A recipe for a happy retirement: seven friends close by

January 18, 2015
Hub Balls Head photo (2)

Here’s one way to grow older raucously: buy an apartment building with your friends and pool funds to hire a cleaner, handyman, barman and later, maybe, a nurse. It’s a recurring dream of mine: eliminate the worst bits of grotty 1970s communal living and keep the best bits like proximity to your mates.

But let’s face it, it’s the impossible dream. Half a dozen friends are unlikely to sell up at the same time and find apartments in the same building at the right price. So how else can we satisfy this longing for community? Who doesn’t know people shocked to find they’re cut-off and bored once they leave work? Some of us are just stuck in unfriendly neighbourhoods, wishing for more connection.

So what’s the next best thing to the communal apartment building? A bunch of people in the Waverton area of Sydney are on their way to creating it. They’re consciously turning a suburb into a village. I wrote about the Waverton Hub soon after it got off the ground about 15 months ago. It was an idea then. I’m thrilled to report the idea has taken off. Helen L’Orange, the main organiser, wanted to create a good community to grow old in. And it’s happening.

“We’re trying to get to the point where everyone has about seven buddies close by to call on,” Helen told me.

The idea of the “urban village” or hub came originally from Beacon Hill, a well-to-do area of Boston. It has nothing to do with retirement villages. People can stay in their own homes and benefit from a village atmosphere created around them. In Beacon Hill members pay an annual fee to hire a co-ordinator to organise cultural, educational and social activities. The co-ordinator vets tradesmen, and arranges discounted home help and other services. About 150 urban villages thrive in the US now, driven by the interests and needs of their members. As I wrote last time, friends helping friends, neighbours being neighbourly, and the elderly being cared for used to happen organically. But increasingly, a sense of community doesn’t just happen. Someone has to sow the seeds and nurture the shoots.

And that’s what Helen did. Since its launch the Waverton Hub has attracted over 260 paid-up members – annual fees are $66 or $10 for full pensioners. Members are divided between people in their 60s, 70s and 80s; about one-third are men. It’s different from the US model in a key aspect – formal practical help is less a focus because of our government-subsidised Home and Community Care program. Waverton also has a well-established community centre through which aged care services can be organised. So the Hub’s focus is on fostering friendships, organising activities, and breaking down social isolation. It also has a big focus on healthy life. The aim is to make it easier for people to “age in place.”

“It’s gone amazingly well,” Helen said. “There’s some activity on pretty much every day which means people are getting to know one another.”  So far it hasn’t needed a paid co-ordinator though Helen and others work hard to make it run smoothly.

Here’s some of what’s on offer:  yoga followed by meeting in a cafe with the knitters; Pilates and martial arts. There are several walking groups; one has morphed into a food safari to explore Sydney’s culinary delights. There are “Hub in the Pub” events, and the Hub singers took to busking at the local railway station at Christmas. Wine tasting and dinners at the bowling club are popular, organised by the local liquor store. One of the oldest members runs a stimulating speakers’ program: the only topic off the agenda is “ageing”. The local Ensemble Theatre offers discount group tickets when seats are available. Afternoon teas or cocktail parties in people’s homes are held to welcome new members. Waverton is buzzing.

Greg Blainey, a former IBM project manager, and his wife Mary, moved to the area seven years ago. Now retired, Greg told me: “When you work you went to work at 8, came home at 6 or 7, had dinner, watched television, went to bed. I lived in this apartment complex for four years without knowing anyone.”

Through the Hub he’s met lots of people, including neighbours in his complex. “To go to the coffee shop used to be a three-minute walk,” he says. “Now I end up taking 15 minutes because I see people I know.” He helped set up the impressive Hub website, and each week he’s available in a cafe to help people with their computer problems. Men, he said, can find it harder to make friends so it’s a continuing challenge to find activities to engage them.

Another Hub member, Vera Yee, said: “In big cities you’d hear of someone being dead in their flat for two years. We don’t want that. Here we used to do that inner city thing of not making eye contact. Now we do. The Hub’s changing the whole feeling.”

So how possible would it be to create a hub in your neighbourhood? Is it needed? Is community so important in the internet age? Waverton Hub intends to publish a how-to manual with advice on the legalities involved, and much else so others can follow. Waverton’s an area with many well-educated retirees, and it’s taken a lot of energy to get this far. Building community is not for slackers. But in little over a year, the project’s got further than I expected. It’s a good news story to kick off our year.

I’d love to hear what you think. Please leave a comment.

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