Astronaut Chris Hadfield: “I lost one colleague a year for 15 years”
Hedi Argent has only moved three times in her adult life, and her last move, in 2016, was to a bright, airy flat in north London that has recently caught the attention of the world’s media.
At 94, Hedi is the oldest resident at New Ground, a cohousing community that is exclusively for 50-plus women. Set around a beautiful shared garden that includes a thriving vegetable plot, Hedi lives alongside the owners and tenants of 24 other flats, in a feminist living arrangement that was dreamt up some 25 years ago.
“When I was a child, I think we moved 13 times during the war years, so I found it very difficult to move in my adult life,” explains Hedi, who escaped from Vienna with her parents in 1939. After the war, Hedi discovered that most of her extended family had been murdered in the Holocaust.
“It made having a safe space to call home very important and I do feel that this is a very safe space,” she says.
Sunlight is flooding Hedi’s coffee table and, visible through her open balcony doors, a woman in her 50s or 60s is chatting on the phone, while another walks past holding some secateurs. It’s astonishingly peaceful – you’d never imagine that bustling High Barnet High Street is just moments away.
Hedi was living in southeast London when a friend of hers picked up a leaflet in Barnet library about a group of women who had come together with the idea of setting up a cohousing community. That group, OWCH – the Older Women’s Cohousing group – went on to establish New Ground as an alternative to living alone.
Hedi explains: “I joined the group 13 years ago when my partner died and I was left not quite knowing what to do. I’ve always been interested in communal housing – when I was young I wanted to go and live on a kibbutz. That didn’t come my way in the end but the idea always appealed.
“When I was left on my own, it became clear to me that my two daughters started worrying about me. So then I started worrying about my daughters worrying! It seemed to me that I ought to take responsibility for myself, and do something that I would like to do and that would also take the burden from my family.”
When Hedi joined the group, the site in Barnet – an old convent school – had been identified, and together, the women worked with the architects on a vision of communal living that would bring both privacy and company. Importantly, they would decide and manage every aspect themselves.
“We don’t look after each other but we look out for each other,” says Hedi, who lives in a first floor, one-bedroom flat where she is visited by her daughters every week. “This is not a residential home or assisted living – it’s more like a village. I would know if my neighbours had not appeared all day or if their curtains were closed and I’d make sure they were OK. We each have a small circle of ‘buddies’ who look out for one another and have each other’s families’ phone numbers. Should someone need extra personal care or help from social services, then they arrange that themselves, as anyone would. So far, it appears that we make fewer demands on public services than older people who live alone.”
Walking around the beautifully designed estate, and witnessing the easy friendships among New Ground’s residents, it’s hard to fathom why there aren’t more similar senior cohousing projects in the UK. In 2021, 3.3 million people aged 65 years and over were living alone in England and Wales, and Age UK reports that 1.4 million people often feel lonely. With women outliving men by several years, and the physical and mental effects of loneliness and isolation well documented, this kind of set-up feels like a no-brainer.
“It certainly seems to be working,” says Hedi. “We have a waiting list because in seven years only one person has died and one has left.”
Hedi says she enjoys living with a wide diversity of people, and being able to have frank conversations about the future.
“We speak quite openly about dying and how it might be handled,” she says. And in a wider sense, the residents are keen to ensure New Ground’s longevity. “We don’t want this to be lost – we want it to go on for future generations.”
As well as managing the grounds and the building – “we’ve all had to become experts in things we never wanted to know about, like boilers” – the residents come together in the bright, spacious common room for activities and a fortnightly meal, which they take turns to prepare.
“We are 26 and that’s a lovely number – small enough to know each other but large enough to develop different interests,” says Hedi, who enjoys film nights, and games of chess and Scrabble with her fellow New Grounders. During Covid, the residents benefited from being able to socialise at a distance and enjoyed outdoor exercise classes in the car park. There is a guest suite for visitors who want to stay over and when the war in Ukraine started, a refugee family moved in for six months.
Cohousing communities are intentional communities, created and run by their residents. Each household has a self-contained, private home as well as shared community space such as a common room or garden.
Cohousing communities are managed by the residents, who also often share meals and do activities together.
Cohousing helps to prevent isolation and encourages warm neighbourly relationships.
Cohousing groups can come in any size, shape and type – they might be grouped according to age, a common interest or gender, but that’s not always the case.
Cohousing started to develop in the UK at the end of the 1990s, inspired by the success of cohousing communities in the Netherlands and elsewhere. There are now 19 built cohousing communities in the UK, and more than 60 are in development – new groups are forming all the time.
“We try to be inclusive as possible,” says Hedi, who knows firsthand how it can feel to be an outsider. Having worked as a social worker throughout her life, Hedi has written many books on fostering and adoption, and this year, she published a book about her own experiences as a child refugee. She speaks in schools several times a month and gives talks at the National Holocaust Centre and Museum, where some of her childhood possessions, including her doll, Suzie, are on display.
Walking around, Hedi points out many of the little touches that make New Ground feel special. A wall of letter boxes in the Suffragette colours of purple and green; intricate mosaic art work on the exterior walls; a thoughtfully placed chair in the lift; a bowl of ripening courgettes from the garden, free for anyone to take.
It feels like all the best bits of a university halls of residence, without the loud music and tacky posters. Are there any drawbacks? “We’ve had to learn boundaries,” says Hedi. “We enjoy all the benefits of being part of a community but actually, I live here on my own and I like my privacy. Some people never close their doors and some of us do. I have times when I do want to be on my own – but nobody minds or thinks I’m a snooty old thing. It wouldn’t suit everybody – and we have had one person move out – but that’s OK.”
So why the no-men policy? “It’s a question that gets a little tiresome,” says Hedi. “The women who started it were part of a very forceful feminist movement. And it’s a fact that in mixed communities, men are likely to take over. Maria Brenton [an ambassador for the UK Cohousing Network, who was instrumental in establishing New Ground] has an example about a cohousing association that was women only. Then they decided that wasn’t politically correct, so they took in men and within two years, the men ended up running it.”
A recent article in the Guardian about New Ground has led to a flurry of interest from documentary crews and journalists, many of whom have travelled from around the globe to learn more about New Ground’s way of doing things.
The spike in interest is something Hedi and the other residents are keen to capitalise on – not to boost their own community (“our waiting list is full up”) but to inspire others to form their own cohousing groups.
“We’ve decided our strapline is: ‘We did it, you can.’ We run workshops on how to do it – the first thing is to get together and form your community. It doesn’t have to be based on age, it could be anything – families, couples, a mix of people… You just need to want to live together.”
Hedi Argent’s book The Day the Music Changed is available now, £4.99
Maria Brenton, ambassador for senior cohousing for the UK Cohousing Network, says: “My interest in cohousing began 25 years ago when I was an academic researching old age. I was looking at the issue of older women who were living alone and I asked: are they living anywhere collaboratively? So, I went on a research trip and ended up in Holland, where I found the cohousing model that we copied at New Ground. There it had been encouraged by successive governments who were worried about their ageing society, loneliness, and the cost of supporting an older population. It’s not as popular here because there’s been a lack of resolve at Government policy-making level. The Dutch and the Danes have seen senior cohousing as an investment – but here it’s seen as a cost. It remains very difficult to do because there’s so little government help. It should be perfectly possible but we need more long-term planning.”
Written by Fiona Cowood
Fiona Cowood has 20 years’ experience working in senior editorial roles at leading national titles including Grazia, Stylist and Cosmopolitan. She has interviewed a diverse range of remarkable people – from victims of sex trafficking in Nepal through to former Foreign Secretaries and national treasures like Tom Jones. It’s a real privilege to have a career that allows her to represent different voices and explore so many issues – from violence against women and girls through to body image, parenting styles, influencer culture and later-life career pivots.
Fiona is passionate about sharing memorable stories that entertain, inform and inspire readers to think differently about their own lives. She has three young daughters, a rescue tortoise called Gary, a podcast addiction and aspirations to be more ‘present’. She enjoys making novelty food creations (but don’t mention last year’s Charcuterie Chalet) and is doing her best to live more sustainably. Her ringtone is the theme from Succession, and she’s not embarrassed about it.