Cohousing for older people, Maria Brenton

Cohousing is often mooted as a serious housing option for older people. As exemplified by ‘New Ground Cohousing’, a project for 50 year-old-plus women in North London, explained here by co-founder and UK Cohousing Trust board member, Maria Brenton…

THERE are so many older people living alone in this country, and so many people who feel lonely and do not know their neighbours, that, if we are serious about trying to find a solution, then we must consider the option of cohousing.

Never has this need been so apparent as during the past year of COVID-19 lockdowns.   

Cohousing is about staying in charge of your life. It is often defined as an ‘intentional community’, whereby people develop housing designed for them to function pro-actively as a group of neighbours, each living in their own self-contained home, but all sharing core values, common space and, to an extent, common meals.

Cohousing is being able to manage your environment with others. It is about being able to design your own home and live collaboratively with neighbours while still respecting privacy.

My own involvement with cohousing began many years ago, in 1998, when a group of women in the 50+ age-group came together in a workshop I ran on Dutch senior cohousing and decided to develop their own community in London. 

I had been funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and then the Housing Corporation, to research cohousing on the continent, mainly in the Netherlands. I decided to help the project happen and I am now a member of the ‘New Ground’ community, though non-resident. 

The group, OWCH or Older Women’s Cohousing, began at the end of the 1990s, long before any of the current community-led housing support mechanisms were created.

At the time, we very much felt we were working on our own and in a relative vacuum. It felt also that we were operating in a fairly hostile environment, not least because housing providers tended to think they knew best for our age group, and that older people should be grateful for what they came up with.

Senior cohousing, I would argue, is an antidote to the institutional age-ism that pervades British culture.

The members of our original group were of a like mind: they didn’t want to be lonely and they also didn’t want to move into residential care (where someone else shapes their day) or create sheltered housing (where they would have little or no voice).

They wanted to continue to be active agents of their own lives, and certainly not infantilised or patronised.

Back then, only a tiny percentage of our housing stock had been designed to be fully age-proofed. I fear that number hasn’t changed much since. Our group began to think about designing homes that would suit someone right to the very end of their life, without having to move.

With the help of a housing association, a site – a former school, in High Barnet – was found and purchased. 

The involvement of the housing association was crucial, in that we didn’t have ready finance ourselves to purchase and develop the site and the group also wanted to be mixed tenure. 

The housing association allowed the group to choose the architects with whom we set to work to influence the design of the housing to our own brief.

In workshops, we aimed at the features we felt were necessary for cohousing to succeed and a lot of thought went into a design which encouraged being able to meet each other easily and casually and hold meetings and share meals and leisure activities.  

The ‘New Ground’ building has won a number of architectural awards and is an attractive, quiet setting to live in – around large, enclosed flower and vegetable gardens – two minutes away from the high street in High Barnet, with its handy shops, banks, buses, etc. 

Our frontage continues a terrace of Victorian cottages, which the architects sought to reference without it being pastiche.

We were represented on the scheme’s project board all the way through and worked with the housing association developer and construction firm, quite closely. 

We sought to keep a certain discipline with the interior design, because there is nothing worse – for costs and efficiency purposes – than everyone wanting different features or making constant changes.

Those who moved in could choose from a set palette of kitchen and bathroom styles and colours and floor coverings and were able to customise their new homes up to a certain point.

Large windows and generous individual balconies and patios give a welcome sense of personal space. Lift access is available to all floors and every flat is wheelchair-compliant. 

The resulting project is 25 flats for the 26 women of 50+ years who moved in as ‘ready-made neighbours’ at the end of 2016.

As a group, they are inter-generational, with an age-range spanning two generations. The scheme is mainly a mix of one and two-bedroom, but some three-bedroom, flats, plus a shared laundry, a common house, guest quarters and a car park.

Two-thirds of the properties are owner-occupied (leasehold), with the remainder rented from a small housing association, a long-term ally, which purchased the flats from the developer with help from a charitable trust.

It was always the group’s aim to be mixed tenure, and this works very well, with no discernible difference between owners and tenants. Everyone has the same voice and the same rights and contributes what she can to the life of the community.

The physical architecture of a cohousing project can be great, but it is the social architecture that makes ‘New Ground’ stand out.

Because cohousing is dedicated to building a community, it is not something that happens by accident.

For a cohousing community to really work well, it means consciously adopting ways of gelling the group, seeking agreement on what’s important, taking decisions by consensus, sharing responsibility and finding ways to deal with any problems or conflicts that arise.

When I was doing my research in the Netherlands, one observation that really struck me was from a group who wished they had spent as much time and effort building a sense of community as they had the physical houses.    

The UK Cohousing Network is developing a ‘cohousing coaching’ resource to help groups develop their social capital. It is an important dimension that should not be neglected.

Looking back at the preparatory period, how did we build group trust and solidarity?

The project took many years but this was because it was well ahead of its time, particularly for this age-group.

Nowadays, cohousing is more generally recognised and there are more supports available today.

We put the time to good use, meeting for a full day each month, forming small task groups for things like marketing and recruitment and reaching out to the housing sector. We went quite far with some housing associations, only for a scheme to fall through or a site to be lost.

Just dealing with constant disappointment was a ‘gelling factor’ for the group!  

The women, with roots in the feminist movement, had all kinds of emotional intelligence, skills and experience to draw upon. We ran team-building exercises and workshops to hammer out a vision, core values and agreed policies for the future.

We undertook training in inclusiveness and diversity, facilitated discussions on the meaning of ‘mutual support’, and developed ways to make decisions and deal with conflict.

We also had fun. We organised weekends away, always shared very sociable meals and livened up meetings with singing, dancing and games.

All this has been a great investment for life at ‘New Ground’ today.  The membership of the group was ever-changing, as people came and went again, getting fed up with waiting, or housing needs becoming urgent.

At first, every meeting seemed to involve new people and new faces but, when the Barnet site emerged, our numbers were gradually shaped to the capacity of the site. 

Don’t expect perfection when you move in. But it can be a really successful form of imperfection.

Cohousing has proven itself time and time again. OWCH members would say: ‘We have our disagreements, but we respect each other and are very willing to be helpful and supportive.’

COVID-19 makes us reflect on how lonely life could have been, and grateful that New Ground exists.

COVID means use of the common house is limited and common meals are on hold, but the group is still doing things collectively – socially-distanced gatherings and keep fit in the garden during the summer months, in the common room this winter.

Online video calls have made possible a plethora of discussion groups on film or theatre or memoir writing or just for chat, as well as the monthly community meetings where work teams report and decisions are made.

Individuals do bulk ordering; others run errands for anyone who is shielded; meals are produced if someone gets sick. So far, no Covid infections and a growing number of vaccinations. The community looks forward to spring!

Maria Brenton is a former academic, who worked, for many years, with the OWCH (Older Women’s Cohousing) group, acknowledged as the UK’s first senior cohousing community.

She is a board member of the UK Cohousing Trust and is currently advising London Older Lesbians Cohousing (LOLC).

This article was prompted by a presentation Maria gave to a community-led housing conference, held on January 19 2021 by Hampshire Homes Hub.

Picture: New Ground. Picture credit: Maria Brenton

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