With its radical moves to combine collective accommodation and social care, cohousing is revolutionising life for older people in Britain. Andrew Chilvers reports.

Included in this article:

  • Cohousing in Fife
  • Housing for Women
  • Older Women’s cohousing (Owch)
  • Funding the venture

With personal budgets becoming an increasingly popular way for older people to control their social care provision, some groups are looking at ways to revolutionise their care and accommodation requirements.

One such experiment that has largely been ignored by the politicians and local authorities is cohousing. This is where a group of older people club together to buy a site, build flats or maisonettes and move in. The idea is to live an independent life with neighbours nearby for support if needed.

The scheme links ideally with the Government's drive towards more independent social care provision and less state involvement in housing and welfare. Moreover, those involved with cohousing claim they can hire care staff among the collective and keep an eye on those members of their community who become increasingly frail. So cohousing also helps overcome the issues of loneliness and isolation that haunt older people.

The movement is already popular in Europe, Australia and the US, where cohousing networks are a proven success. But it has yet to take off in Britain where individual home ownership is more common and where housing associations and local authorities tend to focus their funds more on homeless individuals rather than older people's groups.

Cohousing in Fife

Hugh Hoffman is a member of Vivarium, a charitable cohousing group comprising 25 over 50s members in Fife. The group is currently lobbying the Scottish government to look more closely at how the cohousing movement can help to drive the idea of communities taking charge of their own decisions, rather than relying on the state.

“Cohousing is to do with a choice of lifestyle and having social support,” Hugh says. “The choice is made for people who want to continue to live an independent life, rather than looking at getting older as a problem for society."

“It goes against a lot of administrative procedures, such as providing housing grants. They tend to be allocated to housing associations on the basis of housing need and we don’t fit into that criterion, so that source of support is not obviously available.”

Hugh has also been active, speaking at conferences, but he admits it will take “a lot of lobbying before any changes of policy occur”.

While Hugh’s lobbying has been partially successful at gaining a sympathetic ear at regional government level, he believes Vivarium still has a way to go before policy makers change their views: “Cohousing is novel in Britain. It’s not a ‘60s commune, it’s not a care home, it’s not sheltered housing, but it’s got elements of all of them. So we have to come up with a way of showing that to people.”

Housing for Women

Meanwhile, south of the border other groups are starting to take the cohousing idea a step further than Vivarium. For Elizabeth Clarson, chief executive of Housing for Women – a London-based housing association – the concept of cohousing beginning with the community rather than simply bricks and mortar is something worth promoting.

What is attractive for Elizabeth is that cohousing is accommodation for the elderly that is not imposed from above. “We find the idea very attractive because it is giving choice and it’s enabling the residents of a cohousing group to be in charge of themselves,” she says. “They are the ones who will be taking the decisions. They may well opt to contract management services to us or another body, but they will definitely be in charge.”

Moreover, Elizabeth believes the idea cuts across the stereotypical view of old age as being ‘done to’.

“And it satisfies a lot of current concerns about residents’ choices and people being in charge of their own life and sorting out the management themselves,” she adds. “We feel it is a good concept for people who are growing older because it will hopefully cut down on the isolation that many older people feel.”

“I think it could become one of the options for housing for older people in the future if we can make it a reality, which we are working towards. Not quite there yet, but getting there.”

Older Women's CoHousing (Owch)

Likewise, a group of older women in London that believes it’s only a matter of time before a successful cohousing movement exists in Britain is the Older Women’s CoHousing group (Owch).

Owch first set up more than 10 years ago as a loose network of women who were over 50 years old and wanted to opt for some kind of collective living in London. Owch has a core membership of 24 women with the idea to develop two cohousing developments in London. Any equity is pooled between the group, so a third would be owners, a third shared owners and the final third social renters.

“The ethos is very strong around mutual, day-to-day support,” says spokesperson Maria Brenton. “We’ve had several people breaking bones during the past few years. Mentally and physically you feel better when you know other people are around and you know you’re not going to be vulnerable.”

So members of Owch provide support if neighbours are ill or lonely, while with the more serious caring issues they will act as advocates to receive all the necessary care they’re entitled to.

“Connected with the mutual support is the possibility of pooling together care package resources,” Maria adds. “That is hiring staff between the group and employing them ourselves. Hire, fire and get them to come in at the times we want them. It reduces the awful dependence on the state services, which is where they come in when they want to.”

To achieve this care package, Owch would set up its own company. Maria’s logic is that this would make any funds from individual budgets go further by pooling such resources and hiring the same staff: “We’ve heard very frightening stories about carers coming into work in homes who aren’t the right people working with the elderly who are vulnerable. It needs people around to keep an eye on what’s happening.”

“I’m looking forward to living in a place where I can be young and when I start to get frail the place will still suit my needs.”

Funding the venture

To fund the venture, Owch has a grant from the Housing Corporation, which allows the group to purchase a site anywhere in Greater London. These funds, however, have to be expended through a housing association that will develop the site for them.

Most of the brownfield sites that have been identified so far are ex-factories or hostels and are valuable commercial land that tends to sell to the private sector almost immediately. “The sites we’re hearing about are there one day and gone the next,” Maria complains. “If this were a private initiative, we could take it over tomorrow.”

Recently, the group managed to secure a site in the London borough of Brent, but the project unravelled after two frustrating years.

“We had all the plans drawn up, several of them to satisfy the planners,” Maria says. “We were down to the fine detail of the building with the project manager and then a new planning officer came along and said we were blocking the eyeline of a grade 2 listed building. So we were bumped off the project.”

Unsurprisingly, Maria is critical of how local government handles older people's housing issues. She believes older people are not high on the list of priorities: “When I talk to local authorities, the last group they’re interested in is us (older people). And I can’t count how many housing associations we’ve had meetings with. For the first five minutes they’re enthusiastic, then it goes into their bureaucracy and they have no interest in building something from the ground up. They haven’t got time for older people who already have homes.”

Maria has also upset the sheltered housing movement by claiming her members “don’t want to go into sheltered housing. It’s full of strangers who don’t know each other, whose values are different and who have never agreed to live together”.

Meanwhile, members of Owch continue to lobby central and local government, with mixed results. But they’re convinced that cohousing can be a viable solution to the housing and social care crisis facing the UK’s elderly people. To date, they have had a sympathetic ear from policy makers, but no firm assurances.

But with Owch now working closely with Elizabeth Clarson’s Housing for Women, most agree that it’s only a matter of time before cohousing projects take the initiative on older peoples care and accommodation.

“We hope it will give older people something to look forward to,” Elizabeth says. “That it will become a model that can be replicated for other groups.”