The golden girls (and boys) of Almuñécar

Barbara Hartley and Frances Gillard (2nd and 1st right) at the Almuñécar associations' day in June.
Barbara Hartley and Frances Gillard (2nd and 1st right) at the Almuñécar associations' day in June. / SUR
  • Una Vida Buena is an association dedicated to setting up an alternative for its members as they age

Most people will remember the 1980s US sitcom, the Golden Girls, in which a group of older women lived together in a large house and shared the trials and tribulations of ageing together. Move on 30 years and the concept of shared living, or 'cooperative housing', is becoming the norm in many countries as people are living longer.

A British couple are hoping to get what they believe is the first international over 55s housing cooperative in Spain off the ground. Frances Gillard and Barbara Hartley, who have lived in Almuñécar for 15 years, first came up with the idea around two years ago. "We started to question how immigrants to Spain manage in their later years, especially if they are on their own," explains Frances. She adds, "We found that there are lots of single people, especially women, living in quite isolated areas in the countryside around Almuñécar."

Inevitably the word Brexit comes up too and they explain that they have met people who have either returned, or are thinking of returning, to the UK in light of the uncertainty surrounding the final outcome for Britons living in other EU countries.

Una Vida Buena is currently operating as an association and the couple, who worked as social care and education professionals in the north of England, are hoping to get cooperative status for their project. "Cooperatives have a special status in Spain," says Barbara.

Frances and Barbara have already identified a potential building for the cooperative and are waiting for the outcome of a report into the feasibility of the project. The complex boasts 55 apartments as well as communal spaces and already has a licence for over-55's accommodation, but the pair point out that it still needs a lot of work doing to it before anyone can move in. They themselves hope to be two of the residents once it's up and running.

The couple explain that Spain is "way ahead of the UK" in terms of this type of living arrangement for older people. As Spanish culture changes, so is the way that the older generation are thinking about where - and how - to live in their older years. In the past parents and grandparents would have lived with younger members of the family. However, this is changing with the younger generations moving away from home for work and people living longer.

There are already a number of successful projects around the country, and at least three in Malaga province, including Residencia Santa Clara and Puerto de la Luz in Malaga city and Proyecto Residencial 51 in Antequera. What sets Una Vida Buena apart from those, say Frances and Barbara, is that the residents in the existing ones are all Spanish and are Spanish-run cooperatives.

"We already have members from Germany, the UK, Norway and Switzerland," says Frances. But they are keen to point out that they would like to get Spanish people on board as well. "We have had a lot of interest from members of Spanish cooperatives and Almuñécar town hall have been very supportive," they say.

In fact in 2017 Una Vida Buena invited Aurora Moreno from the Residencia Santa Clara initiative to talk to them about her experiences. "Aurora and a group of friends and acquaintances in Malaga found a way to achieve their dream of having personal autonomy and planning for a dignified old age," states the report of that meeting. Santa Clara, which is located in the Montes de Málaga, was built from scratch and has 76 apartments, a swimming pool, chapel, hairdresser's and gym. There are also rooms for activities as well as on-site medical care facilities.

Another thing that makes Una Vida Buena different from other similar projects is that the building already exists. In the case of Santa Clara, the members had to build the complex. Barbara's and Frances's idea is that the building is not just used for the residents, but that the communal spaces can be opened up to community groups in Almuñécar. They are also clear that the place "will not be a nursing home or OAP residence" and that while neighbours will be encouraged to help each other and social events will be organised, individual autonomy and privacy is central to the vision.

Other points included in that vision are "to build a self-run, not for profit co-living community based on democratic decision making principles and create an environment to foster solidarity and communal self-help support with comfort and security."

This vision reflects the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other bodies' research into housing cooperatives for older people. The WHO questions the definition of health asking whether it is strictly based on a clinical definition of the word and highlights the importance of sense of community but also personal autonomy for older residents within its Global Network for Age-friendly Cities and Communities. The London School of Economics has also done research into the benefits of cooperative housing ventures in the UK and looked at a women-only scheme in north London. The global Cooperative Housing International Alliance states that in Spain the idea of cooperative housing schemes has actually been about since 1957 when the National Union of Housing Cooperatives was established. This was replaced in 1988 with the Confederacion de Cooperativas de Viviendas de España (CONCOVI); a national umbrella organisation for housing cooperatives.

Whether the Golden Girls really were early pioneers of housing cooperatives, or the idea has been growing in Spain since the 1950s, such initiatives appear to be flourishing, particularly in Europe and North America and Almuñécar's Una Vida Buena could just be the first international venture, at least in Spain.