Flat Out at Fifty

By Sandy Burgham

flat out at 50

I read once that we only grasp the point of a decade when it’s over. Hence so many women at midlife realise that they spent their 20s subconsciously, or even openly, looking for a mate, when their time might have been better spent enjoying freedom and adventure before partnering and having kids.


So what is the point of your 50s? I’ve always thought it was about becoming the person you have always intended on being before other people got in the way. A friend’s son turned 12 last year, and as she reminisced about the years gone by, he commented wryly “Yeah Mum, poor you — 12 years a slave”. I feel her pain.


While I have nothing against husbands and kids — I have both — actually living with them can be overrated. With a husband based abroad for a while (“wow, how do you swing that?” ask my envious, married, 50-something girlfriends) and our daughter flatting, I have only our teenage son to contend with. And as luck would have it, he’s had both a long school trip and an extended holiday with his dad this year, which has meant having a series of my girlfriends making a beeline for my new apartment in the central city. Some have had to be in Auckland on business, and others simply wanted a mini-break from their partners and families (two even tag-teamed from Australia). So I have been reliving what it is like to go flatting with mates.


I can’t help but compare it to the experience my daughter is having in her flat, which is reminiscent of a squat-meets-60s-hippiecommune. In her flat they seem to live on noodles and crackers. In mine, we live on crackers too, but the thin imported ones, art-directed with tapas from the deli to match a decent bottle of red. In her flat, all are ready to party at all hours, even when university assignments are due. In mine, there is concern if someone’s looking a little tired — “Why don’t you go and have a lie down before we go out?” In her flat there is stuff everywhere, the only clean-up is before a flat inspection. In mine, someone’s always done the dishes, “just to get them out of the way”. In her flat, clothes are shared, in mine we buy each other small gifts just because “it’s so you”. In hers, no-one does voluntary exercise, in mine we plan walks and run errands in active-wear.


While in the liminal space between real life and holiday, my friends and I mused about household compositions, social norms, property prices and the Unitary Plan. Might we bring back the flat in our second act? Rather than renting alone, could renting together be an option once again? Apparently alternative housing arrangements for over-50s are flourishing in North America, with baby boomers thinking up new ways to set themselves up for the next stage in life.


Rather than retirement villages, which can feel a little institutional, many are looking for a different and perhaps more authentic, sense of community. Co-housing communities are gaining traction and interest. They consist of small individual apartments or houses with large shared kitchens, dining rooms, gardens and spaces where neighbours can willingly interact, designed and planned by the residents themselves.


Putting aside the fact that no-one could stand living with me for an extended period except my husband, and I note that he has chosen to be away a lot, this would have a certain appeal in later years. Clean-living non-smokers, keen to do their fair share in the kitchen and in the garden, and who want to be asleep by 10.30pm? What’s not to love? In fact the only irk might be wearing each others’ Easireaders by mistake.

— Sandy Burgham


This post first appeared in The Hobson October, 2016