place and extend the amount of time someone can stay outside of a long-term care facility. Harwood Village is no exception.

It will have communal meals once a week and be within walking distance of a shopping center, a Publix and an Ace Hardware. It’s designed as a blended model — half of its residents will be seniors, and half will be adults of any age with disabilities.

“I have always believed in a cooperative living environment — and then, guess what, I became a senior,” said Gail Bagley, 69, who is founding the cohousing community with two others. “I started thinking about the value of seniors supporting each other.

“The pandemic really highlighted some of the problems with established housing options like assisted living, which don’t always work when there’s an issue like a COVID and people become isolated,” she added.

One in every three adults over 45 in the United States identified as lonely, even before the pandemic. Loneliness is a subjective state — much like hunger, it’s designed to drive the body to act to alleviate it. But chronic loneliness is increasingly viewed as a public health crisis by those who study it.

When experienced over a long period of time, loneliness can increase a person’s risk of dementia, depression and high blood pressure, and is significantly linked to earlier mortality and morbidity.

“It makes me feel bad to live in a community that I don’t feel is very social — and cooking by myself is not fun,” St. Lawrence said. “Cohousing has always intrigued me — what a great way for people of the same age to be in community with each other, especially if you don’t have family around.”

As in many intentional communities, sharing is woven into the cohousing model. Residents at Harwood Village will divvy up certain chores, such as meal prep and pool maintenance, and commit to a democratic, consensus-driven governance process.

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The community will be designed with wide, well-lit paths. The relative flatness of the land was a key draw for its founders, who had individuals with mobility issues in mind, Bagley said.

The trio has purchased the property for Harwood Village and is in talks with architects now.

Senior cohousing is generally intended for older adults who are fairly independent — there will be no health care facilities on-site at Harwood Village. Affordability remains a barrier in many of these communities.

Once complete, the Lakeland cohousing condos will be sold at market value.

“There’s a crisis in this country for affordable housing,” Bagley said. “This doesn’t answer that problem. This answers the problem of isolation.”

Interested older adults in Florida, like St. Lawrence, will still have to wait — the senior cohousing will open in about two to three years. But recruitment for the 12-person community is happening now.