Retiring the retirement village


Retiring the retirement village

The segregation of older people in closed communities is surely one of the most startling social trends of the last century. But life in even the most luxurious and expensive old-age development means a loss of autonomy and the harsh predictability of the continuing care model. ANNELIZE VISSER presents the case for a new plan.


SHE was a wilful woman in anyone's book. A militant French feminist who opposed her beloved Roman Catholic Church's disregard for women's rights, she protested in the streets of Paris against wars in Indo-China and Algeria, and took pity on female victims of violence.

But even activists are overtaken by age eventually, and when she was 73 Thérèse Clerc began to think about retirement. And she realised that abiding by someone else's rules and timetables would not suit her.

Her plan was to establish a self-sufficient retirement home where women could live freely, independently and meaningfully while supporting each other. For this purpose, she had a six-storey building erected in the suburb of Montreuil. The French government contributed €4 million on the basis that the residents would not be dependent on other government services.

In accordance with her conviction that you are never too old to learn, Clerc set up a university on the ground floor of the building that is accessible to the wider community. Here the Babayagas, as residents are known (it means “witch", according to Slavic mythology), can share decades of accumulated knowledge and continue their political, social and cultural involvement.

“Stay smart, stay healthy," was Clerc's motto. In other words, let's not die of boredom.

We are wilful

The Babayaga House is an “intentional community" — one created with the sole purpose of serving a particular set of interests, principles and needs. Examples include religious enclaves, green settlements and, increasingly, groups of wilful old people who don't want to follow rules they didn't make.

They're particularly popular among the second wave of Boomers — people born between 1955 and 1965 and therefore now reaching “retirement age" — who want an alternative to the walled, age-segregated retirement resort with its hierarchical management, one-sided rules and profit-driven levies.

The continuing-care model, which stipulates that you progress behind these same gates from self-care to an assisted living unit, an infirmary and then your funeral, has become the standard model for middle-class retirement since the 1990s. But this one-pattern-fits-all solution is far too restrictive for a generation who grew up with the expectation that life will only get better.

Whose ‘lifestyle’ is this?

Boomers enter their sixties with the expectation that they will be fit and healthy for decades to come, perhaps complete a marathon or two, continue their careers or start a new business, further their studies or study in a new direction, perhaps start new relationships and discover new worlds.

Such expectations are difficult to reconcile with the loss of autonomy, the condescending assumption about dependency and the bleak predictability underlying even the poshest “lifestyle" development with its golf course, yoga classes, on-site hairdresser and three-course meals.

In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic has proven that the hospitality or property-based model of modern retirement villages does not exactly take into account the public health challenges of a high-risk population that lives in close proximity to each other and spends a lot of time in communal spaces.

The lockdown measures in such institutions clearly revealed the shortcomings of the model. Despite the pretence of a jolly tennis club, the cheap sherry before dinner and the theatre trips for which you have to pay extra, you are simply uprooted from society, exactly as determined by outdated notions about age.

The tail wags the dog

In 2017, the PSG Group invested R675 million in Evergreen Lifestyle, South Africa's largest commercial provider of retirement housing. According to managing director Cobus Bedeker, it will be 10 times bigger by 2030.

In the same year, Old Mutual acquired a 50% share in Faircape Life, which operates six luxury retirement resorts in the Western Cape. With more than 5 million people older than 60 in South Africa, a figure that is expected to triple by 2050, housing provision for the middle-class elderly looks like a sure bet for investors.

But it's a case of the tail wagging the dog, researchers Caroline Osborne and Claudia Baldwin wrote in The Conversation. What is available is primarily driven by carefully calculated financial models that are attractive to developers and investors, not by what people want.

And what older people want is exactly what all people want, the Australian think-tank Longevity By Design concluded earlier this year.

Apart from family and friends, good health and financial security, we long for a meaningful existence characterised by autonomy and choices.

“All we ask for is that we be allowed to remain the authors of our own story," writes American surgeon Atul Gawande in his award-winning book Being Mortal, which deals with growing old and dying.

It is in pursuit of this that Boomers are upsetting the retirement community apple cart.

We are in this together

Growing old where you live or joining a self-sufficient community are the two retirement options that are gaining particular traction.

Research shows that 90% of ageing people would prefer to stay where they are, rather than move to a retirement home from a community that no longer feels up to taking care of its defenceless residents. In a growing number of neighbourhoods in American cities, the answer to this is an innovative do-it-yourself programme that makes it easier for people to live under their own roof for as long as possible.

The so-called “village" model is based on the idea of ​​a traditional village setting where residents used to be able to rely on a relationship of trust with neighbours and the surrounding community. This creates a balance between independence and interdependence by involving the older residents of a particular neighbourhood in a formal network where they support each other and simultaneously have access to voluntary as well as reliable paid services.

Whether you need help proofreading your memoirs or just want to exchange your library books, whether you are sick or sad or just looking for someone to walk your dog, you can count on the expertise, support and care of the others “villagers” in your network.

One hand washes the other

The first “village" emerged in Boston's Beacon Hill neighbourhood in 2001, and this new kind of abstract neighbourliness gained so many supporters that a Village to Village Network was established in 2010 to help establish and manage new locations. 

These non-profit villages are managed by their own members. The membership fee is low so that no one is excluded, and it is supplemented by donations, fundraisers and sometimes by the city itself. People between 50 and 90 may join, and the younger ones mainly get involved to help — an investment in the future when they, in turn, will need help.

Although the village model was designed for older people, it is a vote in favour of an intergenerational way of life and against the segregation of older people in closed communities — surely one of the most startling social developments of the last century.

The Golden Girls minus 'Sophia' at an awards ceremony in 2008.
The Golden Girls minus 'Sophia' at an awards ceremony in 2008.

Cry freedom

Cohabitation as a retirement alternative is a broad concept that originated in Denmark in the 1970s. This forms the basis of a wide variety of intentional communities — from micro-communities such as the shared home in Miami of The Golden Girls, Dorothy, Blanche and Rose, joined by Dorothy's mother, Sophia, after she presumably burnt down the old age home, to Thérèse Clerc's home for wayward women in Paris.

This applies equally to the dilapidated Karoo hotel where you and your friends plan to have fun in your retirement years, and the piece of coastal land that you and your friends once purchased together in Croatia with the purpose of building one day.

The core principle of an intentional community is that it is developed, designed and managed by the residents themselves. The reason for its existence is not to generate an income for residents, owners or shareholders, but to meet the needs and desires of the residents as far as possible.

All the residents have a say in how the community is run. Decision-making is by means of consensus, and every resident has a vote.

When successful, such a setup provides residents with control over their independence, quality of life and dignity, or what Atul Gawande describes as “the freedom to arrange our lives in ways that are not in conflict with our character and loyalties".

Don’t tell us what to do

Retirement rebellions like the Babayaga and others offer creative alternatives for people who want to live independently but with the camaraderie and support of fellow residents; they're for people who want to make their own rules and still want to be involved in the wider community.

They're not for everyone, but they're especially appealing to a generation that has already experienced an astonishing number of social upheavals — and contributed to many of them.

We are the generation of, among other things, feminism, rock music, gay rights, the internet, botox and Viagra. We represent the greatest concentration of training, expertise and work experience in human history. As a result, we tend to question authority and distrust the status quo. We were and are idealistic, open-minded, innovative and rebellious.

We are the children raised by the “because-I-said-so" generation, and we really don't like being told what to do.

We have options.

We are troublesome and wilful and we are going to retire in the way we want to.

♦ VWB ♦

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