Friday, 20 January 2017

A dark day for democracy, let's hope not for the world

The last time the inauguration of an American president meant so much for me was when Barack Obama became President for the first time back in 2009.  That seemed truly seismic and historic, and it was. A black president in a country with such a recent history of slavery, racial division, prejudice and ongoing institutionalised racism appeared to signal a positive change that could resonate world wide. If an unimaginable change could happen there then why not elsewhere. It felt incredibly important, signalling something positive after that first, awful decade of the new millennium.

Whilst I cannot speak about the impact Obama has had as a president what I can say is that he and his family have been  a shining example of what we all would want to see in our political leaders. A man of compassion, willing to tackle injustice and inequality, no hint of a personal scandal and someone who knows how to reach out to all people.

Contrast that to today.  We are hours away from the inauguration of man who admits to groping women just because he can, who will pander to base instincts just to get elected, who becomes aggressive and defensive if anyone dares to disagree with him. In short a man who lacks any of the qualities you want to see in a political leader.  It's clear he is a leader in business where being cut throat and pursuing profit are advantages but let loose on the world stage I feel a sense of foreboding as to what havoc he may wreak.

So, for me, it feels a depressing day.  A day when populism and manipulation of people's fears have given us a man clearly not equipped to lead one of the world's most powerful nations.  Yet it does not stop with the U.S. Here in the UK we are also going down a path made ready for us by mainly men who manipulated the fears of people to lay the ground for a change so monumental that it will impact this country for decades to come. As in The U.S. we made a decision based on lies, prejudice and racism and those who disagreed are left as powerless onlookers.

It is probably the first time in my life that I feel that I do not have a political home and that is what makes the situation so depressing. The conservatives set up the referendum unnecessarily. We are now in the midst of years of economic and political uncertainty, the pound is plummeting (which is the only reason we are enjoying a short lived rise in the stock market), big banks are talking about leaving the UK, inflation is rising and on top of that the NHS is collapsing, social care is at breaking point and the future of the UK as an entity is in doubt. Despite all this, if an election were held tomorrow, the conservatives would win.  The labour party under Corbyn looks increasingly unelectable and the liberals appear permanently and probably unfairly tarnished by their association with the conservatives from their time in coalition. Then there's our own version of Trump politics, UKIP. No wonder it feels a depressing period for so many of us.

Some times you need to get to the low points before things can get better. In the U.S. you feel that what may well happen is that some revelation about Trump emerges that is so damaging that he has to go or he is impeached for doing something so at odds with their own laws and constitution. Here my hope is that someone will emerge who can challenge effectively the course we are being taken on and galvanise the many voices that are currently quiet and accepting of our fate.  We could really could do with someone like Barack Obama over here (and I hear he's currently unemployed!).  There are politicians here who could challenge and lead but they need to be bold and reach out.  They might be surprised at how many people are out there ready to get behind the right person. There is always hope,but at this point in time it feels that it is in short supply.

So good luck to the USA and the UK. A very uncertain future awaits both countries. It's a time, more than ever,  for concerned citizens to be vigilant and to hold our politicians to account.


Sunday, 15 January 2017

My New Year's Revolution

Here we go- stream of consciousness time.  This post will be written and posted sans editing, sans pictures just straight and raw. An idea and a feeling that just needs to be put out there and gap created for me to rethink and come back afresh.

A couple of weeks since my last post and this being a retirement based blog, a few people may have thought, "Oh poor John, long time since his last post and he is at that difficult age when anything can happen, well I hope he he didn't suffer...." but they would be wrong. Feeling fit, dry January and a shiny new exercise bike; all good in the physical shape department. No, the gap in posting has a different cause or rather many interconnected causes.

  1. My last post was about co-housing. Great idea.  My post was intended to bring it to people's attention.  It's a relevant subject. All fine, noble and worthy. And yet..... My partner had a read (she doesn't leave comments on my blog, rather tells them to me face to face), I asked for her views.  Well written she said. Ok, said I. But what did you think? Well, she said, (long pause), it was a bit dull wasn't it?  After several days of indignation and hurt pride I  realised she was right.   It was a bit dull.  I had several other posts in the pipeline; all noble worthy subjects; the scandal of the group of women in their early 60's who will not get their state pensions until 66 despite them banking on receiving it when they turned 60, my voluntary work and the organisation I work with.  All interesting topics, all needing careful research and some crafting but essentially articles about stuff that's out there and about which plenty of other people have written. 
  2. Linked to the above is the re-evaluation of what a blog or my blog should be about.  I started with the vague notion of writing about issues related to my newly established position of being retired. So you start writing and reading other blogs. Some blogs are like extended Facebook posts.  Today I did this, tomorrow I'll do that. Here's a picture. Or you cover topics; what to do with your pension, maintaining health, the meaning of retirement, nostalgic meanderings. For me I was finding it difficult to establish  a style.  Do I write article type posts or go for personal diary type posts; go for laughs or keep it serious? Then a deeper concern hit me.
  3. The title of my blog.  I started the blog at the moment I retired as I thought it would be interesting to chart this new phase of my life.  As I have now been on this phase for 6 months  I realise that it is very narrow to be defined by being retired. Yes I am retired from full-time work but  I am very busy doing various types of work, both paid and unpaid.  Being retired is a small part of what constitutes my existence at this point in time.  I want to write about things that have nothing to do with retirement and yet my blog title in itself could be a barrier to potential new readers. I suppose it's simply that being retired is no longer the big deal that it was for me 6 months ago and I no longer want that to be the overarching theme that I write about.
  4. Time.  6 months on from retirement as a full-time educator I have established some new work and interests. Drama teaching, working as a volunteer with  people in crisis, learning Spanish, and wanting to set aside time to write extended pieces outside my blog.  These developments mean I can no longer allocate as much time to write the kind of posts that I have been writing. And do people still want to read these types of posts?
  5. These ideas and questions have been floating around for the last two weeks. I started a couple of posts but my heart was not in them. They have been deleted. It was writing for the sake of writing because that's what you do when you have a blog.  It started to feel a bit false. I do not want to become a blog slave. Then I watched a film called Anomalisa by the incredible Charlie Kaufman. Stop motion film and yet one of the most human films I have ever seen. A  film that stops you in your tracks and makes you question why we all do the things that we do.  The main character goes through the motions, playing his roles in the manner expected and yet his life is hollow, devoid of passion and real connection to others. That does not describe my life, and yet it made me question some of the things I do.  Why are you writing the blog?  Who is it for and why are you being so cautious?
There it is.  A newbie blogger's existential crisis. The outcome? I shall stick with my blog's title for now but I shall move away from defining myself or the blog entries in relation to simply being retired. It's narrow and restrictive.  The blogs will be looser, more spontaneous but hopefully more personal and heartfelt. I may lose some readers but gain new ones.  I shall stop looking at the stats. That's not what this should be about. For me it is going to be how I feel. It may get opinionated, even confrontational.  I hope it will sometimes be funny but it will, I promise, always be me and always be real.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Cohousing - A brilliant concept whose time has come?

Happy New Year 

Firstly I would like to wish readers of this blog a happy new year (unless of course you read this in say June or July in which case I hope the year is going well for you).

I wanted to start 2017 with a post that teemed with positivity and good news after the fairly grim world news of 2016. This particular piece of good news literally turned up on my doorstep a few weeks ago when diggers started preparatory work for a cohousing project sited at the end of my garden.No, diggers at the end of my garden is not the good news story, but cohousing is! Although some of you will doubtless know about cohousing, I knew nothing until a cohousing group purchased the land near me and started talking to the local community about their plans. I found their vision and plans exciting, bold, hopeful and inspiring. Cohousing, in principle, appears to provide a template for living that answers many of the troubling questions we may have as we approach the more senior phase of our lives although as a concept it is applicable to all ages.

Good news but let's get the not so good stuff out the way first  

So let's start with the not so good stuff before moving on to extremely positive stuff. This blog started life as a way for me to reflect on retirement and to look at the opportunities and challenges that retirement brings. Retirement is also a time when one takes stock, looking back at one's accomplishments and disappointments and also looking to the future and anticipating what may be in store

This is when things can look decidedly less rosy. I shall use my dear old mum as an example. When she and my dad were in their early 60's they moved to be near me and my family. They were fairly fit, solvent and looking forward to enjoying the opportunities of retirement and being doting grandparents. That was their "here and now" but what would happen if one of them was left alone, became ill, got dementia, needed care? There were no plans for these scenarios, they were simply too difficult and uncomfortable to contemplate and in the place of thought out plans my parents' refrain was one familiar to others I'm sure; "I never want to go into a retirement home." That was it. They would never go in a home, no matter what, and I must never try and put them in a home. Plans A,B and C. End of story. I suppose you would call it denial.

Then in 2007 my dad died and my mother quickly developed a mixture of dementia and psychotic episodes. She made increasingly self defeating decisions such as moving to a retirement bungalow out of town that isolated here from friends, family and neighbours. I'll spare the depressing details but her dementia plus increasing psychosis meant that after two enforced stays in hospital I was told that my mother needed to be in residential care; she was not safe to be on her own any longer. I found a home, sold her house to pay for it and then spent 4 years watching the grim sight of my mother become someone I barely recognised and in the process not being cared for as she should have been until I finally found a care home that treated my mum with respect and dignity. None of this, of course, was in her basic plan but because there were few alternatives for my parents' generation my mum's story is one common to many elderly people. 

So now it's the turn of my generation to face the future; what plans will we put in place for that time when we can no longer live in the way that we used to? What are our choices? Some will actively choose to go into residential care and if you have enough money that could be a fantastic choice. Yet many of us have seen our own parents depressed, isolated or being poorly looked after in very expensive care homes. Some like retirement villages and sheltered housing, great for some but usually owned and controlled by companies and not the residents. We also know the care system (in the U.K. at least) is not just creaking but falling apart at the seams so even care in one's own home is increasingly problematic.  We are a generation where many of our children are living in far flung locations so the cosy idea of living as wise grandparents in a three generation extended family is just not going to happen for most of us. So not too many great choices there for us. We also know, unlike our parents, that generally we will live longer lives. The post second world war generations have not been ones to simply put up with the poor choices that have been handed down to them. They have been used to creating their own destinies and coming up with new solutions and now as we collectively approach the more elderly phases of our lives it becomes clear that if we don't like the choices on offer, if we want to stay in control of our lives, then we have to find and create alternatives for ourselves. I believe that one such alternative could be the expansion of co-housing. 

What is Cohousing?

I pointed out at the start that I only found out about co-housing because a co-housing group purchased a big plot of land at the end of my garden a couple of years ago. Immediately this group started to engage with the local community; sharing their plans and ideals, inviting our comments and even inviting interested parties to consider joining them. So what is co-housing? The following is a potted description from the website for the UK Cohousing Network:

" Cohousing in a nutshell

Cohousing communities are created and run by their residents. Each household has a self-contained, private home but residents come together to manage their community and share activities. Cohousing is a way of combating the alienation and isolation many experience today, recreating the neighbourly support of the past. This can happen anywhere, in your street or starting a new community using empty homes or building new."

There you have it. Housing developments designed by those who will live there, independent housing units with some shared communal facilities plus integration into a community based on the values of co-operation, sharing and mutual support. Although cohousing is not just for older people it does seem like an ideal way for older people to plan a different, shared way of living that could avoid the isolation and lack of support experienced by many older people up until now.For many it could also provide an alternative to the feared "ending up in a retirement home."

The group that have started developing the land near me (Cannock Mill Cohousing) have members that are 40+ years of age and their vision is one of independent living within a development where there will be shared spaces and a commitment to be part of a sharing community that will support one another. The members of the group have helped plan what the development will look like and an architect amongst them has designed the houses with input from the whole group. There is a commitment to sustainable development and they want to involve their new neighbours. The group will do things together, look out for one another and it seems inconceivable that any of the members will have to grow old in isolation and without proper care.  Never having heard of co-housing until this group bought the land, I thought this was a brilliant concept and a bold design for living. I also thought it was a new concept. Not so. When I looked into it I realised that co-housing has been a movement that took off in Denmark in the 1960's and has been growing for many years in the USA.  Then a couple of weeks ago there was a BBC news item about the UK's first women only senior co-housing project.
Some of the 26 women from the High Barnet group

26 women had finally moved into their new development In High Barnet. It was the U.K.'s first senior all female cohousing development. It had been many years in the planning but they had achieved their dream. What a powerful sight it was seeing those women, in control of their lives, moving into accommodation designed by themselves, all looking forward to new adventures whilst supporting each other. I know it's not a something that everyone would want but it does seem such an empowering and positive way forward.

Having seen the group of women realising their dream a few weeks ago and how excited and joyful they were to be doing it together and the building work going on at the bottom of my garden makes me convinced that co-housing is an idea who's time has definitely come.
The diggers have started ground works
Cannock Mill is the white building and will be the shared space for the community

It offers the prospect of looking to the future with confidence and joy instead of fear and trepidation. Hopefully as the knowledge of co-housing increases it will become easier for groups of people to set up such schemes and for people to join these schemes.

The group setting up near me are called "Cannock Mill Cohousing"  and I will finish this post by letting them speak for themselves. They do it so much more eloquently than me.

Why cohousing?

The simple answer is because it enables a caring, sharing way of life that eliminates the social isolation that threatens many today, especially in later life, and recreates the neighbourly support of the past.
In cohousing, we know our neighbours and look out for each other; we choose as much privacy or as much socialising as we want; we decide collectively what shared facilities we want to build — a common house where we can cook and eat together, say twice a week, where there will also be guest rooms, a workshop, library, laundry, space for music … dancing … a gym … the possibilities are endless.  We can share gardening, cars, skills, carers in old age — with common facilities and functions jointly owned and run by us.
As a cohousing group we do not have any central religious or social agenda, we are just individuals who see the benefits of an intentional community.  We have agreed, however, that we all aim for maximum eco-efficiency: low energy homes, water efficiency, solar power generation, growing fruit and veg — in other words ‘living lightly’. We will also integrate with and contribute to the wider community in Colchester.