By Jon Stevens
Recently I saw an extract from a television interview given by the late Terry Pratchett in which he was asked how he was coping with living with his dementia. He replied that it was a great help that he was able to live in ‘a place where I can continue to be me’ and he added ‘I wish everyone else could be in the same wonderful situation’1.
As someone who is involved in thinking about and investigating housing options and choices for older people, it struck me that this simple phrase expressed the aspiration of all older people. And he continued by highlighting the fact that many older people eventually find themselves living in circumstances that are unsatisfactory in one way or another.
The particular and growing housing needs of older people are widely acknowledged; a much-quoted report stated that the UK ‘urgently need(s) to plan how to ensure that the housing needs of our ageing population are better addressed’2. It is further recognised that this is not just a question of increased supply; it is also about providing new housing options and choices for a generation of older people (the so-called ‘baby boomers’) with changing priorities and higher expectations. Six years ago, when I left my full-time job, I had a hunch that this wider range of options and choices should include various forms of housing (and care) that are commissioned, designed, developed, owned and managed by older people themselves. These approaches can be described as cooperative and mutual models.
Co-operative living for older people
I first began to think about housing for older people and the potential of co-operative and mutual models, when I was director of Birmingham Co-operative Housing Services. BCHS provided support to a number of tenant ownership or par value housing cooperatives3 established in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and, during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, we developed a number of new forms of co-operative housing. In undertaking these developments, my colleagues and I sought to identify the factors that seemed to make for successful co-operatives and groups in our society who ‘co-operative living’might appeal to. Over a period of 15 years we examined the experiences of people living in housing cooperatives in England and also in Scotland and Ireland, which had slightly different co-operative traditions. And we looked to Northern Europe, to Denmark and later to Norway and Sweden, to learn from their more extensive and varied forms of cooperative housing.
One immediate and clear observation was that living in a housing co-operatives seemed to work particularly well for many older people and, in talking to older members of co-ops, we identified several reasons for this.
Sociability and conviviality
We observed that the most successful housing co-operatives created lively and inclusive communities, in which their members enjoyed the experience of living together whilst leading independent lives. It was apparent that older people were often at the forefront in building and sustaining these communities and that older people seemed to gain from the social interaction and shared activity that is a feature of many co-ops. We also found that a number of co-ops had recognised that their older members could become lonely and socially isolated, where they lacked support from their families and friends outside of the co-op, and several of them had taken steps to counter this by organising specific programmes and events.
In order to function well, all co-operatives need a core of active members who take on the business of running the co-op, of managing the housing and of looking after the finances. It was notable that in many co-ops, it was often older members that tended take this on. Sometimes this was because older members had particular skills and experience to draw on, sometimes it was because they found it a worthwhile and rewarding way of spending their time (of which they tended to have more than younger members) and sometimes it was because this way of staying active helped them to cope with the ageing process. Often it was all of these and it was apparent that being active in this way could have a significant impact on older people’s
Mutual care and support
It was a feature of many housing co-ops that their members provided each other with a level of mutual help and support than they would be unlikely to receive if they lived in more ‘anonymous’ streets or neighbourhoods. We saw that some older people – as they became more frail and dependent – could receive levels of practical and social care from other co-op members that in other circumstances would only be provided by close family members. In one or two cases this extended into what might be called ‘community nursing’ (or ‘care by the community’ as one co-op member described it) in which older co-op members were able to say living in their own homes often until they died.
Exploring the potential of co-operative and mutual models of housing and care for older people
In the last five years, drawing in this experience, I have been exploring the potential of co-operative and mutual models of housing and care for older people. When I started, I had very little knowledge of older people’s housing as such and I knew even less about the fields of social and health care. I had no clear programme of work; I simply spent time talking to colleagues and acquaintances, I attended various conferences and workshops and I tried to read the endless stream of reports about ‘housing for an ageing society’. I picked up support and sponsorship along the way; particularly from the Confederation of Co-operative Housing, CDS Cooperatives, The UK Cohousing Network and most recently the Housing Learning and Improvement Network. I encountered people who were thinking along similar lines and I discovered some interesting and varied examples of co-operative and mutual housing for older people; some of which had existed unheralded for many years, some of which was in the development stage and some of which were struggling to get off the ground. In time, I produced a number of short reports or accounts (see below) and I was invited to speak at events and workshops.
I gradually gained the sense that I was on the right track – that there is undoubtedly ‘latent demand’ for housing this kind – but I also gained the impression that housing commissioners, developers and producers were extremely cautious about and even resistant to new thinking along these lines. The challenge would be to find ways to empower older people who wanted alternative housing solutions and to overcome this institutional caution and resistance.
One of the organisations that has a growing interest and involvement in researching and promoting community-led housing is the Housing and Communities Research Group. The HCRG has asked me to run a workshop on October 5th (see Seminar Programme below ) at which I will report in more detail on the findings from my investigations and at which I am hoping there will be a lively and constructive discussion: firstly, about the substance, validity and implications of my work and secondly, about how we can stimulate and encourage much greater experimentation and innovation in the provision of housing and care for older people.
Some further reading
A selection of the reports on co-operative and mutual housing for older people that have been produced in the last six years
Glyn Thomas, Keeping Control of Our Lives – Mutual Retirement Housing for Older People (2009), CDS Co-operatives.
Available from www.cds.coop
Maria Brenton, Senior Cohousing Communities – An Alternative Approach for the UK? (2013), Joseph Rowntree
Foundation Programme Paper. Available from www.jrf.org.uk/publications
Jon Stevens, Community-Led Housing for Older People and the Community Right to Build (2013). Housing LIN Viewpoint 40.
Available from www.housinglin.org.uk
Growing Older Together: The Development of Co-operative and Mutual Housing for Older People. Findings from a Round
Table Discussion (2013), CDS Cooperatives, Co-operatives UK and UK Cohousing Network. Available from www.cds.coop
Growing Older Together: The Case for Housing That is Shaped and Controlled by Older People (2013), Housing LIN
Case Study Report. Available from www.housinglin.org.uk
1 From an interview with Sir Terry Pratchett on BBC Breakfast, broadcast on December 11th 2013.
2 From the report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Public Service and Demographic Change called ‘Ready for Ageing?’ published in March 2013. The report asserted that Britain had hardly begun to respond to the policy issues raised by an ageing population; in their words we are ‘woefully underprepared.’
3 Tenant ownership co-operatives operate under the same regulatory and funding regime as housing associations. The co-operative owns the properties and the tenants/members pay affordable rents to the co-operative, which they collectively own and manage.