French lessons on Ageing in a Cohousing community: A realistic alternative until the end of life?

Photo Anne Labit 112x112
Dr Anne Labit
Lecturer in Sociology, Universities of Orléans and Tours, France

Cohousing is a living arrangement intended to foster mutual support through self-determination and participative citizenship in an intentional community setting.

The claim is that living in a Cohousing community cultivates "social capital" and "empowerment" among the residents, two benefits that are acknowledged as having the potential to promote "good ageing". Is this truly the case? Does this always hold true? What does ageing in solidarity mean in practice? How extensive is mutual support? Would it be a valid alternative to professional care or family support? Would it be possible to reside in a Cohousing community until the end of one's life?

Based on the findings of a nationwide participatory action research project undertaken in France from 2019 to 2022: RAPSoDIÂ (Participatory Action Research on Solidarity, Housing and Innovation in Age (opens new window)), the study sought to provide answers to these aforementioned questions.

The research project was established in collaboration between a group of academics and an advocacy organisation supporting alternative homes for older people in France. It focussed on six case studies. They included, four existing intergenerational communities (housing cooperatives, participatory social housing) and two collective housing projects targeting older women on the one hand, and LGBT seniors on the other hand. Group study excursions to several European housing projects (including Abbeyfield in Belgium and Beguine convents in Germany, among others) were also undertaken.

The research was participatory (involving residents, future residents, and members of the advocacy organisation as part of the research team) and employed both standard research methods (interviews, focus groups, observations, academic readings) and activist toolkits (reading and writing groups, sharing circles, collective study trips, debates, etc.).  

The main lesson from the research is following: although the desire to age in solidarity is a strong motivation to live in a cohousing community, it's not easy to put into practice. The main obstacle lies in the common social representations of old age and solidarity, from which the inhabitants of these alternative housing projects are not immune. The concept of "dependence", deeply rooted in public discourse in France, infuses individual representations: we're afraid of growing old, we're afraid of "ageing badly" (since the imperative is to "age well"), by being "sick", by "losing our minds", by being "dependent", by becoming "a burden" on others. Conversely, the concept of autonomy, equated with individual freedom, is highly valued by residents or future residents, who find it difficult to think of mutual support in old age. People point out that what can pose a problem for them is not their ability to offer help, but their ability to receive it, and even more so to ask for it. Dealing with the ageing of the oldest residents, by envisaging concrete ways of providing help and mutual aid within their homes, therefore implies deconstructing these ageist and individualist representations.

And lastly, the design research process has proved to be a potent source of reflection and an effective way to move from projection to action for the 6 groups, enabling them to deconstruct social representations, conceive and sometimes implement concrete self-help and mutual aid actions.

Dr Anne Labit is Associate Professor of Sociology at Orleans University and a researcher at Tours University, France. The issue of housing related to social inclusion, ageing and citizenship is a core topic of her work.

She is a member of the working group, Collaborative Housing of the European Network for Housing Research and author of several publications including (ADD).

Anne also spoke at the recent Collaborative Housing & Innovative Practices in Care: An International Exchange event in Barcelona. A YouTube film of the session can be viewed here (opens new window). Note the presenters either speaking in Spanish or English.

If you found this of interest, visit the Housing LIN’s dedicated pages on cohousing for older people here.

Published to coincide with Coproduction Week.


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