Category Archives: Co-Housing

Old Age & Anthroposophy – Part 2

In the first part of this two-part posting, we looked at old age from an anthroposophical perspective, and noted the physical and mental development processes that go on as we age, in both their negative and positive aspects. All of us want to have a fulfilling old age despite the infirmities and diminishing independence associated with the last phases of life. This implies that, alongside looking after our physical welfare, we also need to be able to express our soul and spiritual capacities.

The elderly are growing closer to the end of their physical lives and the process of excarnation (preparing to leave the body), just as, at the opposite end of the age spectrum, young children are involved in the process of incarnation, of grounding themselves here on Earth in their bodies. With young children, up until the age of 9 or 10, there is still a part of them in the spiritual world. With old people, the gradual loosening of the astral body (Soul) and the ego (Self) from the physical body as they move closer towards death, means that part of their being is also surrounded by spiritual forces.

In a lecture given just over 100 years ago, Rudolf Steiner spelt out the importance of developing our inner life in old age:

“In future, human beings, the older they get, will need to take in spiritual impulses if they want to be able to grow younger and younger and really develop their inner life. If they do so, they may have grey hair and wrinkles and all kinds of infirmities, but they will get younger and younger, for their souls are taking in impulses which they will take with them through the gate of death. People who relate only to the body cannot grow younger, for their souls will share in everything the body experiences. Of course, it will not be possible to change the habit of going grey, but it is possible for a grey head to gain a young soul from the wellsprings of spiritual life.”

steiner 1917

Rudolf Steiner in 1917

One important question for us today is: how can we, both as individuals and as society, help to create the circumstances in which old people can flourish? In Part 1, I quoted from Dr Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal, in which he deplores the emphasis on the medicalisation of old age, and calls for a recognition that old people need to live in situations in which there is an understanding for the aspects of soul and spirit as well as physical care.  He describes the uninspiring nature of many nursing and old people’s homes as being “the consequence of a society that faces the final phase of the human life cycle by trying not to think about it. We end up with institutions that address any number of societal goals – from freeing up hospital beds to taking burdens off families’ hands to coping with poverty among the elderly – but never the goal that matters to the people who reside in them: how to make life worth living when we’re weak and frail and can’t fend for ourselves any more.”

atul gawande via

Dr. Atul Gawande (photo via

In the UK, it is clear that we would be unwise to look to national or local government for any measures that might improve the situation. According to the Kings Fund, since 2009/10, local authority spending in England on social care for older people fell in real terms by 17% but in the same period, the number of older people aged over 85 and over rose by almost 9%. It has also become much more difficult for people to get publicly funded social care; numbers have fallen by 25 per cent since 2009 (from 1.7 million to 1.3 million) and in 90 per cent of local authorities only those with ‘substantial’ or ‘critical’ needs will get publicly funded services.

The Local Government Association (LGA) “State of the Nation 2017” report on Adult Social Care Funding recorded that local authorities will have managed £16bn reductions in funding from national government between 2010 and 2020.  Further, the LGA estimates a funding gap of £5.8bn by 2020, of which £1bn is for adult social care. Consequences of underfunding include:

  • An ever more fragile market;
  • Growing unmet need;
  • Further strain on informal carers;
  • Less investment in prevention:
  • Continued pressure on an already overworked care workforce;
  • Decreased ability of social care to help mitigate pressures on the National Health Service (NHS).

In the continuing absence of believable, long-term proposals from national government, it is clear that the State is losing the ability to provide well for the care needs of its growing older population. A new impulse is needed, one that not only puts more control into the hands of individuals as they address the challenges of later life, but also extends autonomy as far as possible and reduces pressure on our NHS.

What kind of living arrangements would support older people and help them to make the most of the last phase of their physical lives? Many initiatives have demonstrated the power of civil society to make a difference. A recent article by George Monbiot in The Guardian has shown that a community of like-minded people with shared needs and aspirations can successfully create the conditions for an extended and fulfilling old age.  The article describes how, over three years, the town of Frome in Somerset has initiated a collective project to combat isolation and has seen a dramatic 17% fall in hospital admissions as a result, while Somerset as a whole by contrast saw a rise of 29% in the same period.

There are many examples from Europe and the USA of groups that have formally or informally come together for companionship and mutual support.  Atul Gawande, in the book mentioned above, cites instances of older people living with full control of their lives, not “being done to” – whether it be by the medicalisation of old age or well-intentioned strangers – but “doing” their lives for themselves. An example of such a facility is the Nikolaus Cusanus Haus in Stuttgart-Birkach, Germany, recently visited by a dear friend of mine, who was much impressed by it; and which describes itself as “a community in old-age that is based on freedom and independence and is inspired by the anthroposophical image of man.”

nikolaus cusanus

The Nikolaus Cusanus Haus in Stuttgart

Another idea which, with its emphasis on community, has the potential to make a real difference to the lives of older people, is co-housing. The concept originated in Denmark in the 1960s and quickly spread across Europe, the UK, US and Australasia. In co-housing schemes, people have their own fully self-contained house or flat but there are also shared facilities, usually in a Common House (a little like a community centre), which they can use 24/7 as much or as little as they wish.  Most co-housing communities will cook and eat together one day or more a week.  The typical Common House will thus contain a commercial style kitchen, a dining area, a large multi-purpose room (meetings, drama, film, parties, yoga, etc), a workshop for repairs, a laundry and a quiet room.  Co-housing is a cost-effective, fulfilling lifestyle for all ages but particularly suited to older people as it makes isolation virtually impossible.  Balancing this is the ability to participate as much or as little as people choose, allowing them to strike their own balance between community and privacy. UK examples of co-housing include Springhill in Stroud, Laughton Lodge in Lewes, Forgebank in Lancaster, LILAC in Leeds and the Threshold Centre in Gillingham, Dorset.

A good example of how co-housing can make a difference is OWCH (Older Women’s’ Co-Housing) in Barnet, North London. OWCH is a group of women over fifty who have struggled against the odds to create their own community in a new, purpose-built block of flats. As an alternative to living alone, they have created a senior co-housing community which is enriching the last years of many older women, and reducing pressures on local health and care services. What OWCH demonstrates is that a group from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, with ages ranging from early 50’s to late 80’s, who are all very different, with their own particular interests, family connections and work – (some of them are still working) – or health difficulties or disabilities, can nevertheless create the circumstances to keep themselves as self-dependent and active as possible as they get older.

OWCH (Older Women’s Co-Housing) in Barnet, North London

A similar aspiration is now seeking to come to expression at Emerson College, an independent adult education college in East Sussex, based on the principles of anthroposophy. Emerson College Trust, St Anthony’s Trust and the Anthroposophical Society in Sussex have joined forces to provide a co-housing scheme for older people at Pixton House in the heart of the Emerson College campus.  The examples mentioned above show the value that such a place could have in the quality of care, nutrition, social and cultural life provided to older people.


Pixton House at Emerson College

What we are calling the Pixton Third Age (P3A) Project will consist of the renovation, refurbishment and extension of Pixton House, a Grade 2 listed early 19th century mansion house, so as to create around 20 self-contained apartments for older people, together with some shared facilities.  The intention is that residents will be able to participate fully in their own Pixton community but also in the wider cultural life of the College, partially formalised into what is called the Emerson Living & Learning Community. Residents will be encouraged to contribute as much as possible to the wider community, sharing their skills and experience for the benefit of all ages. This project will give opportunities for inter-generational meetings and mutual support on the Emerson campus. The facility will be owned and run by an independent trust to include the residents, and in collaboration with Emerson College.

Even at this early stage, several people (individuals and couples) have expressed an interest in coming to live at Pixton. An architect, project manager, quantity surveyor and planning consultant are currently being appointed to take us to the point where a planning application can be submitted to Wealden District Council. We anticipate that apartments should be ready for occupation by late 2020, and over the coming months we will be bringing together prospective residents with the architect and project group in order to discuss the design and accommodation details that will best meet the needs of older people.

pixton third age

The Lily Pond on the South Lawn at Pixton.

It seems likely that the values for which co-housing stands – privacy combined with active community, resident control and autonomy –are sought after by a far wider group of the older population than is currently familiar with the term “co-housing.” The combination of community, looking out for one another and self-governance holds an appeal for what one might call the younger generation of older people, for whom outmoded models of social care no longer seem relevant or desirable. People like to be active in their own care whenever possible, and still wish to be able to contribute and feel needed, rather than to be the passive recipients of care that is “done” to them.

Of course, care from other people will be needed at times, although P3A will be a co-housing scheme rather than a registered care home. Many elderly people are no longer in situations where, for example, they regularly receive touch in a caring way. Their spouse and close friends or family may have already passed on or be in a depleted health situation. The warm, gentle, caring touch of a massage or other therapy can be a source of light and encouragement in an elderly person’s life. The provision of care as and when required, supplied by those experienced in anthroposophical therapies and medicines, will be an important component of the services available to P3A residents, and we are in the process of assembling a team of carers and anthroposophical nurses so that this can happen.

As an aside, I’ve recently read an interview between Emanuel Zeylmans (author of the 4-volume “Who Was Ita Wegman?”) and Wolfgang Weirauch, in which they discuss what Steiner would have done with the insurance money after the burning-down of the first Goetheanum, if he had been asked for his advice by the 15-member building association who controlled it:

“EZ: Of course there is no point in speculating what Steiner would have done with this money. But there is a problem connected with it, for insurance sums consist of money which does not derive from people who affirm anthroposophy. At today’s rate we are talking, after all, of a sum amounting to between seventy and one hundred million Swiss Francs. From all that I have read of Steiner’s views on the nature of money, I am fairly sure that he would not have used this sum for rebuilding the new Goetheanum. I think it is far more likely that he would have put it into other projects that would also have had real relevance for our present times.

WW: What kind of things do you mean?

EZ: In Dornach there was, for instance, no provision whatsoever for the elderly and I can easily imagine that he might, first, have set up a home for all those who needed it. He might also have been able to realise his dream of building a clinic behind the Goetheanum. In my documented research, I published proof that Steiner had planned a clinic on the orchard meadow behind the Goetheanum – a one hundred bed hospital in fact. In other words, he would have transformed the money by using it for another purpose. That is the important thing – to redeem money. This is only one example of how an intrinsically deeply creative person like Rudolf Steiner could have used the money. This would probably have led to quite a new sort of set-up in Dornach, through which he would then have received donations to rebuild the Goetheanum.”

To me, this exchange is deeply meaningful in the light of our own intentions for Pixton, both in terms of provision of accommodation for the elderly and also for provision of anthroposophical care. It indicates to me that our instincts are on the right lines and that by doing what we are doing, it will lead in ways we can’t yet identify to the unfolding of Emerson College’s future direction.  I hope it will also seem significant to you! If you would like to add your own support, one very tangible way would be to contribute to the funds currently being raised to support the preparatory work towards a planning application. You can do this online via the St. Anthony’s Trust website here. Thank you.



Filed under Co-Housing, Emerson College UK, Old Age, Ageing, Elderly People