What if...

we swapped care homes for co-housing?

What if...

Words by Glyn Brown

It’s coming, inevitable as death and taxes – only this is something we can actually get a kick out of. We’re talking about retirement, that period of freedom some long for, some dread, but which could be amazing if we do it right. And the key element to doing it right is organising a stimulating, pleasant and affordable place to live.

Many of us think that means selling up, downsizing and maybe eventually buying a retirement flat in a sheltered community. Perfect, surely? A bit of privacy, an on-site warden and, if you pay a bit more, a dining room, gardener and a doctor’s surgery.

Hmm. There’s a growing feeling among those who can glimpse retirement on the horizon that this is not the scenario we’ve spent our working lives aiming for. There’s a seeping institutional feel as, passively ‘taken care of’, you switch off and drift from independent living to assisted living to nursing home; and of course, you’re surrounded by (yikes) old people, most of whom you won’t know.

Born into relative wealth in Edmonton, London, in 1969 (her father Terry Brady made his fortune in printing, and they had a swimming pool and a Rolls-Royce at home), she was offering beauty treatments for pocket money at six. Later gaining four A-levels, she worked in advertising after school before getting bored, and grabbed a job selling advertising at LBC Radio instead. Desperate to fill empty slots during the long night-time hours, she had the idea of getting Daily Sport editor David Sullivan to use the slots for his paper. She tracked him down to his home in Essex, and convinced him to spend £2m. A year later, impressed by her results, he gave her a director’s role at his company – she was still only 20.

A bigger worry is that though the most attractive of these properties are expensive, many of them, as commentators including Radio 4’s Money Box programme have revealed, fall in value, with around half of new build retirement homes bought during a 10-year period later re-selling at a loss, partly because the lease has dwindled and partly because the managing agent doesn’t invest enough in maintenance. Added to which, apartments can only be sold to the over-50s, so your buying pool is limited. If you’ve had enough and want to move, or die and leave the place to your family, it might sit around for a long time.

But there’s another way. Most of us know someone who’s punted the plan of a group of friends, as they approach their sixties, getting together to buy a large property and share the cost of living so there’s support if needed, autonomy, plus a sense of adventure and fun. This is not a commune, but a place where we can stride into the future alongside like-minded cohorts. The buzz term is ‘co-living’, and the idea comes in many forms.

Buying a property together and sharing the cost of living offers autonomy, plus a sense of adventure

At the top of the scale might be New Ground Co-housing, a women-only complex in High Barnet run along the lines of the shared housing schemes usually targeted at young professionals. The architects’ brief from the women included private apartments plus a shared house containing kitchen, dining areas, laundry and guest spaces. If and when people need help, they might share a carer, but with a wide age range, most will cope with the aid of friendly assistance. An alternative is Beacon Hill in Boston, USA, where a group of neighbours who want to stay put and be surrounded by a mix of ages have started the ‘Village’, a hands-on network where they jointly vet providers like plumbers or home-care, offer each other help with the weekly shop and head out together to films or museums. And back in the UK, retired social worker Jo Muller, 66, and three of her friends have sold their London flats and bought a property near Cambridge, where they were students. They grow vegetables, cook together at weekends, walk their dogs, volunteer and – hilariously – act out Shakespeare plays. Did someone say “all’s well that ends well?

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