Home » ‘We have brothers, sons, husbands – but they can’t live here!’ The happy home shared by 26 women

‘We have brothers, sons, husbands – but they can’t live here!’ The happy home shared by 26 women

by Narges Mohammadi

UNITEDKINGDOM/With residents aged from 58 to 94, New Ground is the UK’s first cohousing community exclusively for older women. Setting it up was an 18-year battle – but with soaring numbers of people living alone, is this an idea whose time has come?

Chipping Barnet, a leafy suburb of north London, is an unlikely location for a feminist utopia. Yet it is here, at the top of the high street, past the Susi Earnshaw theatre school and the Joie de Vie patisserie, that you will find Britain’s first cohousing community exclusively for women over 50. The purpose-built development is entirely managed by the women who set it up as an alternative to living alone.

New Ground’s entrance, all glass and bold typography, could easily be mistaken for a co-working space, as could the common room I am ushered into. Everything is bright, airy and spotlessly clean. The walls are lined with sleek white bookcases and a cinema-grade TV screen. The only clue as to the residents’ demographic is an unfinished 1,000-piece jigsaw on a table overlooking the large garden.

I am greeted warmly by the smell of good coffee and a circle of elegantly dressed women. “We range in age from 58 to 94,” says Jude Tisdall, 71, an arts consultant. Like most of the residents, she has lived here since the site’s completion in 2016. “Many of us still work, others volunteer and are active in the community. Someone might come in here and think OK, we are all of an age, but you can’t define us as old.” And it is true that no one here bears any resemblance to the stereotypes of senior citizens, least of all Tisdall, who mentions that she was photographed for a Vogue “rule breakers” issue as “the cohousing pioneer”.

At New Ground there are 25 flats with 26 residents (there is one married couple), eight of which are social rental units. Homes overlook a garden blooming with wildflowers, berries and an orchard. The common meeting room is used for weekly dinners, film nights (where Bill Nighy movies are popular) and yoga classes (“not chair yoga either, proper yoga”). There is also a guest suite for overnight visitors.

The mention of visitors prompts me to ask the burning question. Are men allowed in? “Of course! Everyone asks that,” says Tisdall. “We have brothers, fathers, sons, grandsons, lovers and everything in between. The only thing is they can’t come and live here.”

So, if one of them married a male partner, they would have to move out? “Not necessarily,” laughs Tisdall, who is divorced. “It would be a great excuse to say: ‘I’m sorry, darling. I can’t live with you but we can have great weekends together!”

For the uninitiated, cohousing is nothing like living in a commune. Instead, people occupy individual homes that they can own or rent with additional shared space for socialising, taking classes and gardening. That this is an idea whose time has come, particularly for older people, is indisputable. In 2021, 3.64 million people aged over 65 were living alone in the UK, 70% of whom were women. In 10 years’ time, over-65s will have risen from 19% to an estimated 22% of the population, according to the latest report by the Centre for Ageing Better.

More sobering still, the number of years we can expect to spend without a disabling illness continues to decline – it is now 62.4 years for men and 60.9 years for women. Despite these statistics, cohousing in Britain is still in its infancy. Nearly 20 years after the UK’s first new-build scheme, Springhill, an intergenerational development, opened in Stroud, there are still only 302 homes in 12 new-build communities up and running.

We go on a tour of the site with another resident, Hilary Vernon-Smith, 72. With her lemon-yellow trainers and geometric haircut, she looks every inch the working artist and, in fact, her flat doubles as a studio. Before retirement, she was the head scenic artist at the National Theatre for 28 years. Gesturing towards the central oval lawn, she explains how the women worked closely with the site’s architects. “Research indicates that the dementia-affected brain responds more positively to curves and gets confused by dead-ends, so that was taken into consideration.”

The laid-back vibe means you could be forgiven for underestimating the power of this group. But turning the vision of New Ground into a reality took 18 years of intensive development, education, networking and many, many meetings. Maria Brenton is UK Cohousing Network’s senior ambassador and was instrumental in facilitating New Ground in 1998. “The women who started this were adamant that they didn’t want to sit in a day-room singing Daisy Daisy and Pack Up Your Troubles for the rest of their lives,” she says. “We were fiercely opposed to the ageism and paternalism, the infantilisation of older people by social care services.”

“For me, living in cohousing makes sense but it certainly isn’t for everyone,” she says. “Making decisions together can be quite hard. However, we gave up a house to live in a two-bedroom flat and it really doesn’t feel like we’ve sacrificed anything.”

Mellis Haward, director of Archio Architects, has led many cohousing projects, including Angel Yard (all these sites have storybook names), a developing scheme in Norwich. “For so long we have all been slaves to the housing market and it’s really hard to create intentionally cohesive communities within that. People who are attracted to cohousing usually want purposeful closeness to their neighbors as a big part of their lives. It’s not just about alleviating loneliness – it allows people to become part of an ecosystem of families and individuals.”

Haward believes there needs to be a shift in approach to enable more cohousing to happen quickly because there is interest out there but demand isn’t being met. She suggests that a potential ray of hope may come from an unlikely quarter – mega-developers. “A trend is emerging for developers to build cohousing as an add-on to an existing project.” Have they all suddenly woken up to the benefits of the sharing economy? Maybe not. “I strongly suspect it’s because they know they can quickly shift those homes in advance. There are a large number of people in the cohousing network looking for homes right now. It’s an easy sell. Or maybe they do care about shared values? Maybe I’m just a massive cynic.”

Source: The Guardian

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