I was recently approached by Anna from an American website called Calmful Living, which focuses on “calm mind, calm body, calm living”. Anna had read about us, and felt that our lifestyle might be tranquility-inducing as people approach retirement. Following is a copy of her interview questions, and my response.
As you can see, life continues to go well for the Shedders.
When you first began contemplating retirement, what were your concerns?
My husband Rick and I had a nest-egg sufficient to support a careful retirement, but not a generous one. We knew we couldn’t afford to retire in Sydney, an expensive city – although that didn’t matter because we were keen to leave the Big Smoke anyway. A few acres in the country, not far from good services, appealed. But that raised questions of having to start all over again building community, of solitary hours after a lifetime with busy social lives – of loneliness. What about when you lose some of your health? What about when you lose a partner?
These were the issues that concerned us: enough money and a solid community.
How did the idea of co-housing with other seniors come about?
We had friends, two other couples, that we often spent holiday time with. In our fifties, as retirement appeared on the horizon, we began discussing these issues with them. We really enjoyed – and profited from – our holiday time together and wondered about sharing our retirement. Was it conceivable that we could stretch our retirement dollars farther in a shared living situation? Could we avoid aloneness? Could we provide support for each other?
We voted “yes”. Over the next several years, we resolved the key issues, including a big one: where to live. We bought four acres in the country, four hours from Sydney, not far from the ocean, and near a medium-sized town with good facilities. Before moving onto it, we tested our resilience by finding a big house in the city and renting together for two years. That worked fine, so we set up a good exit agreement and went ahead with building on our land.
We’ve ended up in what looks like a large modern home. It has three suites where each couple has a good-sized bedroom, sitting room/office, on-suite and deck. We share the kitchen, living room(s) and entertainment areas. We’re seven full years into the arrangement now.
How has this lifestyle reduced stress and improved quality of life for all of you? Feel free to give any examples of when living communally helped a tough situation resolve more easily.
A few weeks ago, on December 31, the six of us sat down together in our lovely living room to review our year. We took turns talking through the highlights, low points and learnings of the year. As I listened to people speaking, I was overwhelmed with a sense of just how much our lifestyle has contributed to each of us. Someone said, “I feel that this year I’ve become who I always wanted to be, and that’s a result of this way of living.” Every single one of us expressed contentment about living in our cooperative household. It was an strong tribute to this unusual thing we’ve done.
As you can well imagine, we don’t live stress-free. There are differences of opinion to be worked through, minor grievances, differing priorities. We’ve had to learn to be good at communication and at give and take. But on the big things, the benefits really shine through. We’ve had injuries and surgeries, small and large (e.g. four hip replacements, one ankle fusion, one knee reconstruction). It’s been great to share the road to recovery with five other people rather than one overworked and frustrated partner.
I’d say our mental health has benefited as well. There is always someone to talk things through, to pull you out of a funk, to provide a different perspective. There are demands on our flexibility that might be challenging short-term, but long-term are making stronger, more resilient people of us.
We enjoy a lovely home and gardens, with six of us sharing the work. Rick and I go to Canada, where we were both born, every summer – and the house is cared for in our absence.
Best of all, we have a large and vibrant community around us. We profit from each other’s networks. We’ve all gained friends from my housemate’s yoga classes, our community choir, the book club, the garden club, the men’s group, the palliative care community. I’ve never had a richer circle of friends.
I couldn’t leave this question without mentioning how good it is to routinely share our evening meals together. Of course there’s always lively conversation, but best of all is someone else doing the cooking two-thirds of the time. A tiny sense of competitiveness means our meals are excellent and varied. As with most things, it wouldn’t be the same with just Rick and me.
How do you handle the obstacles that arise?
We have monthly meetings that are intended to anticipate issues coming up – expenditures, repairs, activities, guests. Every issue is a potential obstacle, but we find that by staying committed to talking things through, we avert most crises. It’s not always easy. We have to be willing to both say and hear uncomfortable things, and to deal objectively with differing opinions. It can be messy in the middle, but with careful communication, so far we’re come through every time with relationships even stronger.
Do you think we will begin to see more of this type of retirement?
Indeed I do.
The way we live together in the western world has shifted dramatically over the last couple of centuries. We’ve changed from village living to extended family living to independent living. The opportunities and constraints of modern lifestyles are leading us in new directions.
Architects are taking an interest; many councils and local governments are making it easier for people to create communal neighborhoods. There are intentional communities, cooperative houses, communes and ecovillages, all with the purpose of bringing people together in a synergistic fashion. Each has its own advantages.
Perhaps our own situation, where we have six people co-habiting the same dwelling and closely sharing many areas of the house, is unusual. It wasn’t easy to make happen, but so far the evidence is that we’re getting the results we wanted.