Walk down any pretty tree-lined street in Blackheath and I guarantee more than a third of the cottages will be occupied by a person living alone. Mostly they’re older people who are on their own either by choice or through life circumstances. After all, our village has long been considered a perfect place for retirement, and many come to live here following divorce, the death of a spouse or after a long career in the city.
I am one of them. Having spent twenty-six years raising a family in Leura, my husband David Hannay and I bought a small rural property with a spacious old farmhouse at Yetholme (near Bathurst) back in 2001. Sadly, after living the good life in the country for more than a decade, David was diagnosed with an incurable cancer, and he died in 2014. Apart from dealing with grief and loneliness, I found myself at a critical crossroad. What would I do with the rest of my life? Where would I live? And how would I cope with permanently living alone for the first time? I was overwhelmed and very anxious.
I am fortunate indeed to have a large and loving family. Four adult children, their partners and eleven boisterous grandchildren ranging in age from two to twenty-two. Yet when my youngest son Ethan and his partner Lynne suggested that we ‘throw our lot in together’ and buy a share house back in the Mountains, I seriously wondered if this would be an ideal solution for me – and more importantly, for them. They had been lovingly renovating a small cottage in Blackheath for nearly nine years, however they were now bursting at the seams, with three children including their oldest, Isabella, who has multiple disabilities.
On the other hand, I was rambling around a forlorn and icy house with four empty bedrooms, six fireplaces (my only heating) and hectares of unruly grass to mow. I was swamped by a sense of isolation and disconnection, and the prospect of packing up the material accumulation of a 43-year relationship was too staggering to contemplate. By good fortune at that low ebb my oldest grandson, having left university and feeling uncertain about what to do next, came to my rescue by moving in for six months. Just having a warm body in the house lifted my mood and helped me to keep moving forward. His physical and emotional support in getting the farm up to scratch for selling was a life-saver. Suddenly the prospect of sticking close to family seemed more than just a good idea. It felt like an imperative.
Recently in Sydney I saw a bumper sticker on a family wagon. ‘If mothers-in-law were flowers, I’d spray them with roundup.’ It would seem that refugees are not the only group in society who have been demonised! Stigma aside, I knew I could get along with my son and daughter-in-law because they had lived with us at the farm, some years back, while they were saving for the deposit on their first home. We all believe that where there is mutual respect and a strong will to make things work, clashes can be avoided. We don’t interfere in each other’s lives – I don’t tell them how to raise their children and they don’t tell me not to drink too much wine. We eat all our meals together, take turns to cook and tidy up (including the children) and share the basic costs of living.
Interestingly my children and their partners had previous experience of extended families because my own mother Muriel, a feisty and opinionated old journalist, had lived with us both in Sydney and Leura during their growing up years (25 years in all). She was not one to tiptoe around people, but her daily presence in our family life had been a positive and inspiring experience. Grandma contributed so much to their lives – right into their teens and beyond – that they could see the potential benefits of creating a similar situation for their own young family.
The environmental and economic cost to society of single occupancy housing is vast. More than 3 million Australians live alone and while those who are in small flats and apartments don’t create as great an impact, there are certainly many people in situations like the one I found myself in living at the farm on my own after David died. Most live-alone people I know will say they love the freedom, not having to worry about pleasing anyone and being able to ‘do their own thing’. They say they would hate to be a burden on their families; to be in any way dependent. Yet as we age living separately can be more of a burden on children who worry as parents lose skills such as driving and being able to care adequately for themselves. Having to constantly travel back and forth to check up on, and offer assistance to a frail and ageing parent can be far more demanding than having that family member living under the same roof. There’s also the issue of social isolation which older people experience as their world contracts – especially once they stop driving. Social isolation has been proven to cause a wide range of health problems for the ageing – a situation that simply doesn’t exist when families live together. Don’t even get me started on the benefits to children of having a live-in grandparent. I am not seen as a ‘built in babysitter’ but as a constant wellspring of affection and chat. They throw themselves on my bed; listen to and laugh at my stories and relish tales of ‘the old days’.
So here we are in our lovely old house on the Shipley side of the highway, carving out a garden that is both ornamental and productive. We have planted an orchard, set up multiple vegetable and herb beds, installed some happy laying hens and are in the process of introducing a swarm of bees to our ‘flow hive’. As we have pooled our financial resources we are able to afford solar panels and we are building a family room extension with double glazing that will also help keep our energy bills down. We are planning to put in water tanks for the garden and with the energy and enthusiasm of three keen gardeners we are aiming to make our little ‘commune’ a model of successful environmental and economic planning.
Effectively I have moved from a huge house to one spacious and comfortable room; having shed all but the most essential practical and sentimental possessions. Books, photographs, paintings and music. This process of shedding the past, which I so dreaded, was in the end liberating in so many ways. No longer being responsible for rooms full of stuff made me feel energised – lighter! I still travel a lot, and the joy of returning to a warm family home where I am appreciated makes my life seem worthwhile. I have a purpose.
When it works, having three (or more) generations living together can be the solution that makes life rich and satisfying for all those involved.
Mary Moody is an author and journalist, was a long term presenter on Gardening Australia, and leads international tours.
Photograph by Graham McCarter