London - Picture the scene: it’s a glorious sunny morning, you stroll out onto the balcony of your self-contained, all mod-cons flat, to have a coffee in the sunshine. Your best friend, who’s moved in next door, is out on her balcony so you have a bit of a catch up.
The two of you wave to some friends who are walking across the communal landscaped gardens below, on their way to a morning yoga class.
Popping downstairs to the concierge to pick up your post, you bump into another good friend who suggests you join her at the on-site private members’ club that evening and, as you’re heading back to your flat, you encounter yet another friend who tells you she’s off to the shops and asks if she pick up anything for you.
It might sound like utopia — something many of us have fantasised about over a drink with friends — but in a few parts of the UK it’s becoming a reality. Groups of 50-something empty nesters or singletons looking to downsize aren’t just hoping they’ll get on with the neighbours, they’re moving in en masse, creating what have been dubbed "intentional communities".
Think of it as a university hall of residence — only for grown-ups. You have your own space, but there’s a community of people you already know living on the doorstep, and often a whole load of shopping and entertaining facilities besides.
Sian Sutherland, 55, is an entrepreneur who co-founded Mio Skincare and Mama Mio, a skincare company. She and her husband have bought a property within the redeveloped Television Centre, the BBC’s former HQ in White City, West London, and she has convinced her brother, Nick, and three other friends and their families to buy flats in the scheme. When complete, the development, which opens in December, will include 950 homes, cafes, restaurants, a cinema, hotel and even a branch of swanky members’ club, Soho House.
"We’re nowhere near retiring, but we do see this as the last home we will buy in London," she says. "It gives us the opportunity to be living in a vibrant area, where we can enjoy everything that the city has to offer, but within a real community of people you know and love. I love the buzz of living in a city but the anonymity can sometimes be very isolating. Now, I’ve got the opportunity to create a close community of interesting, fun, creative people.
"I love the idea of being so close to friends, you can pop in for a G&T during the week."
For her and her friends, the community aspect is very important. She has been in discussions with the developers about a coffee shop run by and for the residents that her brother, Nick, will open as a bar in the evenings.
"I think we’ve become used to curating our social communities online, seeking out like-minded groups of friends on Facebook and other social media, and I don’t see any reason that shouldn’t translate to real life. Loneliness is a huge problem in society these days and I think that’s partly because we don’t have enough real human interaction. So, for me, living near to the people you want to interact with makes perfect sense."
While Sian and her friends are buying into existing developments, that’s just one approach.
Across the country, older people are devising new ways to create their own communities, whether — as has happened in a suburb of Cardiff — by notifying their friends when properties close to their own come up for sale, or starting from scratch and commissioning architects to build dedicated housing and gathering other like-minded people along the way, an approach that is known as "cohousing".
Melanie Nock, 53, works for a charity and lives in a three-bedroom house within Laughton Lodge, Lewes, East Sussex, a converted hospital building set in 22 acres of land with a village hall complete with kitchen for communal meals once a week.
Melanie says: "Cohousing keeps me young. I have made friends I’ll have for ever and love the fact that I can socialise with them at the drop of a hat. If I want a companion to walk the dog with or join me for a swim, I just have to knock next door — no forward planning, no mobile phones required. This means I never get lonely, or bored if my husband is busy.
"I am still only in my 50s, you never know how things are going to turn out, so it is important to build a strong support network now for the future. I know that if I ever have to face a crisis later on in life — for example, if anything happened to me or my husband — there would always be someone to help here.
"You can’t look to your neighbours to be your carers as you get older, but they will be there to give you a lift to town, take you to the doctor, buy you a pint of milk — or simply for a much-needed chat."
Indeed, communal living is being hailed as a solution to the alienation and isolation many experience today, and it’s for this reason it’s become such an appealing prospect for so many people looking to grow old surrounded by the people they know and love.
"In Holland, in the 1990s they saw senior cohousing as a way of keeping older people happier, healthier and more independent for longer," explains Maria Brenton, UKCN’s Ambassador for Senior Cohousing. "They introduced policies that would assist that and there are now between 200 and 300 senior cohousing communities over there.'