MY book club's WhatsApp group is a fantastic source of information, jokes, ailments to look forward to, and sometimes even book recommendations. When I shared an article from The Guardian about New Ground, the UK's first cohousing community exclusively for older women, two book clubbers mentioned they each knew someone who had similar living arrangements.
Though lesbian communities are not new, this type of cohabitation has nothing to do with sex or sexual orientation. On the contrary, it provides a creative alternative to the narrowly defined options most folk seem to be blinded by: being in a relationship vs. being single.
UK Cohousing Network's website describes cohousing schemes as intentional communities that are run by residents. Each household consists of an independent home, with shared recreational spaces and facilities. This ensures a healthy balance between privacy and an active social life.
The practice originated in Denmark in the 1960s, after which it spread through Scandinavia, Germany and the US. Cohabitation schemes can incorporate several generations, including people of any age or family structure, or they can be communities with a focus, such as older women or people who share a common interest or lifestyle.
The bottom line is you live on your own but are not alone. For older people, it offers an alternative to the dreaded nursing home. A cohabitation scheme brings with it security, friendship, and above all, greater peace of mind, as there is emotional, physical and financial support and cooperation.
“The women who started this were adamant that they didn’t want to sit in a dayroom singing Daisy, Daisy and Pack Up Your Troubles for the rest of their lives. We were fiercely opposed to the ageism and paternalism, the infantilisation of older people by social care services,” says Maria Brenton, senior ambassador for UK Cohousing Network.
It took 18 years to get New Ground off the ground and it finally opened in 2016. The question most people ask is whether men are allowed in. “Of course! We have brothers, fathers, sons, grandsons, lovers and everything in between. The only thing is they can’t come and live here,” explains Jude Tisdall, a 71-year-old resident.
Shared housing schemes for younger, single moms are sometimes called “mommunes”. After all, it takes a village to raise a child. Even if you’re the best parent on earth, for children to be well socialised they need to splash around in the great human soup mix. Regular exposure to different people of all ages is enriching, but for the single parent of an only child it can be hard to orchestrate.
For an entrepreneur and single mom in the Bo-Kaap, her shared living situation came about organically. She used to rent the apartments on her property through Airbnb, until the pandemic happened. “During Covid, friends came to stay with me. I am a freelance consultant and single mom of a three-year-old who suddenly had to be with me all the time. It was hard. They helped me out with childcare," she says.
“I don't want to deal with other people's dishes. What we have here now is great. Each unit has its own everything and we share the courtyard and large garden. We have a quick glass of wine on someone’s stoep after work. It's nice not to come home to an empty plot. At the moment I only use Airbnb for the short periods between when friends live here. It has become a soft landing for people who’ve just come out of a relationship, or who are moving to Cape Town from elsewhere. I travel a lot for work and it's great to always have someone here who looks after my dog. We constantly help each other with animal and childcare."
When the same woman fell in love with a house in Scarborough that was way out of her price range, it took 24 hours for her and three female friends to decide to buy it together. Although they don’t live there permanently, they spend as much time there as possible. Two of the four each have a child of the same age, and a third will soon move from Kenya to Scarborough to have her baby there.
“We’re all going to live in Scarborough for a while to assist her with the birth. It's interesting to flip paradigms around. The nuclear family can be very stifling. There are different ways of doing things. This model makes financial sense and it also provides emotional and physical support. Owning the house with other women gives me a tremendous sense of safety and security. It makes you braver for the rest. If all else had to fail, we still have this place. It's liberating when your worst-case scenario happens to also be the best-case scenario."
Women live longer
Two statistics driving the shared cohabitation trend worldwide are that women tend to live longer than men and that more people are getting divorced. Women find themselves on their own, with or without children, at any age.
Four years ago, three Stellenbosch women, aged 53, 57 and 65, decided to join forces and cohabitate, first on a double plot in town and since 2022 in a security estate on the outskirts. The oldest and youngest are sisters and the third is a mutual friend.
“We all lost our husbands alive," one jokingly refers to their divorced status. The double-storey house has six bedrooms, six bathrooms, a living area on each level and a garden with a swimming pool. There is room for a fourth resident (the home owner), a guest room and a room for a caregiver, should the need arise. A number of years ago, the sisters found putting their mom in an old age home traumatic, and they realised they didn’t want to be an emotional burden to their children one day.
“We enjoy living together. There really is only one rule. If someone gets Alzheimer's, they have to go. For the rest, we will help each other. The house already has a big hole for a lift and we have two wheelchair-friendly bathrooms. We are dead set against going to a nursing home. Old age homes are also terribly expensive, or horrible." Household expenses are shared and there is never any pressure to socialise. It helps that their group consists of two sisters and a good friend, who all have friends in common.
“We have two entertainment areas, so if someone wants to socialise in private they use the other one. There is a guest room for guests who want to sleep over. I would say it’s an unwritten rule that guests have to sleep there. If anyone meets someone special, they have to move on. We are not going to accommodate a permanent male resident."
Between them they have three dogs and three cats, and there’s always someone to care for the animals if one goes on holiday. They never envisaged living like this 20 years ago — or even five years ago — but now it makes perfect sense. “It's great walking into the house and you're not alone. But you can also be on your own, should you prefer."
It's early evening and they are planning a braai for dinner. The sisters, of whom the eldest jokingly describes herself as “divorced since birth", are the designated braaiers in the house.
“And you? Will you be making the salad?" I ask their friend.
“I pour the drinks. Every night we get together over a glass of wine and entertain each other.
“You're a lot like The Golden Girls," I venture. They laugh in agreement.
Later, my WhatsApp pings with a photo of yummy snacks and tall glasses of cold rosé, with the caption: “This is what dinner looks like when the braaier is already in her pj’s! And we are all happy."
“You just need a Sophia (Dorothy's mother)," I reply.
“My mom comes over every now and then she plays that role," the answer flashes back.
♦ VWB ♦
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