Personal fulfilment, moral support, solidarity: communal living is on the rise, especially among the elderly. But it’s not always easy to live together when we forget what drives the communitarisation of housing. In Belgium’s Abbeyfield houses, which are home to healthy seniors, a study conducted by UCLouvain researchers has highlighted five key tools for communal living.
In just a few years, group dwellings have evolved from totally marginal projects to a housing concept that is clearly gaining momentum. Our society’s growing interest in it, particularly from people nearing retirement age, is proof. At UCLouvain’s Institute of Health and Society (IRSS), Thérèse Van Durme and two IRSS colleagues, Sophie Thunus and Carole Walker, participated in research on the theme of self-managed group housing. She was able to compile the few available figures – every group housing association gathers its own figures, on its terms – to measure the totality of the phenomenon. Dr Van Durme says, ‘It’s a phenomenon that’s gaining momentum and is part of a very concrete demand from people over the age of 50 who are thinking about retirement.’
Group housing is defined as a living space occupied by several families and/or individuals and in which there are both private and shared spaces. They are ‘independent living units’ gathered in one place around a common project. It differs from accommodation. ‘Depending on the project defined by the house, tenant involvement varies greatly’, Dr Van Durme explains. ‘Generally, bedroom and shower room are private, but the kitchen and especially living and dining rooms are shared. In some cases, one meal a day is taken together; in others, once a week: everything depends on the house project and on tenants’ commitments, not so much in the house as outside, since some still work.’
Commitment and solidarity
Commitment: it’s the keystone of group houses. ‘It's a fact: people looking for this kind of housing are also looking for community involvement’, she says. ‘They seek a connection between an often individual commitment to a local or global cause and their living space.’ In fact, group housing is often built around a common project: strengthening social cohesion, cultural development, reducing the ecological footprint, mixing socially, pooling resources, safeguarding heritage, social economy activities or solidarity.
In addition to wanting to participate in a project that makes sense, solidarity is also an important motivation for living together: ‘To be able to benefit from a helping hand when things aren’t going well, when you’re feeling down...to spend a little time “with your family” is very important’, Dr Van Durme adds. The financial aspect is also crucial: being able to benefit from a certain space at a more accessible price is key to community living.
Among these new types of dwelling is Abbeyfield self-managed group housing (see box). Self-management emphasises tenant involvement in home social life and operation. However, living in such a house puts personal desires at odds with those of other tenants and even with the shared house project. This tension, observed in most comparable initiatives at the international level, is at the origin of exploratory research aimed at highlighting the tools favourable to better communal living. The UCLouvain IRSS research group and researchers from KU Leuven (LUCAS) were commissioned by the Brussels Region, based on Abbeyfield’s request to conduct the study. Dr Van Durme coordinated the research. ‘The idea was to identify useful tools for living better together within the Brussels Abbeyfield houses mandated for study, with the idea that the tools can be transposed to other group houses.’
From June 2018 to June 2019, the researchers conducted research involving residents at all stages, including the development of the research protocol. ‘We had three intense periods in the research,’ Dr Van Durme says. ‘A first contact when we asked them what was going well and what was going wrong with their housemates; then a group discussion within each house, or even an individual discussion with tenants who wanted one; finally, workshops to write recommendations. In the end, we met tenants or the monitoring committee once a month for one year.’
Communication at the heart of living together better
The result was a set of tools. First, a schedule to redefine and express at regular intervals both their personal project for being in the house and the house’s shared project. Second, external assistance from group housing support structures to facilitate group communication, which involves learning how to listen in a way that is rarely spontaneously acquired. Third, collective and participatory decision-making which brings to life the household’s values of autonomy, respect and solidarity. Fourth, discussion groups in a ‘safe space’, that is, where people can freely express themselves according to rules of non-violent communication and confidentiality. Tenants must take ownership of how these meetings proceed and are invited to take turns as facilitator, secretary and observer. The fifth and final tool: tenants talked about the importance of trainings in order to apply all tools for better living together.
The final message is extremely positive: ‘Some common sense rules must sometimes be reiterated’, Dr Van Durme says. ‘It’s normal to spend time building such a community: spending time is to give a little bit of one’s self ... to get back what you put into it; communal living reinvigorates tenants! It’s for them to take up the tools as they go long.’
Group housing for active seniors
p>‘Communal living was a very popular idea with the 1968 revolution, when the values of solidarity were put back on the agenda’, Dr Van Durme says. ‘ Since then, the phenomenon has only intensified. For the people who experienced the 1968 revolution, community housing embodies the crucial value of solidarity and a means to counter our individualistic society.’
One result is the Abbeyfield houses in Belgium, which were built in 1995. These family-size group dwellings with individual apartments are based on the active participation of their tenants in house organisation. Their tenants are thus autonomous and independent seniors.
The concept originated with an Englishman touched by the elderly’s loneliness and isolation. In the 1950s, Richard Carr-Gomm decided to take action by buying a small house where he invited two solitary seniors to live. This first Abbeyfield house still exists. The movement took its name from its location, Abbeyfield Road, near Birmingham, then came to our country. Now a non-profit organisation, Abbeyfield Belgium has seven co-managed houses in Wallonia.
A glance at Thérèse Van Durme's bio
Thérèse Van Durme is a research associate and lecturer at UCLouvain's Institute of Health and Society (IRSS). She has conducted research for several years on programme evaluation for ageing and chronically ill people. Since 2019, she has coordinated Be.Hive, a front-line interdisciplinary chair.