Janet Wood is excited to start gardening. The 61-year-old has lived in London all her life but has never had a patch of grass to look after. Now her life is transformed.
Janet’s a member of Older Women’s Co-Housing (OWCH). The group, all aged 50-86, has fought for 20 years to launch London’s first co-housing community for older people. Like other co-housing communities, the residents of OWCH’s property in High Barnet live in individual flats built around a shared space. They’re managing the building themselves and each has an equal voice in how it’s run. The 26 residents are mainly retired. Most are single, but there’s one couple. They have group meals together, share cars and a communal kitchen (although each has her own too). If a member is unwell another will do her shopping. If members start needing professional care then they’ll share that too. Janet’s in charge of housekeeping, but is most eager to get to grips with the vegetable patch, garden and orchard. She reels off new hobbies – from jewellery making to tai chi.
‘All the people I knew moved or died’ - Janet
It’s easy to think that older people have it easy: owning houses and having savings to splash out if they downsize. But just having a place to live doesn’t equal quality of life.
Our city’s oldest residents are lonely. In the UK, more than half of people aged over 75 live alone. A 2013 Age UK study found that two-fifths of older people say that television is their main company. Janet, who has poor hearing, struggled with loneliness in her old council flat in Finchley. ‘All the people I knew moved or died,’ she tells me as I sink into her cosy sofa. She’s delighted to be part of a community, with people looking out for her. ‘My daughter’s ecstatic that I’m here,’ she says. ‘It’s taken away all worries for her knowing that if I didn’t pull my blinds up in the morning somebody would immediately pick up on it.’
In the Netherlands, co-housing’s been seen as a solution to the loneliness epidemic for years. There are more than 230 communities for older people there. In the UK, though, it’s still a new concept. While London has gained a couple of projects since 2012, they’re targeted at young people and families. There’s Copper Lane, home to six families in Hackney. They live separately but share outdoor space, a laundry and a communal room. Then there’s The Collective in Willesden: the world’s biggest co-living community. It’s home to 500 young professionals, and has ‘entertainment spaces’ that look like the chill out zones in Silicon Valley offices, and ‘community managers’ to organise events. Now these projects have been joined by OWCH.
The last remaining founding member of OWCH is 86-year-old Shirley Meresdeen. She first heard about co-housing at a talk given by researcher Maria Brenton in 1998.
‘I decided I didn’t want to fade away. I wanted something to live for’ - Shirley
‘I was 67 and happily living alone,’ Shirley tells me, as she sits at her kitchen table, a Matisse print on the wall behind her. ‘I decided I didn’t want to fade away. I wanted something to live for.’ Shirley left the workshop determined to start her own housing collective. The next weekend she held the first OWCH meeting. Eight women came along. With the help of Maria those meetings continued for 20 years. Shirley explains: ‘We’re independent women who wanted to take charge of our lives even in our later years. We felt it would extend the quality of our lives.’
Together they came up with a plan, bringing together a diverse community of women in a mixture of bought and rented properties. OWCH’s most controversial rule is ‘no men allowed’. (They can stay overnight, but can’t move in.) The official reason for this is ‘people of the same gender are better able to give intimate care’, but that’s not all. ‘We’ve all found that in working with men, they tend to dominate,’ says Shirley, who explains loneliness hits women harder than men as they live longer. ‘If men want one then they can start their own.’ It was the group’s decision to use rented flats that slowed down OWCH’s progress. It meant getting support from housing associations and local authorities, many of whom hadn’t heard of co-housing and were focused on helping young people. ‘They’d say, “We can’t offer you any land, we’ve got to prioritise younger people,” ’ says Shirley.
‘Some members died, others just got fed up, but we persisted doggedly’ - Maria
Eventually they found a developer who funded the project. The rental flats were bought by the association Housing for Women, thanks to a charity grant. As well as the 26 members living in High Barnet, OWCH aim to have 12 non-resident members who attend meetings. If a resident dies or moves out, one of these members will move in, depending on the age balance at the time. Shirley says: ‘We’ve had people come saying: “I’m 86, can I join?” But we’re looking for younger people to take over when people like me die.’
The 20-year wait has been so tough that there were times Maria didn’t think it would happen, but it’s brought the group closer. When one member fell terminally ill, a group took her on a last trip to the seaside. When another had a heart operation, a group travelled across London to organise a 24-hour care rota. ‘We’ve been through eight different planning associations and four different sites,’ Maria says. ‘Some members died, others just got fed up, but we persisted doggedly.’
The OWCH women are inspiring. They’ve made history at a stage of life often written off as ‘retirement’, and proved sexist and ageist stereotypes of older women wrong. More than that, though, their success is a model for a community-driven life in a city that’s increasingly lonely for people of all ages. For Janet, it’s a new beginning. ‘I need at least another 30 years,’ she laughs. ‘I want to have my hundredth birthday here.’