A Look at the Satisfaction of Rural Seniors
with Cooperative Housing

Deborah E. Altus & R. Mark Mathews
University of Kansas

(c) copyright Cooperative Housing Journal
1997 - reprinted by permission
all rights reserved.


This study examined the satisfaction of rural seniors with housing cooperatives. Member-owners of three housing co-ops in three small Midwestern towns responded to a questionnaire asking them to evaluate their housing situation. Results indicated that cooperative living had a positive impact residents' lives in a wide variety of areas and that residents were very satisfied with their decision to leave their homes of long standing to move to the co-op. This study suggests that housing co-ops are a promising alternative for rural seniors.

According to the National Cooperative Business Association (undated), some three million people go home to cooperative housing units every day in the United States. Indeed, housing co-ops in this country date back to 1876 and have since been used by students, families and singles as way to obtain affordable housing that is owned and managed by the residents themselves (see Siegler & Levy, 1986). For seniors, one of the main sponsors of cooperative housing has been Cooperative Services, Inc. (CSI), a non-profit corporation headquartered in Oak Park, MI. CSI has offered high-rise cooperative living in urban areas to low-income residents over age 62 for three decades (Cooperative Services, Inc., undated-a). CSI currently operates 4,354 units in 32 buildings in four states (California, Maryland, Michigan, and Massachusetts). Independent senior co-ops can also be found in large metropolitan areas such as New York City and Minneapolis (see Daum & Brookdale Center on Aging, 1993; Johnson and Sachs, undated). For example, six high-rise co-ops for seniors can be found in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area.

In the past decade, a number of small, home-style co-ops for middle-income senior citizens have been built in small towns in the upper Midwest (e.g., McKinley, 1991; Reilly & Jermolowicz, 1994) that are sponsored by the Homestead Housing Center, Inver Grove Heights, MN, and Realife Development Services, Minneapolis, MN. These co-ops are designed to serve small groups of seniors in a barrier-free, home-like setting that offers private apartments and common facilities such as a recreation room, library, laundry and lounge.

Rural senior housing cooperatives serve a number of purposes. First, they give rural seniors -- who frequently have to move long distances to find retirement housing -- the opportunity to remain in their home communities. Second, the co-op structure provides a way for seniors to reside in a group living situation but still remain home-owners and preserve their equity -- a situation very different from the many retirement communities that charge a large, non-refundable entrance fee. Third, the co-ops are designed to revitalize small towns by keeping seniors in their home communities, turning over housing stock to younger families, and creating jobs. Finally, unlike many group residential settings for older people, co-ops allow seniors to remain in control of their own housing.

According to CSI, the organization that helps to develop housing co-ops for low-income urban seniors, the blend of autonomy and community that is provided by a housing co-op gives residents "the significant benefits of independence, security and fellowship" (CSI, undated-b). Indeed, research has suggested that senior housing co-ops provide members with a level of autonomy that is beneficial to their well-being and life-satisfaction. A study conducted by Van Ryzin (1992), showed that "...participatory management leads to greater satisfaction and well-being among residents, particularly those who choose to become involved in the management of their cooperatives" (p. 14). Similarly, research conducted by Cooper and Rodman (1994) on housing co-ops that integrate persons with and without disabilities suggested that residents who felt they could influence their housing situation also rated their residential quality of life the highest. Espinola (1992) also showed that co-op residents with disabilities were more satisfied with their living situation than people with disabilities living in other types of housing. Additionally, there is a body of gerontological literature suggesting that older residents benefit from the ability to exercise control over their living situations (e.g., Bakos, Chapin & Neuman, 1980; Clark, 1988; Moos & Lemke, 1994; Ryden, 1985). The purpose of this study was to look at the satisfaction of rural senior housing co-op residents with cooperative living.

Homestead Housing Co-ops. Three Homestead Housing Co-ops in three small Midwestern towns (population under 6,500) took part in this study. The co-ops each house around 20 residents in one and two-bedroom garden apartments that range from about 676 to 1092 square feet and are connected together with a common hallway. The co-ops include a variety of common areas such as a social room with a full kitchen, recreation room, wood shop and laundry facilities. All areas are designed to be barrier free and contain a number of safety and security features such as an emergency call system.

Residents own a share in the cooperative that can range from $53,000 to $97,000 depending on the size of the unit. In addition, residents pay monthly carrying charges of anywhere from $210 to $410 to cover utilities, taxes, insurance, management, maintenance and some special services such as van transportation. The amount paid each month is a share of the actual costs for operation and upkeep of the cooperative. Residents elect a board of directors that in turn hires and supervises a manager and maintenance person. Regardless of the amount paid in, each share-holder receives one vote in order to keep the operation of the co-op democratic. Residents must at least age 55 or married to someone who is that age. The co-op manager will assist residents in obtaining support services such as home health care and home-delivered meals but these services are not offered directly by the co-op. All three co-ops have been built since 1992.

Comparison of Co-ops to Senior Apartments. To examine how the co-ops' facilities compared to similar types of senior housing, each of the three co-ops was rated on the eight subscales of the Physical and Architectural Features Checklist (Moos & Lemke, 1992). When compared to the apartment sample, the co-ops standard scores were above the mean on all of the eight subscales but two: Community access and staff facilities. The co-ops offered more physical amenities, social and recreational aids, prosthetic aids, orientation aids, safety features, and space but had slightly poorer community access and fewer staff facilities than most senior apartments.

Survey. Sixty co-op residents -- the entire population of the three co-ops -- were sent a three page survey. Thirty-nine surveys were completed and returned for an overall response rate of 65%. The surveys included demographic questions and questions that asked residents to evaluate various aspects of their housing situation.

Demographics. Respondents were 77% female and 23% male. The median age was 80 with a range from 62 to 91. One-hundred percent of respondents were Caucasian. Sixty-four percent had annual incomes over $10,000. Thirty-three percent of the respondents reported that they had a disability (mobility, sensory, cognitive, psychiatric or other).

Involvement in other co-ops. Twenty-two percent of the respondents had prior involvement with cooperatives. The types of cooperatives that respondents had been involved with included agricultural co-ops, credit unions, and rural telephone co-ops. Only 18% of the respondents said that they would seek out additional involvement with co-ops. However, 84% reported that they had a good or excellent opinion of the cooperative movement.

Previous home. Ninety-five percent of the respondents moved to the co-op from a single-family home. The median distance of the respondents' previous home from the co-op was two miles, with a range of one block to 70 miles, and 92% had lived in a rural area or town of less than 10,000 people before moving to the co-op. The median length of time lived in their previous home was 33 years with a range of seven to 62 years. Most respondents (71%) did not consider moving anywhere else but the co-op. For those who considered other options, the option most frequently considered was not retirement housing but a single-family home (84%).

Issues influencing their move. Residents were asked to rate the influence that a list of 12 issues had on their decision to move to their cooperative. The issue that influenced respondents the most was wanting to have a home that they could take care of easily. Indeed, a number of respondents commented that they were tired of shoveling snow, mowing lawns, and keeping up with the maintenance required by an older home. The next two most influential issues were, respectively, wanting a home where they had a say in how it was run, and wanting to stay in their home communities.

Impact of co-op housing. Respondents were asked to evaluate the impact of the co-op on 12 areas ranging from safety to life satisfaction to physical health. The area that had the most positive impact on respondents was the "ease of home maintenance." Ninety-seven percent of respondents said that the co-op had a good effect on the ease of maintaining their home. Ninety-five percent said that the co-op had a good effect on their personal safety, and 92% reported that the co-op had a good effect on their life satisfaction. An overwhelming majority of respondents also indicated that the co-op had a positive effect on the quality of their contact with friends (83%), the amount of contact with friends (82%), their happiness (81%), and their access to leisure activities (81%). Although many people might be concerned that cooperative living would reduce a person's privacy, 79% of respondents said that the co-op had a good effect on their personal privacy and nobody reported that the co-op had adversely affected their privacy.

Finances. Forty-four percent of the respondents said that living at the co-op had saved them money. In addition, 69% indicated that the co-op had a positive impact on their financial situation. No respondents reported that the co-op had adversely impacted their finances.

Satisfaction. Ninety-five percent of the co-op residents moved to their current residence from single-family homes where most of them had lived for long periods of time (a median of 33 years). Despite their long tenure in their previous homes, respondents expressed a great deal of satisfaction with co-op housing. This point may be illustrated more clearly by examining the responses to the individual satisfaction questions. Seventy-seven percent of the co-op respondents said that they preferred their current residence to their previous home; 92% said that they would recommend their current residence to others; and 82% said they would move to their current residence again if they could do it over. While previous research has shown that elders want to remain living in their own homes as long as possible (see Butler & Lewis, 1982; Vladek, 1980), this study showed that an overwhelming majority of the respondents -- even those who were long-term home owners -- who moved to co-op housing were satisfied with their decision to move and would do it again if they could re-make their decision.

Some of the satisfaction of the respondents may be due to the fact that the dwellings are in their home communities. Residents did not have far to move -- only a median of two miles. While rural residents often have to move long distances to find retirement housing, most of the participants in this study were able to remain in communities where they had lived much of their lives. Indeed, 74% of residents said that the ability to remain in their home community influenced them a lot in their decision to move to the co-op.

Some of the satisfaction of the participants may also be due to the fact that their dwellings were newly constructed and were superior to most senior apartments, as shown by their scores on the Physical and Architectural Features Checklist (Moos & Lemke, 1992). The co-ops are designed to be barrier-free, and 81% of residents agreed that the co-op provided them with fully accessible, barrier-free housing. Similarly, 81% reported that the co-op had a good effect on their ability to live independently. In addition, all of the co-ops offered more physical amenities, social and recreational aids, prosthetic aids, orientation aids, safety features, and space than most senior apartments. However, the score for community access was below the mean -- likely because the facilities were built on the outskirts of small, rural communities and were not located in as easy walking distance of commercial areas as urban apartments might be.

Governance. Previous research has suggested that residents of cooperatives reap significant advantages because of the participatory nature of cooperative living. Indeed, co-op residents have ownership control of their housing and are responsible for hiring and supervising the management, sitting on the board of directors, and setting operational policies and long-term goals. Sixty-one percent of respondents said that they were either somewhat or extremely active in the governance of their co-op while only nine percent were not at all active. Eighty-five percent of the respondents said that the co-op gave them a voice in how their housing was run, while 84% said that the co-op provided opportunities to work with others on common goals. As other research has suggested (e.g., Van Ryzin, 1992), the participatory management structure provided by co-ops may be the key to maintaining older residents' well being and life satisfaction.

Rural America has some 7.4 million elderly residents, and, according to Belden, (1995, p. 1), finding appropriate housing for these residents will involve providing a continuum of housing assistance "...ranging from repair and rehab for homeowners to rental housing to assisted living and long-term care." This study suggests that one point on that continuum -- namely small, family-style housing co-ops -- is a promising alternative for rural seniors that deserves further attention.

Author Notes

Correspondence should be addressed to the first author at the Gerontology Center, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS 66045. This research was supported by a Mary Switzer Rehabilitation Research Fellowship to the first author from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

Deborah Altus is an Assistant Research Scientist at the University of Kansas Gerontology Center. She has both a personal and scholarly interest in cooperatives and over the past 15 years has been actively involved in studying student housing cooperatives, cooperative history, and cooperatives for seniors and persons with disabilities. She recently completed a book, "Consumer Cooperatives: A Resource Guide for Consumers with Disabilities." She is a board member of the Global Cooperative Society and has been inducted into the Campus Cooperative Hall of Fame in the category of "Educator."

Mark Mathews is an Associate Professor of Human Development and the Associate Director of the Gerontology Center at the University of Kansas. An expert on independent living, his research has largely focused on designing housing and support services for older persons and persons with disabilities to promote autonomy and self-direction. He is currently studying ways to structure special care units to maintain independence of persons with dementia.


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