Cover Story

The House that Bev Built  by Beverly Suek
The House that Bev Built
Even though I’m semi-retired and work at home, my body seems to know that it’s 7:30 a.m. and I need to wake up.

It’s quiet in my bedroom, but when I open the door I can hear Lynda next door listening to CBC and humming a tune.My hair is sticking straight up, so I head for the bathroom to pee and to wet my hair so it lies down properly. Heading downstairs, I hear the front door close softly as Bonnie leaves for work, trying not to disturb anyone.

In the kitchen, I’m greeted with a happy “hello”from Nicoline, a vegetarian who eats healthy things like yogurt, berries and local bread and cheese. Katherine and her dog, Jersey, are still asleep on the third floor, but they will be down shortly. I feel content. I’m happy to hear the hum of the house, and this is how my day begins in our intentional women’s housing community.

A few years ago, I lived alone and I didn’t like it. I ate alone, I watched TV alone and I went out for walks alone. I felt lonely. It’s not that I didn’t have friends or family to go out to dinner or to a movie with, but I would still come home alone.

Maybe living alone suits some people, but it didn’t suit me. Over the years, I have spoken with many women who live alone, and while most enjoy the control and independence they have, many are also lonely. Many of them also live on a limited income and can’t afford a posh retirement home.

While there’s a certain security in staying in your own home, maintaining a home alone can become overwhelming. And you still have to deal with loneliness.I wondered if there was another option. What if I could create housing for other women who, like me, didn’t like to live alone? What if we could live together and share expenses but also share our lives?

Creating an intentional living community was something I had been interested in for more than a decade, but I had few examples to follow. Most intentional communities involve individual living units with shared common space; they do not involve actually living together. But why should that stop me?

Always an adventurer, I bought a big house with the plan—or should I call it a leap of faith—that other women would share my dream, as well as our combined living expenses. I put an invitation out to everyone I knew and asked them to pass it along.

Lynda was the first to respond. I hadn’t met her before, but when we chatted she seemed compatible, and so she moved in. The kitchen was being renovated at the time, so we had a makeshift kitchen on the second floor. She bought a small refrigerator, and with much grunting and groaning, we carried it upstairs and made do for three months. Lynda, who is an excellent cook, would make eggs dukkah (eggs poached in a Mediterranean mixture of spices and nuts) on Saturday mornings, and we’d sit on the front balcony overlooking the park and talk about what was going on in our lives—our kids, our work and our hopes. After living alone, it felt comfortable to share ideas with someone.

Because we needed an official name to create a Facebook page and open a bank account, we came up with the Women’s Housing Initiative Manitoba (WHIM), a name that reflects the whimsical nature of our housing adventure.

Later came Nicoline, Bonnie and Katherine. None of us had met before we lived together. After Nicoline moved in, we developed a process to select new members. We agreed on a few basic standards—no smoking, no homophobia and no racism, for starters. Those requirements are in a backgrounder sent to new prospects that outlines our philosophy for our intentional community and explains how it differs from just renting a room.

An intentional community means having the privacy of your own room, but also sharing the rest of the space and helping to create a community. If a new prospect responds favourably to the backgrounder, we send them a questionnaire to find out what is important to them in a living situation.

Because we strive to be light-hearted in our 50-plus community, we usually ask prospective housemates if they know who Doris Day is. The thinking is that if they don’t, they’re probably too young for us! Then we invite the prospective person to meet with the rest of the group, since everyone needs to be comfortable with a new member.

Today, there are fi ve of us living in a fi ve-bedroom, brick, century-old home in south-central Winnipeg close to the Assiniboine River. The house has a hot tub and sun porch, and its expenses are covered by our monthly contributions. Because we don’t want to do all the maintenance work ourselves, we contract with a house cleaner twice a month as well as a lawn and snow-shovelling service. We all pitch in to do cleaning and do chores to keep the house in good condition. Some of us like to garden, while others prefer to fix and paint.

We also collaborate on grocery shopping. Each of us puts in a few hundred dollars per month, and we take turns buying groceries. Even though we all like different foods—from tofu to Kraft Dinner—it all comes out of the same pot. We stock different kinds of milk—skim, one percent, two percent, soy milk and cream—and we’ve learned to live with the differences!

Over dinner recently we shared what we liked about our living arrangement. Everyone agreed that one of the biggest advantages is meals. We take turns cooking dinner,so each person cooks once a week. I was surprisedat first how much I enjoy it. After making meals for my family for so many years, cooking once a week for my housemates feels creative and fun. And the meals are a step up from the frozen lasagna I ate when I lived alone. In fact, many of our meals are fantastically good!

Katherine likes the mutual support of shared living and says she goes out to events that she wouldn’t have gone to alone. What I like best is learning new things.When you’re alone, you have the same thoughts recycled. Living with others, there are new ideas and different ways to look at issues that arise. As a result of living with four other interesting women, my brain functions at a much higher level than it did when I was alone.

From the beginning, we decided to host occasional “salons” to stimulate intellectual debate and social interaction. The salon idea was partly a response to my resistance to spending my retirement years making crafts and playing cribbage. I once visited a seniors residence, while looking for housing for my elderly mother, and I saw that the afternoon was spent making Styrofoam snowmen. I vowed right there that I would never live without intellectual stimulation.

Why can we not continue to debate issues and be involved in local activities and world affairs? Why can we not change our customs and beliefs, and recognize that people need more than to be entertained in their senior years?

Consequently, we have organized a number of salons and invited interested friends. One featured a discussion about how non-Indigenous people could support the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Another included an evening of letter writing in support of imprisoned people identified by Amnesty International as needing help. We also had a karaoke night that raised money for Winnipeg’s West Broadway drop-in for homeless people.

Other events are just for fun. We hosted a lobster night and had 14 lobsters shipped in from Nova Scotia. Katherine made bibs, Lynda had four pots of boiling water ready to go, and we fed 14 people on a cost-recovery basis.

We have been living co-operatively for two years now, and I feel grateful every day for the company and support of my roommates. And it surprises me that we don’t have a lineup at the door to get in. I’m surprised because there is a growing public interest in the concept of living together as older adults. We’ve been interviewed for CBC national and local radio, the Globe and Mail, CTV News,Canadian Living and radio stations in Regina and Calgary.

To me, the idea seems quite simple—a new way of creating affordable housing that serves a greater purpose. It’s easy, and it’s cheaper than living alone.

So why are people reluctant to do it? I can only think of two reasons. One is that they worry that there will be a loss of control. If you live alone, you decide where to put the TV, what time you eat dinner and whether to paint the bathroom red or yellow. It is true, some things have to be discussed and decided on collectively. But as long as things are negotiated in a co-operative and respectful way, it’s not likely to create problems. In fact, my housemates and I often end up with a better idea than what one person had originally.

The other barrier is a fear of conflict. People worry about having to deal with someone they can’t get along with. My theory is that there is always going to be conflict in any relationship—the trick is how you deal with it. Consequently, we try to choose people who know how to deal in a constructive way with conflict. We also have monthly meetings to discuss household issues and to work out solutions to problems that arise. Any finally, everyone signs a yearly contract and agrees to leave if it is not working out.

So far we haven’t had to use that clause.

Lately, we’ve been having a discussion on the topic of organizational structure and ownership. Currently, I own the house, and everyone shares the living expenses based on a percentage of the overall costs, which are outlined in our informational flyer. The percentage is dependent on the size of each person’s room and its amenities, and at this point each person pays under $1,000 a month. We’re considering changing the structure to a co-op, a partnership, or a share corporation, but we haven’t reached a final decision yet. We are leaning towards a share corporation, because some of the current residents don’t have the capital to invest equal amounts into the purchase of the house.

On the other hand, shares would allow for membership with lesser and higher numbers of shares. Whatever model we adopt, I feel comfortable transferring my ownership because, in some ways, owning the house makes me feel more “in charge” and therefore less of an equal.

We frequently get asked what we will do if someone became sick or incapacitated. After all, our group isreserved for women 50 and over, and the average age is 62, so the issue is bound to arise. We haven’t had to deal with more than the flu or minor ailments, and, so far we have only needed to offer sympathy and occasional help. But what will happen if one of us develops progressive MS or terminal cancer? How much support will we give?

While we have developed policies on many issues over the last two years, this one has been the most difficult. The best we have come up with so far is that we will deal with prolonged disease or illnesses on a case-by-case basis, according to the premise that we will balance the needs of the person who is ill with the needs of the other residents. No one will be obliged to provide ongoing care beyond what they are comfortable doing.

Still, the intention is for the roommate to stay at home as long as possible, perhaps with assistance from services such as home care, private nursing, friends or family. Most people do want to stay at home as long as possible, because it’s more pleasant and more affordable to do so. Housemates are asked to designate a power of attorney and prepare a living will, or health directive, and to designate someone who will ensure they get proper care in the event it is no longer possible at WHIM.

At the moment, all of us are reasonably capable, and, hopefully, any changes are far in the future. Maybe we are hiding our heads in the sand, but I know from my personal experience with family members and illnesses, including dealing with HIV/AIDS, that you deal with diffi cult situations when they arise and just do what needs to be done. I believe that things will—as they always do—change and that we will work things out together.

I have come to care very much about my roommates—about their health, whether they haveproblems at work or with family members, and about their response to world affairs. Don’t get me wrong—we are not in each other’s faces all of the time. We each have outside interests and independent friendships apart from one another. I appreciate that they are welcoming to my 10-year-old granddaughter and her friend when they come running through the snow in January to jump in the hot tub. I love the fact that someone will offer to pick me up at the airport after a long and difficult trip. And I know that there is someone close by if I were to accidentally fall and couldn’t contact anyone. I wouldn’t experience this level of care and safety if I lived alone. Besides, I would miss Lynda singing show tunes as she chops vegetables, Katherine’s enthusiasm for new experiences, Nicoline’s calmness and insights, and Bonnie’s sense of style and humour.

As the day ends, Katherine puts Jersey out for one last bathroom break, and the rest of us head to our rooms to sleep or to read. I’m alone, but I know that there are friends nearby if I need them. 