I have two really great girlfriends. We’re more like family than friends, as close as sisters, we’ve raised our children and are still strong in our careers. The traditional things we used to strive for, a house, a pool, a few cars and the European holiday are done. So when we find ourselves together on the back porch with a glass of wine in hand, sometimes our conversations come around to our future and what it will look like.
Statistically speaking, our husbands should pass away before us, so considering that we’d probably be alone, we’ve made a promise to live together (yes guys, we really do have these conversations). Of course, in our plans we won’t be old and sick, we’d be young, vibrant and healthy having loads of fun, supporting each other to the end. How realistic is this?
Ok, the young part maybe not, but the living together having fun is definitely a possibility. Almost two decades ago in the Paris suburb of Montreuil, France, a group of feminists lead by Thérèse Clerc had the same idea of living together. Unlike my friends and I who just talk of these things, Clerc and her friends set to work and eventually convinced the French government to build them an apartment building considerate to their new retirement living concept. They call it Babayagas’ House.
Babayaga is the name for a one-toothed, feisty Russian witch and Therese felt it was an appropriate name for a group of women who intend to grow old together. French women have the longest life expectancy of European nations and three quarters of them live alone and isolated. But Babayaga represents a new way of living among friends. The women do everything for themselves, no nurses or caregivers, no chefs, kitchen workers or social conveners, no staff at all. Their ages range from 55 to 89, they look after themselves and have fun together.
The Babayaga House is in the centre of Montreuil so the women are totally independent, walking to buy groceries, meet friends at a café or attend the opera. It’s a place where those living on the poverty level live together with others of greater means, where the elderly are not defined by age but by desire to keep actively living.
On the first floor of the Babayaga House there is a community centre where the ladies organize workshops on writing or cooking, a speaker series and small concerts. All of these are open to the public. They also reach out to the community by teaching immigrants French and tutor children in academics. The work and their value in the community is empowering their independence, activating their creativity, bonding relationships, creating greater health and happiness and building community interdependence. In essence, these women may have retired from the traditional sense of work but not from life.
It’s the way my friends and I want to continue living when we retire. Traditionally, retirees view moving to a seniors home when we are disabled and are responsible for nothing, but the Babayaga ladies see this as powerless. Instead, they are proactive in creating a beautiful life.
Babayaga ladies are not illusionists, they know they are seniors and growing old is inevitable, so there is an apartment reserved in case there is a need for an on-site caregiver or doctor, but so far it remains empty. Because Babayaga is a new concept, they don’t know what they’ll do if one of them gets dementia or becomes critically ill, but they consider active independence the most important part of aging, and are willing to take it one day at a time.
While Babayaga is not for everyone, it’s a far cry from the helpless Canadian retirement home model where you’re not responsible for anything and where the structure is more like a day care centre than a place you’d want to live. In this type of environment we see people grow older faster.
I could easily be a Babayaga if it meant being valued, having opportunities to keep learning, contributing, keeping my autonomy and being needed by those around me. It would give me plenty of reasons to get up in the morning while offering a simpler and more joyous way of living.
It’s not surprising that the Babayaga concept is spreading throughout France and it’s exciting to learn it is also being developed in Canada, but with some key differences. In Toronto a group of women are working on Baba Yaga Place that will include couples and single men in their project. Currently they are in the initial planning stages of their retirement dreams and you can track their progress at babayagaplace.ca.
There are other retirement revolutions happening in Canada. Seniors Cohousing is a concept, developed first in Denmark and now exists in Canada. Cohousing by definition is a group of people living and managing their living facilities together. More specifically they live in privately owned homes and share extensive common facilities.
When it comes to seniors, they take the cohousing concept one step further including caring for each other, depending on each other, companionship and community living, just like the Babayaga model. Wolf Willow, the first Canadian cohousing project opened in Saskatoon in December 2012.
As I write this story, I’m encouraged by the retirement revolution. After all, we’re all headed in that direction. But I can’t help feeling it’s still not for me. Just the name ‘Seniors Cohousing’ conjures up images of buildings of old people sitting around sleeping in reclined lazy-boy chairs. I couldn’t do it.
Statistics show that I’m not alone. That’s why Royal Roads University (RRU) in British Columbia came out with a course called, Aging Well in Community. The 10-week course was an introduction to the revolution in retirement living.
The women of Babayaga in France were not afraid to say they want to grow old together, even if they hope to have 20 to 30 more years of living ahead of them. Canadians on the other hand prefer to live in denial. Statistics show that most retirees don’t believe they will ever need support or community. In fact, just the thought that they are old is a shock for many Canadian retirees.
The RRU course tackles Canadians resistance to aging head on with three basic steps. First, all students must confront and accept the facts. After that, it’s about freedom. Each participant designs a realistic plan to live the way they want to live, independent and unrestricted. The third step is about empowerment, understanding, building community, growing rewarding activities and living a healthy lifestyle. Perhaps what RRU is really saying is that it’s not so much a Canadian resistance to aging as much as it is a resistance to age in the powerless, outdated retirement models that currently exist.
Royal Roads worked with the Seniors Cohousing project on Victoria Island called Harbourside. It currently houses multi-generational families of both men and women ages 45 up. Here age is not a rule as much as circumstance. It’s not a community of old people but a mix of ages all living together as one community providing the kind of support friends would supply like a cooked meal, someone to walk with, someone to share interests, someone to give a ride to the grocery store.
Many people who retire from work find themselves isolated, bored, lonely and depressed. Statistics show that mortality risks associated with loneliness, isolation and lack of social relationships are similar to the mortality risk factors for smoking. Thérèse Clerc and Babayaga may have been way ahead of their time, but people all over the world like myself and my friends are having empowering thoughts of living together as a new way to retire. We’re redefining retirement as not an end to anything but an empowering new beginning.
Written By: Lynn Ogryzlo