In Sydney’s harbourside suburb of Balmain, where geraniums spill from terrazzo pots and the streets are lined with cafes, a group of professionals were contemplating what they wanted their next phase of life to look like. Educated, healthy and aged in their 50s and 60s, they were wondering: How can we build a better retirement?
Among them was Keryn Curtis, 55, a journalist and ageing consultant with a thorough knowledge of the aged-care sector. When she thought about what she would like her senior years to look like, she wasn’t satisfied with what was on offer. She wanted to ensure her community connections remained intact, but also that she would have access to the services and care she may need as she grew older.
“A lot of people say, ‘I’m not going to think about that until I need to’. That’s when you lose all your choices,” says Keryn. “The idea is to make those choices when you’re our age. To think about it and have a plan.”
She and some friends created The AGEncy Project. Their motto is: “Growing older with gusto in the community we know and love”. Their aim: a co-housing space where people can spend their later years in a setting that offers independence without isolation. “It’s part of our sensible, proactive plan to give ourselves the best shot possible at an independent, active and engaged old age,” Keryn says.
Since it started in 2016, The AGEncy Project has attracted widespread interest and grown a second arm called The AGEncy Hub, which focuses on building networks. The popularity is a sign that there is a strong desire to re-write retirement living, Keryn says. And with a greater number of us living longer, that demand is only going to grow. Demographers estimate that half the baby girls born in 1950 (and one-third of boys) will live to the age of 90. So we’re seeing a global movement to change the way we live in those emerging decades post 70, 80 and 90.
The AGEncy Project’s co-housing model follows the work of US architect Charles Durrett who introduced the concept to the US after seeing its success in Europe. Charles lives in California in a small house that’s part of a 34-unit co-housing community with a large common house at its heart where the bulk of the cooking is done. “I do that once a month, others do it numerous times in between and we have dinner six nights a week,” Charles told the ABC.
Back in 2016, Keryn went to see Charles’ Sydney lecture with her friend Guy Luscombe, an architect who specialises in using better design to improve our later years. Before the lecture, she shared the event on Facebook. “I said, ‘If you’ve ever had that dream to get a whole bunch of friends and build your own bespoke place to live until you die, come and hear this guy’.”
More than a dozen friends and Balmain locals responded. Afterwards they went across the road to Spice Alley where, over plates of Pad Thai and green curry, they started hashing out a plan.
Guy had long been advocating for a new approach to aged living. In 2015, he examined 13 residential developments in Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands as part of a report on “new architecture for the new aged”. Baby boomers, he said, have always questioned the status quo and will demand better outcomes than what’s currently on offer.
The AGEncy Project’s progress has been steady. Plans for the residential community are advanced and the group is presently looking to secure a site. Local MP Jamie Parker is a supporter, as is the Mayor of the Inner West Council, Darcy Byrne. “There are a whole lot of people in NSW who are keen to see our project succeed,” Keryn says.
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