"We're not a bunch of hippies," a member of the Older Women's Co-Housing (OWCH) project told the Telegraph Magazine's Sally Williams. Nor are they "man-haters". Whoever would have thought they were? But what they are is a group of 26 women aged between 50 and 86 who have come together to build, literally, a unique retirement community in High Barnet, north London, for older women to "look out for each other, not after each other", says Maria Brenton, 70, a group member and former academic.
They've done so because women are the ones often left behind in our society, they say. This is true in a literal sense. "Women live longer than men," notes Brenton. But it's also true in the sense that "many have fewer resources because they've been cut out of the workforce bringing up children". That obviously makes it harder to get by when the male partner dies.
Retiring can also be a lonely affair. More than half of over-75s living alone in Britain and two-fifths of older people say the television is their main company. As a nation, we are doing "sod all" about this sad situation, says Brenton. The OWCH, however, has done something about it. After 18 years of meeting in coffee shops, when the group ironed out the details of how they were going to live together, the building work will be completed next month. The project follows other successful schemes, such as those in the Netherlands, where there are now 230 senior co-housing communities in a population of 17 million, notes Williams.
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Everyone will either own or rent their newly built flats. The largest have three bedrooms and cost around £400,000. The community will have a common room, communal kitchen, guest rooms, and a garden "all designed to encourage a socially fluid lifestyle: sharing maintenance and gardening tasks, cooking and eating a weekly meal together". Membership is compulsory and costs £60 a year. Shirley Meredeen, 86, launched the project in 1998 and has overseen it from start to finish. "It's a way of retaining your independence and your dignity," she says, "and being among people who can be supportive of you at the same time."
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