Cohousing: A day in the life

“So you want to know about a typical day?” asks Louise Bardswich.

She’s seated in a Toronto hotel room where we caught up with her during her annual sojourn to TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, but her home is in Port Perry, ON. It’s a somewhat renovated, mostly purpose built home which she co-owns with three other women, a stone’s throw from the town’s historic main street.

The biggest motivation for Louise’s move to cohousing was financial, but not in the way you might think. Bardswich was confident she could afford to live in her own home as long

Louise Bardswich (rear) and housemates in the kitchen of their Port Perry home.

as possible, but when she investigated the cost of retirement homes — and realized that their fees seemed to increase by 3 per cent a year — she worried about running out of money by the time she needed more extensive care.

“So I went into cohousing having done the math and figured it out intellectually. I knew it was my best option. But at a very visceral level, I went into it right up to the day I moved in with anxiety about whether I could do it. I had the sense that, as an introvert,  I would spend a lot of time in my room, alone.”

Her “room,” like all the bedrooms, is a large, bright space that easily accommodates a bedroom suite plus a comfortable sitting area in front of a gas fireplace. The wheelchair-ready bathroom has a roll-in shower. An oversized walk-in closet completes the layout.

“But I remember waking up one morning early in the first week and hearing voices downstairs and thinking: ‘Oh, I wonder what’s going on? That sounds interesting.’ So I went down and joined the conversation and it was just very cool.”

So, a typical day. There’s a rhythm to it, coming together, moving apart, coming together.

“Usually Bev or I are the first up, so we put the coffee on. Martha usually joins us by the time it’s ready and we all sit in the living room with our newspaper and our ipads and we catch up on the news and grouse about Trump or Ford. Sandy usually comes down last but she has her breakfast right away, so she’ll sit at the kitchen counter and join in the conversation from there. And then at various points, anybody who wants breakfast will get up and fix themselves something on their own schedule.

“Sometime during that early morning conversation somebody will ask who’s home for supper that night, which usually means they’re willing to cook. So we’ll figure out who’s going to be home, and what time is good — and then we all go off and do our own things. Everybody leads their own lives.

“Around supper time, people will gather to help with preparation or have a glass of wine. When dinner’s ready, if someone isn’t down yet we’ll text them and we have dinner together. Whoever cooked doesn’t do any cleanup.

“After dinner we may stay and chat a bit, more often we go read our books or watch television on our own, because we all have different tastes.”

And that pattern holds, Bardswich says, probably 3 or 4 days a week. “But other than the morning coffee and supper, we live very independent lives.”


Number three in a series highlighting the leadership and themes to be explored at Is Cohousing Your Next Step, October 20-21, in Toronto. Read the whole series:


  • Cohousing: A day in the life 



An intentional family: Mary Jordan and RareBirds Housing Cooperative

Many people talk about cohousing but few actually commit to it. For Mary Jordan, a founder of the RareBirds Housing community in Kamloops, BC, it was the image of a boiling frog that finally moved her to act.

 Specifically, in the Spring of 2011, she went with some friends to see the Canadian environmental film, “How to Boil a Frog,” a comedy-documentary which popularized the boiling frog fable.

 The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The film suggests that humans are in the position of the frog, oblivious to the dangers of a slowly warming planet.

 “I’d had conversations with friends before about our over-consumption,” she says. “Here we are, a bunch of singles or empty nesters, everybody having their own appliances, taking up way too much space… we realized it would be more practical and sustainable to live together. But it was just talk; it didn’t materialize.”

 Then came the film and its suggested solutions, one of which was cohousing. Mary, who is a part time counsellor, began emailing friends to talk about the idea. A number of them came to a meeting, then another meeting, then a retreat… within three years they’d bought a vacant lot with majestic views of the Thompson River and the group, three rarebirdssingles and three couples, moved into their custom-built, 6,000-square foot home.

 “Right from the start we had the same vision, that we would live as an intentional family in a shared home,” Jordan says. “We didn’t realize what an anomaly that was.” Most cohousing developments, she’s learned since, are much bigger and involved self-contained dwellings. “I think our size, just six units, helped us move quickly.”

 Mary Jordan will share her experiences with cohousing as part of a workshop, Is Co-housing Your Next Step? in Toronto October 20-21.

 “One of the biggest surprises for me has been the amount of change we’ve gone through in the last four and a half years,” she reflects. Indeed the household has successfully transitioned the death of a member and two (soon to be three) changes in membership, which takes some energy.

“You kind of get into a rhythm or a hum and of course anybody coming or going into the community is a disruption. You all have to feel your way for a bit. New people who have come in say it takes a year to learn all the stories and become part of the history. So you need some flexibility.”

 Is it worth the effort? Looking back from her vantage point now, seven years after she first put things in motion, would she do it again?

Jordan doesn’t hesitate.  “You know, I ask myself that and yeah, I would. Sometimes I may get cranky with something that’s going on and wonder for a moment if it’s worth it. And then I say, ‘Mary, you live in a beautiful house with a bunch of wonderful people, what could be better?’

“The community is a joy. Conversations, chatter, people. I enjoy the camaraderie, interesting conversations with guests, learning about people’s activities. These relationships are strong bonds of support.”

 She pauses briefly to reflect, then: “I suppose it may be easier to live by yourself. You don’t need to consult anybody, you make all your own decisions, you can leave your dirty dishes in the sink if you like… but who wants to live like that? People need community.”

Number two in a series highlighting the leadership and themes to be explored at Is Cohousing Your Next Step, October 20-21, in Toronto. Read the whole series:

  • An intentional family: Mary Jordan and the RareBirds 
  • Why you’ll live healthier, longer in cohousing (Oct 4)


‘Cohousing offers a radically simple idea’

Kitty Elton never intended to become a cohousing advocate, but then she never intended to be a teacher either. She began her career as a nuclear medical technologist, but being around radiation didn’t seem like the best idea when she wanted to have children. English literature was her other love,  a graduate degree led to teaching and the decades passed. (Her doctoral thesis is almost finished!)

Marriage and raising a family had taken her to Fredericton, NB, but when she recently retired, she was clear that she wanted to get back to the coast of British Columbia where she’d spent her young adult life. “I had a vision of a small house with a view of the ocean on Gabriola Island.”

 Kitty Elton will share her expertise and provide leadership at the workshop, Is Co-housing Your Next Step? in Toronto, October 20-21.

Then reality set in. The prices were frightening. And though Gabriola had beautiful views, the nearest hospital was a ferry ride away. Maybe not the most sensible location for aging in place.

“So my research led me to cohousing out of necessity. It offered a creative way I could afford to buy waterfront and have a well built home with interesting neighbours. Longing for a solitary retreat in nature, I found my haven within the embrace of community.”

As in her earlier life, one thing led to another. She was too late to buy into Harbourside, a condo-style cohousing development in Sooke, BC, but in 2016 she had an opportunity to rent a unit. She fell in love with the community and decided to help build another one. West Wind Harbour, a member-planned 34-unit cohousing development, will open in the Spring of 2020. And along the way, Elton has become proficient in guiding others as they consider cohousing. “I retired and took on a full-time job,” she laughs.

“Cohousing offers a radically simple idea,” Elton says. “People flourish when they belong to an active community where relationships are valued and privacy is respected. It turns out that cohousing is a very good fit for those who want to maintain their autonomy and independence as they age.”

As she’s worked with groups exploring cohousing, Elton often finds assumptions that run counter to her experience. “People have funny ideas about community, as if it’s somehow optional,” she says. “We’re all in community, but some of us have the great gift of choosing the community we’ll live with.

“Some people approach community hesitantly. ‘Do I have to be friendly with everyone?’ Well, no. You don’t have to like them all, you just have to be a good neighbour.”

The hesitation soon fades with experience, she says. “You can see people relaxing into trust.”

Number one in a series highlighting the leadership and themes to be explored at Is Cohousing Your Next Step, October 20-21, in Toronto. Read the whole series:




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