April 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA3

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Rural Cooperative Housing for Older Adults: An Emerging Challenge for Extension Educators

As the American population continues to age, identifying alternative housing options for older Americans, particularly those who wish to remain in rural communities, will pose a challenge to families and community leaders. This article presents findings of a survey of residents of seven rural housing cooperatives oriented toward serving older residents. The results reveal that residents were influenced to move to the cooperatives primarily by considerations involving ease of home maintenance and a desire to remain in their communities. The findings also demonstrate that residents believe that living in cooperative housing has had a positive influence on their quality of life. Extension educators should consider prioritizing educational efforts to teach clientele about rural cooperative housing.

Jill Eversole Nolan
Northeast District Director
Internet Address: nolan.2@osu.edu

Thomas W. Blaine
Extension District Specialist, Community Development
Internet Address: blaine.17@osu.edu

Ohio State University Extension
Wooster, Ohio

Introduction and Problem Statement

The aging of the American population is well documented. The over-65 age cohort continues to be the fastest growing group in the country and is expected to climb from 36 million (13% of the adult population) in 2000 to over 60 million (22% of the adult population) in 2030 (Bureau of the Census, 1999). Moreover, the most significant increase is expected to be among those over the age of 85.

As the number of older adults continues to increase, finding housing opportunities that offer affordable, comfortable, and high-quality living will pose a challenge to families and community developers. Many of those interested in improving the quality of life of older adults have a history of looking to Extension educators for assistance (Duncan & Foster, 1996; Frazier, Collins, & Rhodes, 1991; Pollak & DiGregario, 1988; White, 1987; Nelson, 1987).

Extension Services across the country have established teams or programs to address issues affecting the older population. These include HOST (Housing Options for Seniors Today) in New York (Pollak & DiGregorio, 1988) and IAT (Interdisciplinary Aging Team) in Alabama (Duncan & Foster, 1996). Pollak and DiGregario (1988) offered an inventory of housing options for seniors. Despite these efforts, finding viable, functional housing options for older adults, particularly in rural areas, continues to present a serious problem both for older adults making housing decisions and communities involved in planning and policy making.

Older rural adults are more likely to live in poor-quality housing than their urban counterparts (Bull, 1993). Maintenance and rehabilitation of these dwellings are often beyond the means of the residents, who express a desire to remain in their communities, but have very limited housing options (Golant, 1992).

In the early 1990s rural cooperative housing for older adults emerged as an important alternative. Although the National Association of Housing Cooperatives was established in 1950, this alternative was largely overlooked by the public until relatively recently, and had never been undertaken for older adults specifically until 1991. This article: (a) describes the rural cooperative housing concept; (b) reports on a survey of residents of rural cooperative housing; and (c) poses questions to Extension educators on how they might help clientele understand this new housing option.

Rural Cooperative Housing

A cooperative is a business controlled by the people who use it. It is a democratic organization whose earnings and assets belong to its members. By patronizing and becoming active members of a cooperative, individuals vest themselves with the power to shape the business (USDA, 1988). Rural cooperative housing units vary from small, family-size homes to large, multi-story apartment buildings. They typically include the provision of services designed for their inhabitants.

HOMESTEAD Cooperatives, the focus of this study, includes full-sized apartment homes with kitchens, extensive community facilities, storage, attached garages, and gardens. They range from 16 to 31 homes, and are located in seven rural communities in Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Local organizations and individuals interested in improving housing choices for older adults sponsor each cooperative. Cooperative members, as shareholders, are the owners of the buildings and grounds, and govern their operation.

The primary benefits to those living in a housing cooperative include: a sense of privacy in one's own living space, access to peers in close proximity and in community areas, security, convenience, and maintaining equity in one's housing investment. Housing cooperatives can benefit the community as well by freeing up existing housing for younger residents and by increasing the local tax base.

Survey Design, Method, and Results

A mail survey was sent to the 163 rural Minnesota and Iowa residents of HOMESTEAD Cooperatives. Prior to mailing, the survey instrument was reviewed by a panel of eight Extension specialists and Agricultural Education faculty members for content validity. Recommendations by the panel were incorporated into instrument revisions, and unclear items were deleted from the final version.

The instrument was tested for stability by test-retest reliability to determine if the same results were obtained from the same subjects over a period of time. Sixteen residents initially completed a pilot version of the survey. After a period of 2 weeks, all 16 responded to the survey a second time. Reliability coefficients were calculated in the manner described by Dillman (1978). The coefficients ranged from .65 to 1.0, with an average of .88 indicating an acceptable level of content reliability.

Respondents were presented with 12 factors that might have influenced their decision to move to the housing cooperative and asked to respond on a 3-point Likert scale, with 1= did not influence me, 2 = somewhat influenced me, and 3 = influenced me (see Table 1).

Four "waves" of mailings provided a total final response rate of 93% (151 usable surveys). To obtain the highest possible response rate, the questionnaire was age-sensitive, using large fonts, light-colored paper, and simple response options, and was short in length. A booklet-style questionnaire (8 1/2 x 11) was designed to accommodate the dexterity of older adults. The questionnaire, a cover letter, a stamped self-addressed envelope, and a gift incentive were sent to non-respondents in each wave cycle.

Table 1
Factors Influencing Decision to Move to HOMESTEAD

Wanted an easier maintained home Did not influence me 3
Somewhat influenced me 17
Influenced me 80
Wanted to stay in community Did not influence me 14
Somewhat influenced me 12
Influenced me 75
Wanted handicapped accessible Did not influence me 17
Somewhat influenced me 34
Influenced me 49
Better financial investment Did not influence me 28
Somewhat influenced me 24
Influenced me 47
Wanted a voice in home operation Did not influence me 27
Somewhat influenced me 27
Influenced me 46
Wanted help close by Did not influence me 22
Somewhat influenced me 39
Influenced me 39
Difficulty with home maintenance Did not influence me 32
Somewhat influenced me 36
Influenced me 32
Wanted to live closer to friends Did not influence me 40
Somewhat influenced me 28
Influenced me 31
Children wanted the move Did not influence me 50
Somewhat influenced me 21
Influenced me 28
Wanted to live close to town Did not influence me 67
Somewhat influenced me 12
Influenced me 21
Felt isolated Did not influence me 63
Somewhat influenced me 24
Influenced me 12
Difficulty getting around house Did not influence me 60
Somewhat influenced me 30
Influenced me 11

Note: Percentages may not sum to 100 due to rounding.

The two major factors that emerged as the most influential were ease of home maintenance and a desire to remain in the community. Note that an apparent asymmetry in these results arises in the observation that roughly one third of the respondents stated that " difficulty with home maintenance" did not influence their decision. This implies that even among those older adults who are not currently having difficulty maintaining their home, a desire for easier home maintenance is still likely to be a major contributing factor in deciding to relocate to cooperative housing.

A second tier of influential factors was: desire for handicapped accessible living quarters, better financial investment, having a voice in the operation of the home, and having help close by. Factors with little or no influence on the housing decision were: difficulty in getting around the house, feeling isolated in previous living quarters, and a desire to live closer to town. These results tend to corroborate previous findings concerning housing decisions for an aging population (Bull, 1993; Stevens-Long & Commons, 1992; Coward & Lee, 1985; Rowles, 1983, Lawton & Hoover, 1981).

Respondents were also asked to respond to 9-Likert scale statements on what effect living in the rural cooperative had on them. These were scored 1= negative effect, 2 = no effect, and 3 = positive effect (see Table 2).

Table 2
Effect of Variables on HOMESTEAD Residents

Variable Effect Percentage
Ease of maintaining home Negative effect 0
No effect 7
Positive effect 93
Ability to live independently Negative effect 0
No effect 16
Positive effect 84
Personal safety Negative effect 1
No effect 17
Positive effect 82
Life satisfaction Negative effect 2
No effect 18
Positive effect 80
Access to activities, entertainment Negative effect 1
No effect 23
Positive effect 77
Happiness Negative effect 2
No effect 20
Positive effect 77
Amount of contact with friends Negative effect 3
No effect 20
Positive effect 77
Personal privacy Negative effect 2
No effect 31
Positive effect 67
Physical health Negative effect 1
No effect 34
Positive effect 63

Note: Percentages may not sum to 100 due to rounding.

Respondents overwhelmingly believed that living in the housing cooperative had a positive impact on all nine aspects of living included in the questionnaire. Not a single respondent stated that moving to the cooperative had negatively influenced their ability to live independently or the ease of maintaining their home.

The demographic profile of residents of HOMESTEAD (see Table 3) is typical of older residents of the rural Midwest in most respects, with females being slightly over-represented (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1999).

Table 3
Demographics of HOMESTEAD Residents

Variable Effect Percentage
Gender Male 32
Female 68
Age under 65 6
65-74 21
75-84 51
85+ 22
Marital Married 46
Widowed/Divorce 51
Never Married 3
Race/Ethnic Caucasian 90
African American 1
Other 9
Education Elementary 22
Some High School 8
High School Diploma 28
Post High School 27
College Degree 10
Beyond B.S. 5
Income Less than $9,999 10
$10,000 - $19,999 31
$20,000 - $29,999 26
$30,000 - $39,999 17
$40,000 - $49,999 6
More than $50,000 10

Correlation coefficients were calculated to measure relationships among the demographic variables (see Table 3), factors influencing the decision to move (see Table 1), and effects of living in HOMESTEAD (see Table 2). No statistically significant relationships were found, indicating that factors influencing the decision to move to the cooperatives and perceptions of the quality of life did not differ along demographic lines. This is in contrast to previous research, which has shown that gender differences typically influence the housing decision process (Teaford, 1992); Lawton & Hoover, 1981).

In order to access the overall perception of HOMESTEAD living, respondents were asked whether they liked HOMESTEAD housing better than their previous housing, 95% answered " about the same" or " better." A total of 94% indicated they would recommend HOMESTEAD to others; 98% concluded that if they had to make the choice again, they would move to HOMESTEAD; and 99% believed older adults need a cooperative living housing option in their community.

Conclusions and Suggestions for Extension Educators

Housing decisions for older Americans will continue to be an issue of increasing importance for families and communities across the United States. Although cooperative housing has been around for half a century, only a few cooperative housing units designed to meet the needs of older rural Americans currently exist in the country. All of these are currently located in a few Midwestern states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Iowa.

Although Extension educators have played an important role in acquainting clientele with issues facing older citizens, including housing, they have not pointed to the rural cooperative housing concept as a viable alternative. This could be due to the fact that rural cooperative housing is not an easily available option and/or that educators are themselves unaware of this potential alternative. In either case, rural cooperative housing offers Extension educators the opportunity and challenge to develop curricula and programs describing the concept to clientele, including potential residents, their families, and community leaders.

Extension professionals, gerontologists, community developers, and older adults sometimes disagree among themselves as to the model living arrangement for the aging population, but they all tend to agree that certain characteristics for older adult housing are necessary for the improved quality of living in their home communities. The results of this study show that rural cooperative housing, as achieved by HOMESTEAD Cooperatives, has helped its members reach their housing goals and meet needs that are important to them.

Will cooperative housing for the older adult be the wave of the future in rural America? Perhaps not. But to many HOMESTEAD residents, it provides the quality of living they had hoped for in their aging years. Reasons to move often center around concern with one's ability to continue to cope with the demands of regular housing. In other words, the cooperative housing concept attracts individuals or couples because what it offers to rural communities is not generally available elsewhere. Safety, security, social interaction, independence, and freedom from maintenance chores are predominant benefits gained from cooperative housing.

The central finding in this study is that, yes, there is a positive quality of life among the older adults living in rural cooperative housing. This housing option does satisfy some very important physical, social, and psychological needs for this segment of the older adult population.

A key question that emerges from the study is why so few rural communities have adopted cooperative housing. Identifying barriers to the creation of this housing option remains a potential and much needed focus of research in the future.

Will cooperative living facilitate satisfying retirement years for older adults? When the rural dimension is introduced, will the issue of where to house rural older adults come into play? These questions will be concerns older adults, Extension professionals, gerontologists, community developers, and policy makers will need to explore in integrating rural older adults to local communities, increasing the quality of life, maintaining social structures, encouraging independence, and preserving "rurality."


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