Back in the 60s and 70s there were hippy communes, but now a network of women in North London aged 50 to 86 has taken a revolutionary approach to the concept of living together and it’s called co-housing. It is a groundbreaking project that has the potential to change the futures of older women who are left on their own and who want to live closer to other people, but not actually with them.
The network Growing Old Disgracefully (g.o.d.) aims to provide older women with “new ideas and a different approach to life.” It also wants to “counter stereotypes of older women, encourage positive attitudes to ageing, expand our horizons and support each other,” according to its website. I particularly like its statement that “We want to meet the future with courage, confidence and enthusiasm.”
Shirley Meredeen, a former student counsellor, started g.o.d with Madeleine Levius after she retired in her late 60s. She wanted to find a way to challenge society’s preconceptions about older women as “passive and past it,” and she found her inspiration at a workshop on the concept of ‘Co-housing’ organised by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). She and Madeleine were so enthused by what they heard and learnt at the workshop that they went straight to the pub afterwards and started planning their own co-housing scheme. In September this year, 26 women moved into their first co-housing community –Older Women’s Co-Housing (OWCH) – which they built in High Barnet, north London.
It has taken them 18 years to get to this moment, but by all accounts it has been worth all the usual ups and downs that accompany most major projects. It has been designed specifically for the women who are living in it and the women will manage the property themselves. It is a woman-only project simply because the women in it have been widowed, divorced or are single and no longer want to live alone.
The evolution of co-housing
Various research projects have highlighted the issue for women of growing old alone. Maria Brenton, now 70 and a former expert in social policy, said: “Women live longer than men, and many have fewer resources because they’ve been cut out of the workforce bringing up children.” She received a grant from The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and travelled to North America, Denmark and the Netherlands looking for solutions to the issue of women living alone. She discovered the co-housing idea in the Netherlands, although it had originally come from Denmark in the 1960s. There are currently around 230 co-housing schemes in the Netherlands for the over 50s and Brenton says that successive Dutch governments have encouraged and promoted the idea. By contrast, she remarks, “the statistics about loneliness in Britain are stark, and yet we are doing ‘sod all’ about it.” Perhaps you might be surprised to learn that at least 50% of people aged 75 and over in the UK live alone and almost half of them say that TV is their main company. It was Maria Brenton’s workshop for NCVO that Shirley Meredeen attended, and where the OWCH project seed was sown.
The women have either bought, or are renting, the apartments in the OWCH community, with the largest apartments with three bedrooms priced in the region of £400,000. If that seems steep, then remember it is within the Greater London area. It also provides a sense of independence and youthfulness that living in sheltered accommodation or other housing schemes aimed at the elderly don’t provide from a psychological perspective; once you live in one of these you are seen as old and less competent, even if that is not what you feel. OWCH is an antidote to this.
OWCH provides a lifestyle that values privacy but at the same offers company when it is required. There is no need for anyone to feel isolated when you live here. Add to the fact that company is only a knock on the door away, the building has a common room, a community kitchen, guest rooms for visitors, a garden and an on-site film club. The layout of the building is designed to encourage a “socially fluid lifestyle” in which the women share maintenance and gardening, plus they cook and share a meal together once a week.
Some of the women at OWCH are still working, others are retired, and amongst the members there is a doctor, nurse, actress, teacher, osteopath, designers, two dogs and several cats. As one resident said: “I’m not buying a flat, I’m buying a whole life change.” It’s an inspiring story and if you’d like to find out more, visit OWCH or read this extended interview with residents – perhaps you’ll start your own co-housing project.