We are three couples who decided on living together, 16 years ago, in our retirement. The word “retirement” is a loose description as we, like many seniors are incredibly busy, wringing as much as we can out of what’s likely to be – what Michael calls – our last quarter.
The six of us wanted to do retirement in an extraordinary way, one in which our maturing into old age was enriched by being together. We have expressed our mission by contributing to society, continuing to learn, optimising our health and exploring creative pursuits. Our team consists of Michael and Judy, who I met through Iyengar yoga in the late 70s; Heather and Rick, who I met through the EST training and the Landmark Forum, my husband, Daniel, and me.
Back in 2000, we discovered that we enjoyed each other’s company enough to start sharing Christmas and New Year holidays. When we talked about our future, it seemed that a home in the country was a more enticing option than a retirement village. So we started taking steps.
Choosing a location
In the beginning, we were extremely naive and we actually looked at an 80-hectare (200-acre) property. It didn’t take long to come to our senses and so we settled on buying a 1.6-hectare spread on Mitchells Island on NSW’s mid north coast. That’s how Michael came up with our group name, the Shedders – as the property had a big green shed on it.
Getting to know ‘our island’
The island became our new holiday destination. We’d make the four-hour drive from Sydney up the Pacific Highway whenever we could get away. During these holidays, we would fill the 72 sq metre shed up to the rafters. Two couples got to stay in the two bedrooms and the third couple got the mattress in the “lounge”. We got along remarkably well, considering the small space. Fortunately our island has inviting attractions – recreational river activities, an ocean beach, a cafe or two and a general store.
To test the theory that we could live tout ensemble, we began a trial of cohabiting in a rented house in Sydney. It shouldn’t have surprised us, but potential landlords weren’t in a hurry to rent to six adults. Perhaps we were viewed as hippies or swingers? We struck it lucky. Judy found a three-level waterfront house in Longueville, Tambourine Bay. We had to downsize our possessions to move in together, which gave us the opportunity to live up to the name Shedder; imagine how many belongings we had to shed to be able to consolidate three households into one?
We had our difficult moments, but it’s said that tough seas make smooth stones and we, mostly, lived in harmony for two years. I became a blogger at the beginning of our Longueville stay in 2006, an early adopter of this way of communicating.
Building a house
This was the putting-your-money-where-your-mouth-is stage. There were lots of meetings where our various strong personalities flexed their muscles as we developed a plan for our future house. We chose our house designer and after workshopping ideas, we were able to give him the brief, one that we had to keep fine-tuning to reflect our slender budgets. The good fortune goddess provided us with a great builder and construction began in February 2009.
Heather and Rick were the first Shedders because they retired earlier than Michael, Judy, Daniel and me. They lived in the little tin box of the Shed on and off for two years. They also project-managed the house construction and made the myriad micro-decisions relating to interior and exterior decor. In November 2009, our large three-bedroom house was ready to move into and it’s where we’ve been living, as they say, happily ever after.
I can honestly say, far better than anyone expected. We have a Friday morning working bee where the six of us clean the house, each with our regular chores. We also have a sign-up spreadsheet for dinners that lets us list when we will be in for which meals, with a spot to put an asterisk if we are going to cook. It works very well. We used to have monthly house meetings to sort out maintenance, finances, capital investments and the usual stuff, but because things run so smoothly now, we don’t meet so often.
We have become a kind of an entity. We are very much individuals, but thinking of ourselves as a group seems to appeal to people’s imagination. Maybe it even gives them hope, in the same way that the movie about the Amish community, Witness, did for me decades ago. I was deeply touched by how that group worked together for the common good.
The wider world knows about us. We were first interviewed by ABC Radio National in 2010. Word spread about these pioneering people doing what many had thought about but never realised: retiring with friends. Since then, we’ve featured in magazines, newspapers and television interviews. There is even “our story” – I encouraged Heather to write a book about our experience, available from Amazon, of course called The Shedders.
We’ve made a long-term commitment to each other and for me, living as the Shedders represents family healing. Even though we are not biologically related, we have each others’ backs in the way a functional family does. Years ago, when we created our vision for a shared future, I wanted to discover my “best self” in a relationship with close friends. At times it’s been difficult, at other times blissful. Overall I would say it’s been more successful than I imagined.
I’ll paraphrase the philosopher and poet, Peter Bolland, as he describes the process of mature relating: no rock begins smooth and round. Sand and water and other rocks grind away at the edges until only the smooth round middle remains. Everything unessential is gone. Songs and poems and people and ideas begin the same way. Then along comes the scouring. Without the friction and the conflict and the constant cutting away, the beauty of the final stage is never revealed, cloaked forever beneath peripheral layers of obfuscation and detritus. The secret of life is learning to love the cutting away.