María Luisa and Pepita are looking over their old photos together. Between laughter and affectionate nudges, they try to recollect the exact moment. “Here, we were preparing the food for a party. We must have been about fifteen,” says Pepita.
The black and white photo, like a mirror, reflects the image of themselves, although from sixty years ago, when the two teenagers would go to parties and for walks together with their respective boyfriends, in Moratalaz, a district of Madrid. “Look how young and pretty we were,” sighs María Luisa. They are now 77 and, after so many years, are living side by side again, like the girls in the photo perhaps dreamed of.
They are, in fact, living with a group of 83 other pensioners. Their home is a residential complex in Torremocha del Jarama, a village in greater Madrid. In addition to their own individual apartments, they have spacious common rooms, gardens, an allotment, a library, a gym and various activity rooms where they can take classes ranging from painting to chi kung.
It is neither a nursing home nor a geriatric centre, but something different, a new experience. It is the dream of a group of people who one day decided they neither wanted to be shut away in an old people’s home nor to depend on their children. Given the lack of options, they came up with their own solution: to grow old among friends. This utopia is called Trabensol (short for “workers in solidarity”), a housing cooperative designed for and by retired people.
“When our parents grew old, many of us took them to old people’s homes, but we came to realise that they were not as good as we would have liked,” explains Jaime Moreno, María Luisa’s husband. “As time went by, we started to think that we didn’t want to end up like that.” That is why they took the initiative and decided how they wanted to live in their old age, before anyone else decided for them.
The idea emerged just before the year 2000. “At first, we talked about getting a building and fitting it out, but then we decided to build it from scratch. We sold our homes, pooled our savings and started to look for a piece of land,” says Jaime. It was a long and tedious process in the beginning. “We visited over a hundred towns. They all welcomed us with open arms but none of them gave us any support. It was in the middle of the property boom and the prices were through the roof,” says Antonio Zugasti, one of the founding members.
They had to wait over thirteen years to see their new house built. But they designed it together, from top to bottom. It is a 16,000-square-metre modern, bioclimatic building built at the foot of the sierra north of Madrid. The property belongs to the cooperative and each member has their own apartment – there are 54 in total, each 50 square metres – on a ‘right of use’ basis.
The Danish example
Although relatively new to Spain, it is a model that has been in place since the seventies in northern Europe, where it is known as senior cohousing. The idea was born in Denmark, but soon spread to Holland and Germany.
“They established a simple rule there: a society that excludes the elderly from active life and joint decisions is an unhealthy society.”
“The Danish no longer know what a traditional old people’s home is,” explains Miguel Ángel Mira, who heads Jubilares, an association of architects that has been looking into third age housing alternatives for years and advises seniors wanting to establish cooperatives. “The most important thing is to have a solid community of people with shared interests. Then we look for land. It’s easier in countries like Denmark because there’s less speculation than in Spain. The land there isn’t as expensive,” says Miguel Ángel.
Still, according to the website ecohousing.es, there are currently eight initiatives of this kind in Catalonia, Madrid, Castilla y León and Andalusia, as well as around twenty more under development and another twenty groups interested. Some have a specific profile, such as women only or LGBT senior co-housing. Others seek to bring seniors and young families together in multi-generational co-housing models. But they are all based on the same principle: community living, participation and respect for each person’s independence. In the words of Charles Durrett, an American architect and one of the main theorists behind cohousing, “It’s a return to village life”.
Population ageing is one of the biggest challenges facing Europe. In Spain alone, the number of over-65s is forecast to double by 2060, rising from the current level of 8.5 million to over 16 million. Alternatives will have to be in place by then, as the traditional old people’s homes are far from ideal. As highlighted by a survey conducted by the Institute for the Elderly and Social Services (IMSERSO), 87 per cent of seniors in Spain refuse to live in a nursing home.
The authorities need to take action. “They have to tackle the problem of speculation, to make it easier and cheaper to buy land. The local authorities need to get involved. Public land and more assistance is required for initiatives like these,” insists the head of Jubilares.
Reaching utopia at 70
The main difference between Trabensol and a traditional old people’s home is manifest. There are no carers or nurses in the corridors, and no one tells them when they have to get up or eat, or how to spend their free time. The community is self-managed, decisions are made jointly, and they take care of each other between themselves. The only services outsourced are catering, laundry and cleaning. It was a choice they discussed and made together.
The average age is around 74 and they are enjoying an active retirement. “We have all kinds of workshops: from arts and crafts, world dance and ikebana to chi kung,” says María Luisa Llorena. They give the classes themselves. Everyone contributes their knowledge. One of the residents who is an Egyptology aficionado gives talks about the pyramids and the pharaohs, for example, and another with an interest in Chinese traditional medicine offers acupuncture sessions. María Luisa coordinates the readers’ theatre classes.
“We have everything we need here. There are university professors, artisans, health workers. We are all retired but we have a lot to offer,” says Jaime Moreno, who worked as a journalist for Televisión Española for years and leads the video forum on Sundays.
Aside from these activities, they all take part in different work committees to make the community run smoothly. There is an assets committee, a communications committee, a social wellbeing and health committee and a new sustainability committee, which was recently set up to prepare for the future. “We know that our capabilities will diminish over time, so we want to be prepared for when we start to have cases of dependency. The idea is to help each other between ourselves. Our principles are solidarity and mutual help,” explains Jaime.
Antonio Zugasti agrees: “It is easier to solve problems by cooperating rather than competing.” For this former aircraft mechanic, who is one of the older ones, at age 84, it is the only way to grow old. “A sister of mine passed away not long ago. She spent the last years of her life in normal nursing homes. To me, the place looked like it was made to kill off old people. There was so much passiveness. When they organise activities for them, they’re stupid games, as if they were children. Loneliness is a killer, but so is passiveness.”
A remedy for loneliness
Around 22 per cent of pensioners live alone. Women are the most affected, with three times more living alone than men. Seven out of ten are widowed. This was the case for Manuel Beltrán. “When my wife passed away, I realised I had to keep moving forward. Otherwise you end up creating a prison for yourself. I saw other relatives of mine let themselves go and it’s very sad. That’s why I thought this project was perfect for me.”
When Manuel reached Trabensol he met Baudi Lozano, from Asturias, who decided, at age 67, to leave behind her life in Gijon and to make a new start. They are now sharing a home and a new relationship. Yes, such things also happen here. “I had been alone for 20 years and I was used to doing my own thing, but now I couldn’t be happier. This is like one big family.”
Although there are no studies as yet on the health benefits of such projects, the Jubilares association is convinced that these new community living models improve quality of life, make people more resilient and reduce their dependency.
Trabensol is doing its own research. “We are doing a statistical comparison between mortality rates in Spain and what is happening in here. Given our age, according to probability, two point five people should have died here in 2016. But we’re hanging on in,” jokes Jaime. There is, of course, nothing guaranteeing these 85 pioneers eternal life, but as Antonio, the oldest of them, says: “The passing of time is much less frightening when you know you’re not going to be alone.”
This article has been translated from Spanish.