Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Think mutuality and reciprocity… and interdependence ‘Jacques is 14 years old. When he comes from school, he is welcomed by his mother and Paul H, their co-resident in the home, a man 70 years old. They are living together in one of the two kangaroo homes operated by the Public Social Welfare Centre in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek (Brussels). Each home accommodates four seniors with one single-parent family. Each resident has his/her own room, but the living areas are communal… ‘Paul, formerly a mail-sorter with the Post Office explains: "When I arrived here, I had lost my wife and was forced to leave my apartment. I felt cast loose, as if the world around me was collapsing. But since my arrival here I feel less lonely."’ This comes from a case study article on the European Urban Knowledge Network. It got me thinking about responses to the UK’s infamous so-called ‘bedroom tax’… Could co-housing offer an opportunity to emphasise mutuality and reciprocity over ‘traditional forms of support and care’ (to quote a recent UK Co-housing tweet)? I thought I might find a one or two references to welfare policy on the UK Cohousing Network site, but just drew blanks. I can understand that they might want to steer clear of the torrid current politics. Wouldn’t we all. But there’s an important theme here, and it’s reassuring to see how the movement promoting cohousing for older people is gathering momentum. Possibly, just possibly, it will give us all pointers for the future, for two reasons: First, just because it accepts a mixed economy to get things done, the cohousing movement doesn’t abandon the principle that many things are better for being collectively endeavoured, and that many things should be ‘public’; nor the principle that the existence of a public sphere is in everyone’s interests. And secondly, it seems to reassert the valuable notion of interdependence for older people (and I do mean ‘valuable’, in an economic as well as various other human senses). Some years ago when I was researching into neighbourliness and older people, there seemed to be some acceptance of this notion – pulling away from both a tiresome insistence on older people’s independence on the one hand and some inconsistent attitudes towards dependence on the other. As a society we should have been exploring ways of providing infrastructure that makes interdependence and collective responsibility possible. We could pay a heavy price for our sluggish response to the looming crisis of old age, unless co-operative movements like co-housing serve to stimulate a widespread understanding of the necessity of mutuality and reciprocity. (And I do hope you feel that this topic is a welcome antidote to the current desperate, morally bankrupt attempts to reify Thatcher).

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