Last Saturday morning nine of us gathered at the Waterbird Café in Manning Point. It’s a weekend ritual that involves breakfast at Mitchells Island’s finest, outside on the deck which hangs over the Manning River, watching the light dance on the river and spotting waterbirds and the occasional dolphin. As well, we do the Good Weekend quiz from the Sydney Morning Herald, a tradition that extends back decades. These were all good friends, people I love to be around, and I looked forward to some great conversation – as well as acing the quiz.
Sometimes only Rick and I are there on a Saturday morning at the Waterbird, flailing away at a quiz that rewards youth culture, pop music background, and an understanding of Aussie sports. But on this occasion, with nine good brains in attendance, I figured that we had a good chance of triumphing.
And then I noticed a potential problem. There was a certain similarity among members of the group. It dawned on me that there wasn’t a soul under 60 or much over 70, not a patch of dark skin or the strong accent indicating a faraway birth. If sheer numbers and a bit of brainpower were the rule, we’d do okay. But for the top bands of the ‘90s or a question of Asian culture, no amount of grey hair was going to help our score.
Bottom line, we were a homogeneous group with homogeneous interests. Though we were likely to have a very good time together, we might not have such a good chance at the quiz after all.
That observation tapped into a question I’ve been thinking about lately, after encountering several articles on the subject: how important is diversity in setting up a cohousing community?
Should you aim for it – or aim against it? Does it even matter? (Here’s a sample, titled Retirees Choose Intergenerational Cohousing.)
I grabbed this image off a website about diversity – clichéd, perhaps, but it makes a point. The arms are different sexes, different races and different ages, which is what diversity means as a technical term in modern-day parlance.
I get the point. In encouraging diversity, you encourage tolerance – of age, sex and culture. You bypass ageism, sexism and racism. You create a strong structure.
Perhaps there’s nothing more important, if one is interested in world peace and fortifying the heart of the planet.
My life has altered over the last five years. In the workplace, I had colleagues from India, China, the Middle East. I worked closely with people who were just out of school, grandfathers, single people, married people, single mums, gays. I walked the streets and travelled on the train in a racial melting pot; people everywhere talked on their mobile phones in languages I couldn’t even identify.
There’s no doubt it was good for me. In brushing against the cross-section of age, race and sex, I was learning tolerance at a deep level. Molecules of concern about our differences were being eroded with every contact.
My life now has a different texture. If you took a photo of our Shedder arms, they’d be similarly wrinkled and similar in colour. We range in age from 63 to 70, are heterosexual and have European-heritage backgrounds.
I’m reminded of the over-55’s retirement village in Arizona where my mum and dad went for the winter. I visited them there a couple of times, once with my 14-year old daughter Jenn. The park rules were clear: children for a maximum of one week; teenagers must be accompanied by an adult; no children in the pools. Jenn wasn’t impressed. But on the other hand, my parents and the other residents loved it there, among people like themselves. Their age and race tolerance wasn’t tested.
A few weeks ago a good friend of mind, a colleague from work days, came to visit, with her twelve-year-old daughter. Those of you with grandchildren won’t be surprised that I found myself playing rummy and learning a new board game, planning meals for a picky eater, and having to stop and think about whether everyone in the party would enjoy a long car ride or a chatty dinner out. Don’t get me wrong: I loved every minute. But it required a new dimension of creativity – and tolerance. My age and race tolerance is rarely tested these days either. In my experience, that’s the norm in communities where retirees live. There is rarely the excited screech of children, the thrum of a teenager’s first car, the twang of an Indian dotara, the smell of Thai cooking in the air.
And just maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe at 60+, we’ve earned a bit of complacency. Our teenaged children, raging in a bath of complex hormones, have left home and our own hormones have finally settled. We are acquiring stoicism as we deal with deteriorating bodies; close friends our own age have died; we are learning to live with our own mortality.
Of course, diversity is never completely lacking. We have teenaged boys next door (remember the triplets?). There are two big dogs from across the street who like to cavort on our lawns. We get visits from offspring in their twenties and thirties. There are two grandchildren (“the twins”) and several gorgeous grand-nieces and nephews. We sing African songs in our choir. We travel and in doing so rub shoulders with other cultures. Perhaps at this time in our lives, that’s enough.
Diversity? Or uniformity?
Challenge? Or easy harmony?
Which is best for the good of the planet? Closer to home, which is best for you as you plan your retirement years and perhaps your cohousing community?
I’d love to hear your views on this dilemma, and any conclusions you’ve reached.
By the way, the Waterbird breakfast crew was sufficiently diverse to score 17 out of 20 on the quiz, an all-time high. And we saw dolphins.
What does that mean?