Extending our livesInnovative co-housing community for women over 50 challenges an ageist society
People just want to put old people somewhere they can’t see them and forget about us,” says Shirley Mere- deen. But Shirley, and the 26 women she lives with, refuse to be forgotten.
Shirley is one of the founders of New Ground, a co-housing development for women over 50 and, at the age of 91, she takes an active role in educating people about alternative housing options.
In the periphery of High Barnet, tucked behind the High Street, New Ground is a purpose built development with 25 individual flats and communal spaces, both owned, and run, by the women who live there. Providing accommodation for a wide age range of women, the space offers an antidote to the isolation so many feel living alone. Residents are encouraged to participate in communal activities, like weekly dinners and each woman must contribute to the running of the place.
The idea for New Ground Housing was thought up in 1998 when Shirley and her friend Madeleine Levius attended a lecture by Maria Brenton, a scholar at the University of Bristol, on alternative housing models based on the empowerment of the elderly. This was how they wanted to live and nothing would force them into a care home where residents have very little autonomy.
Shirley contacted Maria who has now played an integral role working to establish New Ground, she is also a trustee of the UK Cohousing Trust.
After an 18 year battle to find affordable land in London, New Ground was established in 2016. Planning was met with resistance from the local authority, “a product of an ageist society,” Shirley says. In fact, Barnet Council “blocked them” every step of the way. In London, land is expensive and cash strapped councils reserve the majority for large developers, seeking a profit, making it difficult for smaller companies.
Once New Ground secured a space they worked with architects to custom fit the centre for an ageing population of women. Hanover Housing Association, an innovative not-for-profit, funded the development with a £4.6 million, no interest loan. Repayment was made by individual women who brought their own flats as leaseholders and the organisation Housing for Women who provide eight homes, at affordable rents, for women who do not have their own assets.
“We run the place,” says Shirley which is quite different from the “paternalistic models” of old-age homes or even Almshouses where women have no rights. Shirley perceives a model of living where women are empowered to “learn new skills” to be fundamental to “extending our lives”.
To avoid a hierarchy, it has also been important to protect New Ground as a women’s only space. “Statistically speaking,” Maria says, “older women are more likely to live alone,”. Everyone at New Ground Housing lived alone before they moved in together, either they were divorced, widowed or single. This is
common, as women not only live longer than men but are also less likely to remarry. Considering the fact that women are also likely to be on a lower income than men the need for co-housing is more acute. But, there is also the danger that “men would take control” with women deferring to power and a patriarchy would replace a flat hierarchy.
“We’re not anti-men!” Shirley says emphatically, “they just can’t live here. I was a war child, I learnt everything I know from the war.” She is also a feminist, and her politics have been defined by an era where women sought to create female centred spaces as a way of taking back power. In this same way, the women at New Ground are taking back power for the elderly, “we are making people think again about old age” Shirley says.
“As a society, we don’t treat old people well or think of old age as a rich part of life,” Maria says. You only need to look at the way that the media worships the young, cutting off careers, particularly of women, the moment they begin to show signs of ageing. But this deference to youth is a smokescreen, hiding the reality we will all one day have to face. Britain has an ageing population which comes with challenges, such as, how to fund social care.
By encouraging “people over fifty to take control of their own lives”, Maria thinks that you can change the conversation around care for the elderly, although social care still requires a more robust funding structure. Co-housing can also “delay entry to expensive social care models, or help the women avoid them altogether. Often, entry is triggered by a crisis at the end of a long process of deterioration, caused, to an extent, by isolation and loneliness, as well as unsuitable accommodation.
“New Ground offers the possibility of keeping someone connected and supported if health issues become more serious – that means companionship.” At New Ground, some women do have serious health conditions and “so far, they have managed ok.”
Everything in New Ground has been thoughtfully designed to encourage a community to flourish. Once a convent, women have now lived on this site for 150 years. The twenty-six flats have large windows and small terraces. Fac- ing outwards, the flats look onto a communal plot of grass that appears protected by a fortress of flowers. The lawn itself gives way to a small allotment built on disused land, where Shirley shows me tomatoes, kale, damson and apple trees.
“We all have our own little patches, but we like to leave vegetables out for on another if there’s any going spare,” she says. “You see, when you have ownership of a space, you take care of it,” and everyone who lives here, truly feels that this is their home.
But, after waiting nearly two decades to build the community, is New Ground everything Shirley had hoped for?
“No, it’s not,” she says, “it’s more.”