A couple of years ago I was visiting a co-housing community, and I asked one of the residents what they thought was the biggest benefit of this way of life. Her answer: "It is the way towards world peace" floored me with its enormity. And yet, how else could we ever aim for something so ambitious as world peace, except by working out how to live together well in our individual households? Time and again, co-housing and co-living communities show in simple, practical and everyday ways, what valuing diversity and difference really mean, and model ways we can live harmoniously in community -- whatever the scale of that community.
Here, Jane shares the beautiful story of her multi-generational, multi-cultural house.
(note: the names of family members and tenants have been omitted for privacy).
Jane (far left) with family members, guests and other residents of her home
How would you describe your current living arrangement?
My house, in the Melbourne suburb of Ashwood, is a melting pot of people of different religions, races and ages. We each have our own room and if there are extra people staying over, we may share rooms or sleep on the couch. Some of the house mates pay rent, some don’t. The house is always very clean, and we sometimes share meals and celebrations together.
I’ve been running my house like this for many years. It’s good for me, good for my family, and good for the others that live here. It might sound corny, but I strive for peace and harmony, and if it’s hard to achieve in the big world, I can at least try to achieve it in my own home.
At the moment seven people live in the house. They include my mother who has been with us since June 2017. There is my eldest son, his girlfriend, and three tenants. And there’s myself.
We come from a variety of countries. My 94 year old mother, a Holocaust survivor, was born in Poland, lived in Germany and France, and migrated to Australia in 1949. My eldest son (39) was born in Australia, but lived in Israel for twenty years. His girlfriend (29) is from Vietnam and has been here for two years. I have two tenants, 29 yo and 35 yo, from Iran and the third tenant (34) is from Punjab, India.
One tenant has been with us for five and a half years. He is sadly leaving as his mother has arranged for him to marry an Indian girl. He exudes warmth and care, and makes the house a cosy home. He looks after the house as if it is his own, keeping the kitchen clean and tidy and letting me know when something needs tending to.
My younger son, (31) visits us and sleeps over at least once a week. He rents a room near the city, but when he is studying for a big exam, he often moves in for a few weeks for some extra nurturing.
I (Jane) am an artist and teacher. I am 62 years old, born in Melbourne, a mother of four, and grandmother of four. I moved to Israel in 1982 with my husband and two young children. We returned to Australia eighteen years later because I wanted to spend time with my ageing parents. My two youngest children came back with us while my two eldest chose to stay in Israel and serve in the Army.
Over the years I have also had a constant flow of backpackers (called ‘Wwoofers’ which stands for ‘Willing Workers on Organic Farms’). The Wwoofers mainly come from all over Europe, Japan and Korea, and stay during the summer from as little as a week up to a few months. I don’t have much of an organic farm (just a regular suburban house), but the travellers I host help me with different art and maintenance projects around the home.
My house consists of five bedrooms and a converted garage. There are two toilets and two showers which we all share. There is a weekly cleaning roster and a few house rules. We have a large front and back garden full of small fruit trees as well as a vegetable garden, bee hives, and many cosy areas to relax in.
My aim is for all of us to live together as harmoniously as possible, respect each other's differences, and maintain a pleasant atmosphere.
What do you find is the biggest impact for you by living in this way?
The biggest impact for me is that my household makes my life easier, less stressed and more fulfilled. Both my ageing mother, and my son, who has a disability, have an instant community, which takes a lot of the pressure off me.
My son doesn’t feel ‘a loser’ by ‘living with his mother’ (which he might otherwise feel) because it doesn’t feel like that, with so many people around. Because there is always someone around that can watch out for my mother or give her a meal if I am out, the attention and care I need to give her is diluted. I think my life would be very different and I would feel a lot more pressure if I didn’t live in a share house.
I also have a deep sense of satisfaction and joy knowing that I am managing to make my household ‘work’ according to my own values, where friendliness and respect for others is maintained and conflict is dealt with as smoothly as possible. Itry to find the balance between acknowledging each person’s ‘space’ while also maintaining friendly interaction amongst the housemates.
I am very happy that my mother lives with me. It has always been my wish, from a young age, that my parents stay with me once they are too old to live by themselves.
What have you noticed as the biggest impact for others you live with?
The biggest impact is that my household serves each person in a different way, each benefiting according to his needs.
As I mentioned above, my eldest son, benefits from having an ‘instant social life’. He has bi-polar disorder and a debilitating stutter which lowers his self esteem and confidence, and prevents him from making friends. However, over the years, my son and one of our dear tenants have developed a close friendship and become good friend. He has no judgement of my son, and in the evenings they happily chat for ages about all sorts of things. It is such a pleasure for me to observe their interaction and see how relaxed and engaged my son is. Even though his girlfriend now lives with us, our tenant has added a positive and extra dimension to his life. We have been very lucky to have this tenant with us for these five and a half years.
Celebrating a resident's citizenship.
We are all very sad that our tenant is leaving us, especially my mum, who loves him dearly as he is particularly good to her. He makes her daily fresh chai and offers her little bowls of tasty Indian food, which she appreciates so much. (Our other tenants are also generous and kind to her!) He likewise feels that he is very fortunate that he landed at our place. We became like family to him, to the extent that my younger son and I visited his mother in Punjab, bringing her gifts from her son, because he hadn’t managed to visit her in four years. I also help the tenants with their visa documents, statutory declaration forms and signing as a guarantor, because there is no-one else who is an Australian citizen with whom they have an ongoing relationship. Now that this tenant is moving out, he has no furniture nor much money to spare, so my mother has given him whatever he needs from her own house to furnish his small apartment. This also gives me a sense of joy - the fluidity of possessions - that what once belonged to my parents, has now passed onto someone who needs and appreciates it.
I am pleased that my mother lives with me and I can care for her in a heart-felt way. I can greet her first thing in the morning with a smile. I can check whether she's had her medication. I can ask her how she slept, and then leave her peacefully to eat her porridge. I remind her to wash the dishes and put them away. I find small jobs for her when she asks ‘What should I do now?’. There is washing to fold, the floor to sweep, and clothes to mend. She is thrilled to be of use in anyway, and is always looking for more jobs to do around the house so that she can lighten my load.In her mind, as long as she feels useful, life is worth living.
As for caring for the aged, I think my household setup is humane and normalising. Mum is surrounded by a diverse group of young people who all watch out for her in someway or another.
My son's girlfriend is always kind, thoughtful and helpful, as she understands how it works in her own country, when a parent or grandparent is old and needs sensitive and loving care. I feel that today, in Australia, we are no longer expected to look after our old. Instead, old people are looked upon as a burden and are more often than not sent to an aged care facility.
I also see my home as a place where newcomers can slowly adjust to the challenges of starting a new life in Australia. One tenant had a harrowing time fleeing Iran, and witnessed his mother drowning when their boat sunk at sea. Another tenant (34) stayed with me for three and a half years. During his stay he was a father-figure for many young Iranians who had escaped Iran and, as yet, had nowhere to go. They would stay with him in his small room until they found somewhere to live. Even though he left nearly two years ago, he still calls me his ‘Australian mother’ and ‘his Angel’.
How do you find living with people of different ages, backgrounds and cultures?
I find living with people of different ages, backgrounds and cultures continually stimulating and a positive experience. We learn from each other and about each other. We hear the stories from each other’s lives and countries of origin. We listen to the hardships, the longings and the everyday struggles, as well as discussing ideas, laughing, and just hanging out. We have also shared a range of festivities, including Jewish, Muslim, Zoroastrian, Sikh, Buddhist and Christian.
Celebrating Iranian New Year.
The housemates are from traditional cultures and love the fact that my mother lives with us. They say it reminds them of their own home which they miss, where their own grandparents live with their family. Mum’s presence adds a sense of belonging and warmth to their lives. The housemates treat her kindly, and it is a common sight to see her hanging around, waiting for some tasty tidbits while they cook. There are those who are intrigued by the fact that she is a Holocaust survivor, something they barely had heard of before joining the household. And vice-versa, my mother is never alone. She feels safe with everyone, and treats them like her own family.
When my grandkids visit from Israel, the household becomes even richer with an added generation. The tenants love to play with the little kids, cuddling and singing with them. At the same time the kids are occupied, giving their parents a welcome break.
It is ironic that in the larger world, Israel and Iran are enemies, yet in the little world of my home, there is peace. Although we occasionally discuss the complexities of Middle East politics, it doesn’t affect how we live together and our respect for one another.
My house is a microcosm of what I’d like to see in the world; people of diverse backgrounds, religions and ideologies living together and helping to create a shared environment where harmony, connection and warmth prevail.