How the rise of cohousing is enriching seniors' lives

Angeles Rodenas 14 July 2022

Cohousing could help older people retain independence and reduce loneliness in their senior years. Meet the women pioneering senior cohabitation

The residents of New Ground consider themselves lucky. They live in the only senior women’s cohousing project in the UK.

Built five years ago in Barnet, London, the community of 25 flats and shared spaces is run by the women themselves, under the principles of mutual aid, active participation and social inclusion.

Chatting in her bright two-bedroom flat, Shirley Meredeen doesn’t hesitate in describing the benefits of living here. “It keeps my brain going. We are all very active because there is so much to do… It’s good mentally, socially and physically."

Above all, she stresses, “it’s a really supportive community." At 91, Meredeen lives independently knowing that her neighbours look out for each other, not after each other.

In practical terms this means collecting prescriptions from the chemist, accompanying to medical appointments, doing the local shopping, and—since the pandemic—having a health buddy with detailed medical information and family contacts in preparation for an emergency.

The generally harmonious coexistence wouldn’t have been possible without a conscious effort to build the foundations of the community: social activities to get to know each other and workshops on conflict resolution, equality and diversity where they learned to deal with difficulties.

“I am obstinate, like most of the women here—which creates problems sometimes—but we wouldn’t have got where we are otherwise," admits Meredeen.

In a highly organised fashion, the residents have created 28 teams according to their interests and knowledge to deal with daily issues. Then, decisions are taken collectively once a month.

Meredeen belongs to Membership, Communications and, as a pedestrian, the Car Park group, as they felt it was important to have the views of a non-driver.

She used to be in Gardening too, but when it became too much physically she swapped activity rather than slowing down, living up to the collaborative spirit that imbues every inch of the lively community.

“Cooperation is of the essence. One has to be willing to work and have an open mind," she adds. A commitment that, she acknowledges, is not for everybody.

A social solution for societal pressures

New Ground resident checks her purple, green and white mailboxCredit: Angeles Rodenas. The residents' mail boxes display the colours of the suffragettes

Creating New Ground was an 18-year-struggle for Meredeen. In 1998, she was retired and separated from her husband when she attended a presentation by then-university researcher, Maria Brenton, about the concept of cohousing as developed in the Netherlands.

“There, the government decided to invest in societal ageing. They helped promote these groups because they understood that older people would be happier being more autonomous. Keeping active would reduce their demands on health and social care," explains Brenton.

The idea started in Denmark in the Sixties and it soon expanded to Sweden and the Netherlands, where there are around 300 projects to date, before it reached the United States in the 1990s. At that time, it was a revolutionary concept in the UK.

At the end of the presentation, Meredeen and her friend Madeleine Levius, who passed away in 2005, decided to create the Older Women Cohousing (OWCH) to replicate the Dutch collaborative model with one marked difference—their project would be for women only.

"OWCH members didn’t want to constantly be having to defer to the will of men"

“Older men’s attitudes are very unreconstructed. They didn’t go through this sort of feminist wave," says Brenton, OWCH member who has become ambassador for the British cohousing movement

"OWCH members didn’t want to constantly be having to defer to the will of men who think they can take all the decisions, which these days is more likely to happen in groups of older people rather than younger ones.”

They didn’t imagine that it would take so long, and some women gave up the fight throughout the years. They had to navigate sexist attitudes and compete with big developers for skyrocketing-prices of land.

Also, their intention to allocate eight of the flats in the development to social renting made the conversations with decision makers very difficult.

Brenton remembers that councils always compared their pioneering idea to sheltered accommodation and saw it as a burden for their already overstretched budgets. “They were deaf and conservative—not helpful," she concludes.

Senior cohabitation improves health and happiness

New Ground senior cohousing residents work in the greenhouseCredit: Angeles Rodenas. The greenhouse provides plenty of work and are a source of pride for the residents

For Melissa Fernández Arrigoitia, lecturer in Urban Futures at the University of Lancaster and researcher on community-led housing, the women’s proposal was a “radical” departure from the conventional understanding of later life.

“They presented a new way of living together based on interdependence. They wanted to take control of their future instead of relying on their families or care homes," she says. 

"They wanted to take control of their future instead of relying on their families or care homes"

The novelty of the idea coupled with the lack of data to prove the social and economical benefits it was claimed came from senior cohousing made it difficult for decision makers and stake holders to get on board.

The lack of research remains a hindrance to accessing public money. One of the few reports was published last November, commissioned by the government and carried out by academics from London School of Economics, Bristol, Northumbria and Lancaster.

It gave empirical backing to the intuitive idea that a shared living environment and group activities reduce loneliness and improve wellbeing.

Cohousing advocates go further: tackling isolation prevents depression and physical health issues that put pressure on public services.

Community-led living

In the end, the developer Hanover bought the site and allowed the women to select the architects.

Pollard Thomas Edward was chosen as “a very participative firm that allowed the group to have a strong voice in the design—recognised with several awards—for which we are eternally grateful”, says Brenton, who supported the project throughout.

The women sold their own properties in order to pay for the new ones. The housing association Housing for Women bought and now manages the remaining eight flats for social renters.

The complex comprises one, two and three-bedroom flats as well as a communal kitchen, meeting room, laundry, garden, orchard, car park with an electric car charging station and a guest room, now made available to displaced Ukrainians.

Beyond the humanitarian gesture, residents are keen to show that New Ground is not, as Brenton puts it, “a gated community but open to the outside world."

During the pandemic, they donated food to the staff of their local hospital and they are now planning to offer their various skills in a series of webinars.

If social integration makes them proud, the lack of diversity in New Ground is something they regret. Both Brenton and Meredeen agree that it is a generational problem.

In the Afro-Caribbean and South Asian groups they contacted in the Eighties, older women didn’t want to join the project as for them it would be “a reflection of the failure of their family," says Brenton.

Younger generations have a different mindset, however, and OWCH’s extended membership, Brenton argues, is more diverse.

The future is bright for elder cohousing

New Ground cohousing residents sit on chairs talking to researchersCredit: Angeles Rodenas. Some residents participate in a research session with academics Fernández Arrigoitia (second right) and Kath Scanlon

New Ground's waiting list is growing, but the current occupants are in no hurry to vacate their flats. Meredeen hopes to stay here until the end. “This is the difference with cohousing for young people—that is transient. This is a place where you come to live and possibly to die."

She thinks that the setup is suitable for someone with dementia or a physical disability.

Carers or relatives can support residents as they would do in conventional housing, though the limits of informal care among residents without compromising the wellbeing of the whole community still needs to be worked out.

According to OWCH, 3.64 million people over 65 live on their own in the UK. Almost 70 per cent of them are women, and yet New Ground is still the exception.

"Cohousing for young people is transient. This is a place where you come to live and possibly to die"

“It is a shining example," says Brenton, amid a “very paternalistic, patronising and ageist approach to old people," where institutions “construct and reinforce dependency” of old people.

However, support for community-led housing is starting to emerge in the form of guidance and funding and, although it can take between six to ten years to complete, according to UK Cohousing Network there are 19 cohousing communities built and 60 in development.

OWCH has paved the way to alternative living arrangements in later life and Fernández Arrigoitia thinks the current situation encourages this model to thrive.

“Cohousing has the ability to respond to multiple crises that are going to keep growing: housing, health, ageing, the environment… If politicians are willing to see its potential, then the model has a bright future.”

Read more: How the young and old are living harmoniously

Read more: The future of care: Assisted living

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