Tag Archives: urban village

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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Growing older in an urban village

April 1, 2013
Anthony Holdsworth
Anthony Holdsworth

The prospect of ending one’s day in a nursing home strikes terror in the hearts of many of us who pioneered communal living in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s not just the weak tea, limp sandwiches and sing-a-longs we dread but the lack of autonomy, choice, and the company of potentially boring strangers.

Some of us are starting to plan an alternative universe for the years ahead. Often it’s women leading the conversations, worried about ageing alone; these are women who have run businesses or held senior jobs and are accustomed to controlling their own lives. But now that men are living longer, too, it’s occurring to them that being bossed around by home care workers or patronised by nursing home staff is not ideal. This might be a misleading stereotype about current services but it’s spurred the move for something different.

A return to communal living is not necessarily on the agenda. Shorn of the casual sex, drugs and partying, shared households might not be much fun. What’s being proposed now is the creation of “urban villages” which have nothing to do with retirement villages. It’s a model that allows members to stay in their own homes and, in return for an annual fee to the “village” organisation, access discounted services from vetted trades-people and home-help; volunteer drivers, and book and theatre groups, and whatever else the members choose to organise. This used to happen organically – friends helping friends, neighbours being neighbourly, the generations mingling, and the elderly being cared for. But increasingly, community hubs or urban villages just don’t happen; someone has to organise them.

Helen L’Orange is part of a group in the Waverton/Wollstonecraft area in Sydney that’s exploring the idea of a grass roots-driven organisation that will offer paid-up members social and cultural activities and practical assistance. The aim is to make the area a better place to grow old together. Soon after Helen moved into the area she cut her finger badly, and needed help to staunch the blood, get the finger bandaged, and get to the doctor for stitches. She knew one neighbour then who fortunately was home. In the best of possible worlds, it seemed to Helen later, a person in her situation needed to know at least six people close at hand who could be called on. “We want to build on the sense of community that’s already here,” she said.

Of interest to the Waverton group is the original member-driven, ageing-in-place hub that began in Beacon Hill, a neighbourhood of Boston, in 2001. A group of well-to-do elderly set up an organisation to provide services and outings to those who signed up.  About 450 joined and paid annual fees of $550 for an individual, $750 for a household; a couple of staff were hired as managers, volunteers were recruited from among members and the broader community as home visitors and drivers; and cut-price deals struck with vetted tradesmen and other service providers. Since Beacon Hill began, about 100 similar “villages” with an average 150 members have started in the US. The usual village boundary is about 16 km, as far as most volunteers will travel.

One of the gurus of the movement, Candace Baldwin, was in Adelaide last week, to speak at the Mobility for Life forum, sponsored by the Royal Automobile Association of South Australia. “Because the members get to drive the decisions and design the services, it takes out the paternalistic, top-down approach,” she told me. “Take transport; often existing community transport services can take you to doctors’ appointments but can’t take you to visit your friends. The new model is about choice and independence.” But managing a grass-roots organisation is not easy, and some urban villages, including Beacon Hill, have suffered declining membership. It can be an uphill battle to recruit new members because people say, “I don’t need it now, I’ll join when I do.” Also it’s like managing a small business, Candace said. In return for their joining fees, clients expect professional management and a good service.

Given Australia has an extensive government-subsidised Home and Community Care program to provide help for people to stay in their homes, do we need these consumer-initiated hubs? The federal government as part of its huge reform of aged care has committed to 100,000 home care packages over ten years with a new focus on more client choice. Extra care fees will be imposed. Full-pensioners will be exempt; part-pensioners will pay up to $5000 a year and non-pensioners $10,000 with a life-time cap of $60,000.

Helen L’Orange says: “There’s this huge wave of baby boomers and even with the expansion of Home and Community Care places there aren’t going to be nearly enough. I want to age here in this community where I can access a one-stop network. I have a reasonable income and I want to be able to make choices.” It seems to me grass roots groups, for all the work involved, offer the potential for friendship and community. Government- provided services offer broad coverage and professionalism. Australia doubtless has room for both.

The Waverton group is asking interested North Sydney locals over 50 to fill out a survey to gauge the level of interest and what they want from such a hub. It can be completed in hard copy or online  And there’s more to learn about Candace Baldwin and the Village to Village Network in the US here.

What are your thoughts? (Go to ‘comments’)

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