Five years ago, Jayne Nelson watched her 94 year-old mother die. ‘She refused to leave home and she complained of loneliness all the time. It was so painful to watch. She somehow felt my sister and I should be able to sort it out, although neither of us lived nearby. Knowing what I’d felt about trying to help her, and that nothing could decrease her unhappiness, I never wanted my children to experience that.’
Jayne, who is now 72, was divorced in the 1970s and brought up three children as a single parent. ‘I’ve always been aware that women usually end up living on their own and I don’t want to end up as a solitary person in an old people’s home. I’ve been a member of women’s groups and had a lot of women friends and I’ve felt for a long time that women need to find a way of living together in old age.’
She spotted a possible way to do that about 10 years ago, when a friend invited her to a meeting of a fledgling cohousing group. ‘Like a lot of people when they first hear about cohousing, I assumed it was a sort of co-op, which I knew wasn’t for me, because it demands too much commitment.’ She went along anyway and discovered that cohousing, which has had success in Denmark, Holland and the United States, emphasizes privacy as much as companionship by providing fully private homes and communal spaces. ‘I knew straight away it was what I wanted.’
The group was OWCH (pronounced ouch): the Older Women’s CoHousing group. Its members now range in age from 50 to the mid-80s and Shirley Meredeen, who celebrated her 80th birthday this week, was one of its three founders. For the 10 years she has been involved, the group has been trying to find a suitable site. One co-founder has died. ‘When Madeleine was dying, I think it was the last conversation I had with her, she said: “You will make sure it happens, won’t you?” At her grave, I said I would.’
It has proved easier said than done. The group has come close once with a site in Wembley, for which they drew up architects’ plans. At the last minute, the church that owned the land decided it could make more money selling to a private developer. Currently, the group is looking at a site in Barnet (the outer London borough run by the so-called Easy Council, aiming to provide minimal low-cost services). ‘It’s the best site we’ve ever been offered, Shirley says. ‘It’s been bought for us by Hanover Housing Association, which specialises in old people, and we have a very sympathetic architect, who’s drawn up rough plans. We think we fit in with the council’s self-help philosophy, but we are at a delicate stage of negotiations; it’s not clear it’s going to happen.’
OWCH could have found a site sooner if they’d been prepared to have an entirely private cohousing scheme. They wanted instead an equal mixture of private, social housing and mixed-tenure flats (part-rented, part-owned). ‘We knew we didn’t want fewer than 20 households, to avoid arguments and cliques, but neither did we want to get too big,’ Jayne says. They settled on an ideal size of 24 one and two bedroom flats, although this may go up to 30 if they get the Barnet site. Most will be single occupancy, although there is one lesbian couple currently. (Most OWCH members consider themselves heterosexual).
‘Initially, we wanted a scheme in inner London – Islington or Camden, because that’s where most of us live,’ Shirley says, ‘but land prices made it impossible. I wasn’t originally intending to go to Barnet, because I’ve got a very nice flat here in Islington, but then I thought about breaking an arm and being on my own, or being ill on my own. In a community, there’s always someone to support you.’
OWCH members are very clear that they won’t become each other’s carers, but they will help each other out. ‘Living in a cohousing scheme means that when my children ring up and don’t get an answer, they won’t have to worry that I’ve fallen down dead. They’ll know someone is seeing me all the time,’ Shirley says. ‘It’s a positive step, choosing to remain independent longer, thereby extending your life.’
‘If someone needs care,’ Jayne explains, ‘they can make the same arrangements they would otherwise. People will have a choice of having a flat large enough to house a full-time carer. And it will be possible to book a guest room, although not for the long-term.’
Members intend to combine their shopping trips and bulk-buy. They will share cars and eat together on a regular basis. When they have resolved the occupancy of the flats (if they get the go-ahead from Barnet, they intend to recruit locally,) they will agree on other communal space and activity – a craft room, a library or a large all-purpose sitting room. They do know they want any corridors to be as much like streets as possible, with sitting areas and everyone having a window that looks onto them.
The benefit of having searched for a site so long is that they’ve had years of getting to know each other. ‘People have to come to at least three meetings before they can join,’ Jayne says. ‘Then they have to commit themselves to our values – reading all the policies, joining a task group, supporting facilitators at meetings, respecting difference, taking responsibility for resolving conflict. We have consensus decision-making rather than democratic, so we aim to reach a position on which everyone can agree, which can be tiring. Membership isn’t automatically renewed at the end of the year; you sit down with two other members and talk through the extent to which you’ve kept to your commitments.’
Over the years, hundreds of women have looked at the group and decided it’s not for them, or that they’re not ready for it, but there has always been a core of members solid enough to keep going. We may not all like each other, but we all respect each other,’ Jayne says. ‘Some of us will go to Barnet, if we get the site there, and we’ll acquire new members who will join specifically be part of the Barnet group, but we fully expect there to be others who will go on and found a second OWCH scheme somewhere else.’
Most OWCH members were at Shirley’s 80th birthday party last Sunday; they have become very close friends. ‘Home has always been very important to me, but bricks and mortar don’t do it,’ Jayne says. ‘The community I’ve developed are the people I want to end up with. It would be great to open the door and next door is my best mate.’
The original members emerged from feminist groups, although OWCH has become ‘broader and more eclectic,’ over the years, according to Jayne. She spent much of her working life as an administrator in a polytechnic, then got a grant to do an MA in women’s studies at Kent University. ‘We wanted to be a women-only group because of the experience of our generation, which was that men were not denied promotion or upgrades in salary because of their sex. A lot of us have had the experience in mixed settings of feeling that we’re not heard. Lots of men have advised us, and they’ve been great, but we wanted to feel that we were making our own choices.’
She hasn’t been to see the Barnet site. ‘It hurts too much. I’ve done it too many times now. I get involved. I start looking at the area, checking out libraries, hospitals, parks. We want it so much. We’ve wanted it so much for such a long time.’
There has been no lack of support. Ken Livingstone backed the group at the GLA when he was Mayor of London and, early on, they were taken up by The Housing Corporation, a now defunct government-backed umbrella group for housing associations. The trouble has usually been with getting councils to agree planning permission. ‘We’d be offered a site, but it would be at the end of a lonely dark street, nowhere near GPs or hospitals, or there would only be room for eight flats,’ Shirley says. ‘Or we’d be rejected out of hand because we’re old and so not a housing priority.’
It remains to be seen whether OWCH’s ambitions are too great for a city in which land prices are prohibitive and there is so little understanding of cohousing. It is hard to see why there should be such inertia: the do-it-yourself care model is very fashionable. Cohousing does require innovative architecture, but that should be a challenge and a delight for architects, and doesn’t have to be any more expensive. And mixed tenure may be more complicated to finance, but it is what local authorities say they want.
Some of the principles underlying cohousing may well be adaptable to other forms of housing for older people. Cohousing certainly isn’t for everyone, anyway; it requires a collaborative mindset, and Chuck Durrett, one of the world’s leading authorities and a prolific architect of cohousing, insists that the preparatory stage – the theory of what you want and why – is even more important than the design phase. Opting for cohousing is a major undertaking, involving a lot of meetings and interrogations of yourself and how you want to live.
So it’s not a universal solution; but it’s better than an awful lot of other options for older people. It certainly shouldn’t be beyond the reach of one of the world’s great cities to fulfil OWCH’s ambitions. In the meantime, the group’s tenacity and conviction are impressive. They’ve chosen cohousing for older people, not because they don’t want younger ones around, but because they feel that a larger group of elders would be better equipped to look after each other. They have chosen to be women on their own because women tend to live longer and end up alone, and because they feel that this is the way they can make better decisions and support each other more effectively.
‘We don’t want to be a ghetto,’ Shirley says. ‘We want to join the community. But you can only do that if you’re not lonely and frightened to open your front door. Older women are often seen as pathetic, invisible, needing help – well, we’re not going to be that. We’re valuable members of society and we don’t want to live just through our grandchildren. It will be much better for them, as well as us, if our brains continue to work and we can give back. With cohousing, we would put less demand on social services and less on the health services. It wouldn’t mean replacing them, but delaying the full need, and that would be good for everyone.’