Caring for Children and Elders, Cooperatively

grandparents holding grandchildren

For Susan Gunn, it all started with a haircut. New to her home in Washington, DC, with a young daughter, a working husband, and no extended family nearby, Gunn found scheduling her much-needed trim to be a logistical nightmare.

“I just couldn’t find the time to get away go to the salon,” recalls Gunn. “We were young and on a budget, and hiring a babysitter was out of the question.”

At the same time, the Gunns were seeking out friends in a similar stage of life, with whom, as Susan Gunn puts it, “we could share in the ups and downs of everyday parenting.”

Some online research introduced Gunn to babysitting cooperatives—an arrangement between several families where parents exchange babysitting responsibilities for each others’ children, giving everyone the break they need with no money passing hands.

“What a great concept!” Gunn thought at the time, “I could get a haircut, my child could play with other kids, and we might make friends with other parents.”

So Gunn circulated a proposal at local playgrounds, eventually organizing a planning meeting at her home. Now, nine years later, the Meridian Hill Coop is still thriving, providing members not only with free child care, but with friends and a sense of community.

Care cooperatives are becoming increasingly popular—and they don’t have to focus on child care. You can set up a similar arrangement to watch over elderly parents, adults with disabilities, or pets. Consider starting a care cooperative of your own to build community and resiliency while saving money.

Getting Started
Most successful care co-ops involve a written agreement, a point system for earning and spending care hours, and community building within the co-op to encourage communication and fun.

First, gather families together. Think about the size of the cooperative you want to form. Too few members will mean not having enough people able to help, but too many could mean losing the community feeling of a care cooperative. Many care co-ops have found the “sweet spot” at 12-20 families.

Then, take the time to talk about, and write down, your expectations.

“Setting clear expectations is key to any sharing arrangement,” says attorney Janelle Orsi, coauthor of The Sharing Solution (Nolo, 2009), which guides people through sharing everything from child care to a car or a house. “A common problem in sharing arrangements is thatpeople disappoint each other.”

Orsi’s book contains a list of 20 questions to ask in any sharing arrangement, such as: How will we make decisions? How will we divide expenses and manage money? How will we bring new people into the group?

Orsi also recommends covering other ground particularly relevant to sharing care, such as: Are there ground rules about what kids eat/drink while being babysat? How are disciplinary matters with children approached? What are the ground rules for watching TV/ movies? How will medication be handled for children or adults? Do you want to exchange care for elderly parents, or share a hired caregiver?

And don’t forget to talk to the people receiving care as well, whether its your child or an elderly parent or friend, to ensure their comfort in any arrangement.

There are also stickier questions, says Orsi, like what to do if there is a conflict between families. Orsi recommends having good conflict-resolution procedures in place, perhaps even taking the time to get trained in nonviolent communication. The Center for Nonviolent Communication has primers on resolving conflicts peacefully and a schedule for formal, local trainings at

Establish a Record-Keeping System
In any care co-op, you need some way to keep track the hours people are earning and spending. Gunn’s babysitting co-op uses a point system. Each new family starts with 20 points. One hour of babysitting is worth four points. A sitter earns two extra points for each additional child and two extra points for coming to the family’s home.

In some cases, families dole out tickets, tokens, or even popsicle sticks to signify how much “capital” they have to use in the co-op, but it’s also easy to keep track of points electronically.

You can record points in an online spreadsheet like Google Documents, which allows many people to view files. Several online systems also exist to help coordinate a care co-op of all kinds, including and

Orsi says it’s a good idea to appoint an administrator to help keep the books, and your co-op may need some other organizational roles as well. Gunn’s co-op has a secretary to track points, a chair to manage applications from new families, and a social secretary to plan monthly get togethers for members. These roles can rotate every few months, or come with the perk of earning extra points to entice people to hold onto them.

Get it in Writing
Once you’ve established your ground rules and procedures, put it all in writing for members of the co-op to sign.

“We aren’t necessariliy talking about a legally binding contract,” says Orsi, “but a written agreement that ensures everyone is on the same page.”

You can also use this agreement to create an application process for new families who want to join the co-op. Orsi’s book contains a sample agreement, and many are also available online at the Web sites mentioned above.

Start Caring
Let the caring and sharing begin! The way members request care will vary depending on how you set up the co-op, but the basics are the same. When you need caregiving, you send out a message stating your needs (some groups use an e-mail listserv, like Yahoo Groups or Google Groups; others use online services that manage communication), and other parents respond if they can take the job. You’ll also receive requests from other parents—and you’ll earn points when you babysit their kids. Or if the care you need help with occurs regularly, like checking in on an elderly parent or dropping off meals to a home-bound friend, members of the co-op can use an online calendar to schedule care.

Build Community
Establishing good lines of communication is essential for a successful co-op. That’s why it’s a good idea to schedule regular get-togethers, like a monthly potluck meal, where co-op members can talk about any issues that may have come up. And getting together regularly doesn’t just let the co-op get its business done—it helps build a community of support and friendship. While Susan Gunn has valued the time and money saved through participation in the Meridian Hill Co-op for almost a decade, it’s the close community that she values most.

“Our children have great friendship with kids in the neighborhood and feel close to lots of adults,” says Gunn.

“There’s a closeness that comes when you share in caring for each other’s children that feels really wonderful.”