In Focus: Could intentional communities be the cure for our loneliness epidemic?
Maria Cooper lives in a house made of old whisky barrels and straw bales.
Situated 30 miles north-east of Inverness, it’s part of a village that’s home to nearly 100 similar buildings.
Power is provided solely via wind turbines and solar panels, while more than 65 types of vegetables thrive in the garden Maria shares with over 400 other people that have homes nearby.
Where they live is Findhorn, the UK’s largest single ‘intentional community’, otherwise known as residential neighbourhoods or eco-villages organised around shared values.
Referred to as ‘The Park’, the area began life in 1962 as a spiritual commune and over the years has evolved into a pioneer of the eco-village movement.
Talk to Maria and feelings of isolation certainly aren’t issue here. In fact, according to the 29-year-old, community members at Findhorn always pulled together to support each other, long before the pandemic.
This is in stark contrast to recent figures released by the British Red Cross, which revealed that two in five adults reported to feeling lonely during the first Covid-19 lockdown of last year.
Speaking via Zoom from the room she rents in one of the village’s whisky barrel houses, Maria says that prior to the virus, The Park already had something called a “Caring Community Circle”.
‘It matched volunteers with people who needed bits of help,’ she explains. ‘When lockdown struck it expanded into a much larger support system. People offered to do other’s shopping and run errands. Neighbourhood representatives kept an eye out for those who lived close by, noticing if someone hadn’t been seen for a couple of days.’
It was during this time that a couple of villagers even elected themselves town criers. ‘Between 5 and 7pm on Tuesdays and Fridays, they cycled around neighbourhoods, shouting out important announcements,’ Maria adds.
Although the criers have since gone into retirement, others have carried on checking in with each other every Friday evening.
‘We still all come out onto our front door steps and share our news. Last week, someone’s roof was leaking, and because all my neighbours were there, we realised we had the skills and materials between us to fix it without calling someone in.’
Maria – who teaches adults at community college – adds that the social connection she’s discovered through intentional communities is invaluable for everyone. ‘Especially for those who are a bit older and may not manage to get their social interaction online.’
However, living in each other’s pockets does have its drawbacks and she admits that having all parts of her life linked within the community isn’t always easy.
‘Of course if your colleague in one organisation is also your boss and your partner in others it leads to conflicts and overlaps.
‘But there’s a depth of understanding that comes with living so closely together,’ Maria says. ‘It’s OK to have a rubbish day and get angry with someone.’
Findhorn is also home to an innovative sewage treatment plant called The Living Machine. Wastewater runs through tanks containing floating islands of plants which are habitats for microorganisms that break down the excess nutrients in the water.
As well as the plants, snails and fish in the tanks contribute to the process. By the time water has made its way through the system, no chemicals have been used and it’s pure enough to be recycled or released into the sea.
Meanwhile, due to their homegrown food and car share system, a study by the Sustainable Development Research Centre in partnership with the Stockholm Environmental Institute has revealed that the eco-village’s footprint per resident is just over half that of the UK national average.
But while Findhorn may sound like some sort of utopian fairytale, it isn’t unique.
Just over 300 miles south of Scotland, is Forgebank, another intentional community in Lancaster that has been built along the banks of the River Lune.
Around 65 adults and 15 children make up the neighbourhood’s 41 properties. Families own their own homes, but community members share a large common house, with a kitchen, dining area and sofas, a children’s play area, laundry rooms, co- working and craft spaces and a dance and yoga studio.
One resident is Alison Cahn, 63, who explains that once the first lockdown hit last year, a five person Covid-19 response team was set up – which she was part of.
‘We’ve had a couple of people contacting everyone in single person households to check how they are doing, see if they need anything and ask if they want to be assigned a buddy, and if someone has a spare set of their keys,’ she explains. ‘Some people say I’m fine, leave me alone, other people really want to talk. So it’s just keeping an eye on how people are doing.’
But this isn’t the first time the community has rallied round its residents. Two years ago, Alison, her partner and two others formed a group to care for a dying neighbour who didn’t have any family nearby: ‘That really deepened my relationship with the other two involved.’
Before coming to Forgebank, Alison had lived in London for 30 years, raising her two sons and working as a television journalist. After her children left university and she got together with a new partner, Kevin, she found herself at a crossroads and looking for adventure. On top of that, Alison was mindful not to repeat her mother’s experience of isolation following the death of her husband after 60 years of marriage.
‘Co-housing would have really suited my mom, who loved human contact and withered away without it,’ she says.
The age make up of Alison’s neighbourhood is everything from seven months to 78. Before the virus, she remembers spotting ‘one of the little lads’, a boy of three, ‘wandering down the street on a Saturday morning’. When she asked where he was off to, he replied ‘I’m going to play with Mary,’ his 73-year-old friend.
In November, ONS statistics measuring loneliness levels since the start of the first lockdown in March last year, reported that 8% of adults were ‘always or often lonely’. In lay terms, that’s a staggering 4.2 million people in the UK feeling alone.
‘Loneliness is always much more pronounced when you’re bored, or you don’t have anything to do,’ says historian Fred Cooper, whose research focuses on the recent history of loneliness.
He explains that all sorts of people have fallen through the gaps during the pandemic, from those who rely on wandering around charity shops and talking to strangers for social interaction to people who don’t have ready access to the internet.
‘Covid has made people think a lot more about loneliness, and hit home just how difficult it can be to live alone,’ he adds.
In terms of combating such feelings of isolation, Fred believes that co-housing is a strong solution, and says that he ‘wouldn’t be at all surprised’ to see a rise in people looking into co-housing and alternative living models over the next few years.
According to Cynthia Tina, who works for non-profit organisation the Foundation for Intentional Community, the number of communities has already nearly doubled worldwide over the last decade.
‘In 2010, we had 697 communities in our directory. Today the number is 1029,’ she says, adding that the numbers are going up partly because of the ‘increasing isolation’ of mainstream society. ‘People are hungry for community,’ Cynthia explains.
When Covid-19 began to hit America last spring, John Demaree, 66, was staying with friends in Texas while he had minor surgery for skin cancer.
Within days he had loaded up his van with food and water supplies and embarked on the 937-mile drive home to rural Missouri, where he lives in an intentional community with 60 others, called Dancing Rabbit.
Once he arrived back at the small village set among 280 acres, Farmer John swerved the six-bedroom straw bale building called the Sky House that he shares with other residents and instead moved into a cabin on the edge of the village to sit out two weeks in quarantine, with only a a registered nurse who lives in the village stopping by to pull out stitches from his surgery..
‘I had stocked up on bags of oranges and apples and two giant boxes of granola bars before quarantine, so generally I was self-sufficient,’ he explains.
‘People offered to bake me bread and help out but I had enough food that I didn’t need taking care of.’
Still, some of his neighbours checked up on him and at one point a registered nurse who lives in the village stopped by to pull out stitches from his surgery.
Talking about how he ended up at Dancing Rabbit two years ago, Farmer John explains he moved there after retiring and divorcing his wife. They had lived on five acres of land in the Texas countryside, and because ‘she had been the homemaker and hadn’t had a career, I figured I should just give her the whole ball of wax,’ he says, adding that he was already used to basic living after spending a year at a therapeutic camp.
‘I lived outside for most of that time,’ he explains. ‘We cut our own wood to cook on, so I’ve lived pretty simply. When I first moved to Dancing Rabbit, I was in a tent for three weeks or so, too.’
Before the virus, Farmer John would gather with five or six others for morning coffee. In the evenings, he’d sometimes play Texas hold’em poker, ‘just with a little $5 buy in.’
The village has a studio with a dance floor, and on Saturdays, he’d go to sing-alongs and dances. ‘I have joints that hurt, so I just move whatever needs to be moved around!’ he says.
Although Farmer John has missed this due to the restrictions of the pandemic, , he has still found ways to be social from a distance.
Most afternoon at 4pm, he dons rubber gloves, folds a coffee filter inside his face mask and head to the Mercantile building for happy hour.
‘For me, the amount of social interaction, even if it’s at six feet, is wonderful,’ he muses.
With a number of communities able to support older residents, it’s meant some have managed to avoid life in a care home – an area of accomodation which coronavirus has tragically had a terrifying impact on. The World Health Organisation reports that in many countries, more than 40% of Covid-19 deaths have been linked to long-term care facilities, stating that some figures are as high as 80% in some high-income countries.
And while there are no official statistics available from The Foundation on how Covid-19 has impacted intentional communities, they do appear to have avoided suffering such brutal effects. One survey revealed that just 5% of respondents from various communitites felt they have been severely or negatively impacted by the virus.
As thriving neighbourhoods where people of all ages live and work, intentional communities are very different to care homes. Even so, it’s testament to their handling of the crisis that these places managed to effectively shield their older members.
It helps that some eco-villages have hundreds of acres of land at their disposal, but moving to a rural community is an extreme choice.
Brenda Dolling, 75, is a founding member of the 19-year-old intentional community, Whole Village, set on 191 acres of farmland in the Caledon Hills in central Canada, about 60 miles from Toronto.
At the centre of the property is a large, 100-year-old house, spacious enough for 11 families.
It was after Brenda’s marriage of 17 years ended and she retired from her job as an elementary school teacher, that she began to think living alone was ‘silly’.
After researching the idea of intentional communities, she managed to find a group planning to start an eco-village, who had already come across a promising property.
Brenda remembers the day she first drove onto the land vividly: ‘Its beauty struck me so deeply,’ she says. ‘I just knew this was a piece of land I needed to work with, protect, steward – whatever you want to call it.’
Over the last 16 years, Brenda has seen ‘literally thousands of people’ come and go and while, for most, retirement means slowing down, it’s not for her.
For a 75-year-old, she works hard and eco-villages are not for the faint hearted. Residents must be physically fit and emotionally resilient. Those without savings or retirement funds must find some source of income to fund their village lives, which can be a struggle.
According to Brenda, Whole Village has ‘the membership process from hell’.
People read books, visit for long periods and undergo interviews before they can rent an apartment, and are not allowed to even talk about buying in until they’ve rented for a year. The community meets regularly to discuss how prospective members are progressing.
Understanding how these communities evolved explains why they are so careful. In the US, eco-villages are directly descended from the communes of the 1960s and 70s, some famously ripe for abuse.
Ann Whitney Sanford, a professor of religion at the University of Florida, said that while some communes started with great intentions, ‘people came in with drug problems or mental health issues and just weren’t equipped to function in community’. A lack of robust democracy left communes vulnerable to charismatic, overbearing leadership. Learning the lessons of the past, eco-villages now tend to thoroughly vet prospective members and are democratic and transparent.
In fact, beyond democracy, intentional communities often follow the consensus model of decision making. Instead of the majority opinion holding sway, every member of the group must either support a proposal or be neutral.
This ensures that making changes in these communities is a slow, involved process. At Dancing Rabbit, for example, one group has been meeting for three years to try and decide whether the village should allow pets. Some people want dogs, while others don’t believe in ‘ownership of another sentient being’, John says, sounding ever so slightly weary.
Over in Canada, Brenda Dolling ponders on why there aren’t hundreds of eco-villages in her province of Ontario, before immediately answering her own question: ‘it’s hard to get communities started, people are individualistic and for most, the compromises required are too huge.’
The reality is, one person’s utopia is another’s hell. Living in community is hard work, and not for everyone.
But since she retired, Brenda says she has learnt new skills, been constantly challenged and never sits still.
‘I wish I’d found this earlier in my life,’ she admits. ‘It’s a simpler life in some ways, but it’s meaningful and in tune with where I think the planet should be going. There’s a lot more joy, there are people to work with. And, crucially, you’re not alone.’
Exploring the stories behind the headlines, In Focus is the brand new long read report series from Metro.co.uk.
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