First and Third Places in the Oldest Senior Cohousing Community in the United States

Presented by: Rachel Sample, Dr. Mihyun Kang, Melissa Lies

There are urgent and growing demands to respond to the aging population. Understanding how older adults use their First and Third Places as they age is crucial to the design of living environments which can enhance their quality of life in later years. The purpose of this study was to examine how older adults utilize First and Third Places in the oldest senior cohousing community in the United States and how these change as they have aged. In this study, individual homes were designated as First Places. Third Places, public places that play host to informal, voluntary, and regular gatherings (Oldenburg, 1989) included the cohousing community and the community of the city they live in. An investigation into how First and Third Places are impacted by more caregiver offerings and technological adaptations as the community aged was also conducted. Interviews were conducted with current residents of the oldest senior cohousing community in the U.S. Established in 2005; this community in the Western U.S. has substantial experience phasing out residents. When the residents of this community moved in to their eight8 townhouses there were fourteen residents (Brown, 2006). These demographics have changed as time has progressed. At the time this study was conducted, there were 10 residents living in the community. Five residents participated in the study while the remaining five were unavailable due to health, travel, or simply opting out due to being new residents. The ages of the participants ranged from 85 to 90, four were widowed, and one had been remarried. Thirty-minute interviews were conducted and audio recordings of the interviews were used to develop transcripts of the interviews. Transcripts were coded, analyzed, and categorized for comprehension using the software NVIVO, and then themes were identified. Three researchers discussed the emerging themes for consensus. The residents at this cohousing community all knew each other prior to organizing the community through their church and some religious practices have been incorporated into their organized group activities. Participants derived the most value from their First Places. The privacy offered by the homes as well as the residents’ participation in the design of their homes eleven years prior still provided a sense of perceived autonomy and satisfaction associated with planning, customization, and personalization. Technology adaptions emerged in relation to First Places. Chair lifts on staircases had been installed in their private homes and all residents owned emergency pendants that are kept on their persons so they can call 911 in the event of an emergency. The proximity of the First Places to the Third Places, such as the Common House and Courtyard, provided a sense of security as the residents found comfort in being able to see others from their own homes. The Common House table provided the strongest connection as this was a place to openly discuss the day and current events over dinner. The round table met many of Third Place characteristics developed by Oldenburg (1989), including “neutrality” and “equality and inclusion.” Likewise, the Common House had a “low profile” and offered a “congenial environment” in which the participants described as taking on the quality of a household. Additionally, the Common House offered easy community access, which became a necessity for participants whose mobility had declined as they aged. Third Places around the community of the city provided opportunities for entertainment, and religious activities. Those who were less able to travel to offsite Third Places still had access to sermons as residents who could attend church brought back video recordings to share in the Common House. This study provides insight to the needs of older adults during their transition into the end-of-life phase and what design characteristics of the First and Third Places could benefit their experience in their living environments.


  • Brown, P. L. (2006, February 27). Growing Old Together, in New Kind of Commune. The New York Times. Retrieved October 6, 2016, from
  • Oldenburg, R. (1989). The Great Good Place: Cafe´s, coffee shops, community centers, beauty parlors, general stores, bars, hangouts, and how they get you through the day. New York: Paragon House.
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