The magic of growing old together

written by Kylie Terraluna

Eve and Judy in the organic garden Credit: Kylie Terraluna

Yoga teacher Eve Grzybowski is about to turn 71. Together with her husband Daniel, 67, and four of their closest, married friends — Michael, 72, Judy, 65, Heather, 69, and Rick, 70 — they made a decision about 15 years ago to grow old together with their friends. They simply did not want to see each other end up in nursing homes as they age, or be alone when partners die, so they created their own communal house and trialled living together, renting a large three-storey, six-bedroom house on the water in Longueville, NSW, for two years. They then joint-purchased an acreage property, making a tree change retirement to Mitchells Island, NSW.

This is their adventure, their wild ride with meticulous future planning. They have been living at Mitchells Island for six years now, in their beautiful, purpose-built, luxury designer home that none could afford without each other’s contributions. Besides their frequent sojourns overseas, they don’t ever plan to leave.

They have been living at Mitchells Island for six years now, in their beautiful, purpose-built, luxury designer home that none could afford without each other’s contributions.

While in Longueville, the six attracted the attention of documentary filmmakers, who captured the intimacy of their lives with a full 18 months of “reality” filming. The filmmakers gave up when they couldn’t capture the drama and in-fighting they were hoping for. These three couples know how to live in harmony. They all engage in ongoing personal-growth activities and are collectively known as “The Shedders”. Their property began with nothing more than a two-bedroom shed on five acres, now the yoga studio and guest accommodation. They grow their own food, pursue their own passions, mark special occasions and celebrate life together.

Could The Shedders have the answers to conscious living into old age? Could we all celebrate through intimate social connection rather than suffer the fate of mental health breakdowns and further isolation that growing old often brings? Could designing your life together with your closest friends actually be a preventive health treatment and a financial solution for your happy, elderly existence? If you can imagine it, who you would like to grow old with? Are you nurturing those relationships for lifetime friendships?

Life by design

“We knew it would be hard work and we had to look at agreements, but that’s part of designing your life,” explains Heather. Yet, for Rick, “Most of it wasn’t hard work — it was fun! Life by design is creating your own adventure.”

Each decision has been a collective one, and for this group of friends learning to let go when mutual agreement can’t be reached is part of the ride. “Take everything with a grain of salt,” advises Rick. “As we get older we get more set in our ways and get snarly when things happen, but [being a Shedder] keeps me young!”

“Not many couples choose to live with two other couples and only one kitchen and living area. ... but personally the rewards we reap are commensurate with the challenges of greater intimacy.

“Of all the options for people to cohabit, the method we chose is one of the most intimate,” reflects Heather. “Not many couples choose to live with two other couples and only one kitchen and living area. In some ways, it would be easier to set up a community village, but personally the rewards we reap are commensurate with the challenges of greater intimacy. To go down to the kitchen and have a cup of coffee and know the other people will be there gets me socialising in the world,” she smiles.

Still, it’s a big decision to invest in your friends like this. What if it doesn’t work out? Do you sell? What if someone divorces … what then? For The Shedders, there are exit clauses in place in case any couple or individual wants out at any time. Rick says, “We’ve all known each other for 30 years … You better know them well, and love them.”

“Most of the time our house is in wonderful harmony,” explains Heather, who admits she doesn’t like being around volatile people. “There is no difference between this and any good marriage.”

Marriage

Most of the six are well into their second marriage by now. “Living in a group like this takes the heat out of your marriage, and we often lean on each other for support,” says Eve. In a marriage, she says, “You keep communicating in the way you do, and you will get the same result, but when you bring marital stuff to the group, you get a different result for the marriage.” Judy explains, “People wonder if we are sexually active with each other and, no, we are not. We are sexually active within the privacy of our own marriages.”

“As soon as you choose this, you are making your life more complex and that’s a good thing — the complexities of relationship,” asserts Heather. “As soon as you combine your life with [those of] other people there are more decisions to be made, more feelings to consider, more conversations to be had. You can’t avoid intimacy, even if you weren’t thinking about it at the time. Part of the reason why you would do this is to have your friends close at hand.”

Food & finances

Daniel explains that the evening meals are all shared. “There’s no schedule as to who cooks, but we cycle through the couples. No one is uptight,” he says. The Shedders run the bills as a strata unit fund, with everyone putting in AU $700 a month, including capital expenses. Food is bought separately when not grown, and the cooks share the food that evening.

There are two fridges, and cleaning is a joint household activity. Michael is a character: “Heather created a spreadsheet, which I mostly ignore. I do my bit and I don’t tick it. There’s a house calendar and we can see what’s happening — you were on it, Kylie.”

Heather says the financial benefits mean “we save close to half”. Expands Rick, “You don’t need three washing machines … and, because we don’t have to pay as much for the basics, we have luxuries.”

Heather and Rick travel to Canada for three months each year, and sometimes there are four of the six Shedders away. Heather explains, “We pass on responsibilities organically. You ask, ‘Eve, will you water the plants on my deck?’ and ‘Michael, will you do the lawns for Rick?’”

At home

If spaces speak — and they do — the home of The Shedders speaks of gentle celebration, laughter, acceptance and relaxation. It has a welcoming, relaxed feel to it, full of light and thoroughly grounded with neutral colours. It has been designed for simple pleasures: to share coffee, meals, stories and passions. Each couple has their own private area: a bedroom, ensuite, living space and balcony. The communal area is spacious, well planned and embraces the beauty of nature with large windows to enjoy the serene views, and double curtains to keep the warmth in. They have clerestory windows for additional light, to overcome the slope of the block.

Heather says, “We like to celebrate. If there is nothing on the calendar we make something up. There is always something to celebrate. We create positivity.”

These are not your typical 70-year-olds. They are active yogis, singers, adventurers, world travellers, organic gardeners and supports to the community. The men attend men’s group, something new for Rick and Michael, and Judy encouraged the group to join a choir, bringing an unexpected additional joy to their lives.

Joining a choir

Research on mental health indicates that, for all age groups, social isolation is a considerable contributing factor. The Australian Bureau of Statistics states that, in 2007, 45 per cent of all Australians between 16 and 85 at some point in their lives experienced mental disorders. For the elderly, dementia is a concern. Music psychotherapist Kirstin Robertson-Gillam explains that social learning promotes cognitive functioning and can slow down the onset of dementia in later life. It seems this household is constantly learning socially, so is already ahead of the curve.

Further, Robertson-Gillam’s PhD studies show that choir singing could stimulate cognitive functioning and increase quality of life, wellness, meaning and purpose. EEG studies show that depressed and anxious people have unbalanced brainwave frequencies, which balance up after only eight weeks of choir therapy, she explains. The Shedders are avid members of community choirs.

What else makes their situation work?

Community

“We each have a vision of stimulation of the things we have taken on,” says Michael. “This tends not to happen as people get into their 70s or older because they are in a nuclear situation, or on their own, yet we are interested and engaged in life because we have the stimulation of other interests. There’s always lively discussion and sharing and opening up to other possibilities.” Michael teaches mindfulness, Eve teaches yoga, Heather joined a gardening club and they are all involved in Scribblers: a writers’ group. Judy and Eve are volunteers in palliative care, supporting the nurses in the area.

“We like to celebrate. If there is nothing on the calendar we make something up. There is always something to celebrate. We create positivity.”

Eve explains, “Our neighbour had breast cancer and owns a farm, so The Shedders helped with their crops. There’s a bond that’s created and a recognition that we are contributing to the community as The Shedders.” Heather takes the neighbour to appointments. It’s kindness that’s recognised: The Shedders are “so lovely” the way they take care of her, says their neighbour. Says Judy, “We stand for something — we’re contributors in the community.” Eve adds, “We can reach out into the wider community as The Shedders and not just as individuals. This helps to get things off the ground.”

The friends’ life by design is based on research. “It’s luminosity,” says Michael. “There is scientific evidence that these things work. People are better off socialising because the evidence is that social contact is what people need from birth to death. It’s about finding a way to meet that social need.” Judy says, “We all met doing the Landmark Forum and it is the basis of our communication style.” Michael explains: “We know not to let things rot; we can work things out.” Adds Judy, “We fertilise each other.”

The art of dying

What is it like, to help other people in their later years? Judy and Eve have a unique view after doing a Midwifing Death Course together. Explains Judy: “It’s an exquisite experience being with people who are dying. It’s subtle and delicate and incredibly tender, as close as you can get to the mystery of life.”

Eve says, “We can go through life on the surface of things … In the death process, you realise how much of a spiritual journey it is for the person making the transition.” Daniel jumps in, “So the rest of us are planning to go before Eve and Judy do” and Michael declares, “I’m planning not to die!” At which point, Judy looks over at both of them and says, “You’ll get tired of this. You’ll wonder, what else is there?”

In terms of their own needs for palliative care as they age, Judy is realistic: “This is the last post. At some point in ageing or illness, if we are six in a household, it would be easier to get support services than if we were alone.”

Separate lives

The Shedders don’t do everything together. Michael explains, “We welcome and engage with anyone who comes to stay, but you are not obliged to show up and be attentive to other people’s guests.”

“The challenge is in being treated as a group,” Daniel says. “We don’t have a separate place where you can have a private dinner and this means more flexibility. We go out for dinner if we want to be private, and then it’s just us. It changes the conversations you have. We are always working to break the assumptions people have about us.”

Only Heather and Rick are actually retired. “Work is more fun,” exclaims Michael. “But there needs to be a balance,” continues Judy. Each of the six seems to have it. They take beach walks, Judy kayaks, they go bike riding. “Each of us has a custodian relationship with the area … We have a wider interest in the whole island and that comes out of our commitment to the planet,” says Eve.

Flourishing

For the past three or four years, Heather, Rick and Eve, with four friends outside of the household, have been sharing a weekly personal report together. “We reflect back, based on the work of Martin Seligman and his book Flourish. As human beings we are meant to flourish,” explains Rick.

Each report consists of five components:

  1. Positive Emotions
  2. Engagement
  3. Relationships
  4. Meaning
  5. Accomplishment

“We swap reports to see how we are going in these areas,” says Rick. “It’s a good discipline to look back over the past week and see that life wasn’t that bad. I don’t want to sit around killing time.”

Eve says, “I go out into the yoga studio each morning and I look across the garden and feel into the day. I enjoy nature, and the exchange is not predicted. I didn’t give myself time when I was in the city.” Michael agrees. “Being in nature causes a recalibration of the spirit that assists people. It’s deeply nurturing to the spirit, and it’s so soothing to live here.”

“It has taken 10 years from our first conversation to the house being built,” explains Eve. So, if you’re considering following this model, give yourselves plenty of time. Judy says, “When you come over the river, you sigh and take in the sunset and think, “This is my life! How did I get this life?”

You designed it Judy, as part of the six, with a commitment to honest communication, to right intentions, to follow-through, to love, to pursuing passions, to living an adventure, with a willingness to dive in. Could you?


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Kylie Terraluna

Kylie Terraluna is a conscious-living luminary, an avid writer, poet, yoga author, features writer, yoga teacher, speaker, mentor and mum. She offers holistic retreats and 90-day online luminous-living programs to awaken, harmonise and illuminate your life.