Israel's First Cooperative Living Community for the Elderly Doesn't Want to Be Taken Care Of

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Residents of a community housing project for the elderly in Tel Aviv.
Residents of a community housing project for the elderly in Tel Aviv.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

“The greatest enemy of the ‘third age’ is loneliness,” says David Mencher, one of the founders of Cohousing Israel, which hopes to create the country’s first cooperative living community for the elderly. There are nods of agreement in the room.

“There are many kinds of community, but for us the key word is cooperative, a certain degree of mutual responsibility of the community toward each member. Actually, community is the opposite of loneliness,” Mencher says.

A few weeks ago the association became the first cooperative housing society in decades to be recognized by the Economy Ministry’s associations’ registry.

Mencher and his colleagues in CHI offer a model of a community of elderly people who manage their lives together without giving up personal autonomy. Retaining control over their lives even in old age is critical to the group’s members. They don’t want to be taken care of.

“We’re not ready to turn out the light and check into the graveyard,” says Judy Levenson. They don’t want to slide into passive, isolated old age at home or to go to live in a traditional retirement home or assisted living facility. They seek alternatives, the kind that “don’t suck the money or the life out of you,” says Dina Lipsky.

The group’s Facebook page lists principles that were crafted after long debate. The target audience is people aged 50-75, who will live in some 30 private apartments, with a long-term rental option and shared amenities, like a common room, kitchen and dining room, a library, a game room for the grandchildren or sleeping arrangements for guests, as well as a garden and place for social activities.

The group currently has around 30 people, living in 20 apartments. Several dozen others have shown an interest in the project. Some of them come to the group’s weekly meetings, but haven’t committed to joining yet. This would entail a payment of 10,000 shekels (around $2,500) for preliminary expenses.

In the summer of 2016 the team started looking for suitable sites for the envisioned community. Buying land and building from scratch was too expensive. Without public assistance, from a local government, for example, it would be difficult to go ahead with the project.

Mencher says he got to thinking about other ways to age after seeing “what my parents went through, trying to manage when their situation no longer allowed it. I wanted something else. We would meet, a few couples, and discuss how to prepare for the changes in the third age. At some stage we realized we didn’t invent anything. Many people are asking these questions and looking for answers.”

The co-housing model that was launched in a number of European states in the 1980s and has spread to the United States and Canada seemed like a good idea that could be applied in Israel.

Most of the group’s members are immigrants from English-speaking countries, explains David Kurtz. “Almost none of them have a large family here. The possibility of growing old with friends and a supportive community seems the best alternative to us.”

The members are leery of a rigid definition of the community, as its exact character is still being debated.

“Our community is defined as something we’re building together,” says Kurtz. “There’s a general vision we’ve agreed on, and anyone who wants to join must sign a paper.” The principles’ document consists, for example, of a commitment to “active social involvement in community life on the basis of equality and social integration,” “cultivating values of tolerance and mutual responsibility” and enabling “different Jewish ways of life, with respect and acceptance.”

There’s an agreement that the communal kitchen should be kosher, but also that Shabbat could be observed in various ways, not necessarily religious ones. Not all the details have been worked out.

One of the first discussions was about whether the community would be structured as a multi-generational framework or restricted to elderly people. Kurtz, Mencher and Levenson are in their early 70s, Lipsky is about 10 years younger. A community of various ages has, at least theoretically, a better chance of lasting longer than a group of only elderly people. On the other hand, it was feared that the seniors’ interests might be pushed aside in this format.

Over a long period of discussions, it transpired that the groups wants the older members to make the decisions, but they also want to live near a younger community. The list of sites was amended accordingly, alongside such demands as convenient public transportation and proximity to health care and cultural facilities.

World experience shows “the dining hall is a very central element,” says Kurtz, and “we demand active involvement. This isn’t the place for people who want to be isolated in an apartment without interacting. We’re trying to build a community here.”

Mencher says it’s still not clear whether it’s possible, or necessary, to have a compulsory common meal. “I don’t expect to be a friend of everyone in the community,” he says. “My vision is to be a short walk away from a few friends I like enough to have coffee with, to complain about the deterioration of human society or to play a bit of guitar. A community is like an onion, it has many layers of interaction.”

A financing model based on personal capital was rejected – although it would probably advance the project faster – because it meant only wealthy people would be accepted to the society. Instead, the team is examining ways of balancing between private and public resources.

The team is discussing whether the admission of new members should be limited to men, since women’s life expectancy is longer. Another issue is the community’s ethnic make-up. Only three of the members are veteran Israelis. While it is agreed there should be a more veteran Israelis, Kurtz says it’s “the natives” who prefer to live in an English-speaking culture.

Levenson says “some of us would be happy to have Arabs in the community as well, but there’s also an agreement to maintain a Jewish way of life. We won’t prevent anyone from applying to join.”

Kurtz says, “we’re open to anyone who is interested and agrees with the vision. ...

Ultimately, for me it’s important that those who join be ‘mensches,’ more than whether they were born in Israel, Palestine or South Africa.”

Yifat Solel a lawyer specializing in civil and social rights, has advised the association for 18 months. She says the Economy Ministry’s registrar didn’t know how to approach CHI at first. “It’s the first model of its kind for a cooperative housing society in Israel,” she says. But they quickly understood the potential and helped make the regulations as precise as possible, she says.

Solel says that 10 other groups are looking into the possibility of setting up a co-housing cooperative. “It’s time to change attitudes and give the power to smaller, more democratic groups, who are changing reality for the benefit of the tenants, not an external party. People in a community live better than those living without a supportive environment. There are other advantages, like reducing the need for social services due to the mutual help,” Solel says.

“We’re a startup,” says Levenson, emphasizing the importance of what she calls conscious aging. “Many people don’t want to think about growing older. That’s living in denial. They’re afraid of losing control. We’ve all seen it happen to our parents, so we’re trying to build a protective envelope. The group has a well-developed sense of humor. We can laugh at ourselves, and that makes the process fun.”

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