Sisters Are Doing it For Themselves
Attitudes to older people in this country are out of date. Most of the older population do not wish to have everything done for them," says Maria Brenton, an outspoken proponent of older people living independently.
She took things into her own hands, tired of the traditional form of retirement housing. For the past 20 years, she has been campaigning and planning for the opening of a different kind of retirement home, one that is run totally by the residents who live in it, supporting each other through old age.
"Our institutions and agencies who deal with older people encourage dependency and are patronising and paternalistic. Older people internalise it, and they learn to wait for people to do things for them. As you get very frail that's OK, but it doesn't stack up for us."
Five of the women on the construction site as their home was being built CREDIT: TIM CROCKER
It all started based on Brenton's research into co-housing, which is popular in the Netherlands and Denmark. "I ran a workshop for women [on cohousing] in London at the end of the Nineties, and a small group afterwards said 'Let's do it'. And I have been working with them ever since."
Now there are 25 of them, a team of women who help look after each other. It's not a commune because while the space is shared by like-minded people, each resident has her own apartment she has bought or rents. The women struggled to buy land and get financing.
But the decades-long struggle has paid off: last week was the official opening. New Ground, which is in Barnet, north London, is the first co-housing development set up just for older women. It is made up of 26 women aged between those in their 50s up to 87, all of whom have found themselves alone but want to retain dignity and independence in old age.
It is made up of 26 women aged between those in their 50s up to 87, all of whom have found themselves alone but want to retain dignity and independence in old age
"It's a very active group," says Brenton, who doesn't live there but is an honorary member. "Some are still working - including the oldest member." It's a diverse group, including two women who are Iranian refugees.
Backed by Hanover Housing, a nonprofit group, one third rent their apartments, and two thirds own, each customised to how they wanted it, and perfectly designed for older people, with wider corridors, a lift, and details such as accessible power plugs. The light-filled apartment block was designed by architects Pollard Thomas Edwards around a communal garden, which is tended to by the residents on a rota system.
New Ground, the co-housing retirement community in Barnet, north London CREDIT: CAROLINE TEO
The community also has a timetable for rotas for cleaning and cooking. Once a week, they share a meal, cooked by four of the residents, and there are group outings and meetings to organise the community. "The architecture is lovely, but the important architecture is the social fabric," says Brenton. "The sense of community doesn't just happen, and we have done a lot to create it and sustain it."
If somebody gets very frail, people will work with her family or social services to get the support they need. "The group rallied when one of their number got ill, and for at least a week someone would bring her a hot meal every day and look after her," says Brenton.
This is the first co-living housing development of its kind, mirroring a trend among millennials working together, and, increasingly, living together. WeWork is an American company that has set up communal offices with desks to rent and amenities such as beer on tap; it recently set up WeLive in New York, with tiny, shoebox-sized apartments around a large living space, where a sense of community has been fostered via cooking classes and movie nights.
In London, The Collective has set up something similar with amenities such as a cinema room and a launderette with a disco ball in it. In Britain, the co-housing trend is in its infancy, partly because it is hard to find financial support for such projects. The retirement community in Barnet is one of just 20 co-housing groups across the country. Twenty more are planned for older people, including one for older gay people.
"One of our purposes is to promote the idea of senior co-housing," says Brenton. "Now we have shown the way, we are a living, breathing example, it will encourage people enormously."
Photographer and Model: Unknown