From the messages coming out of Hollywood as well as the fashion and beauty industry, women are taught from an early age that growing old is not cool. Endless campaigns imploring us to “stay young” with a new brand of lotion, and films and TV shows relegating older women (read: anyone who can no longer legitimately play the role of sexual ingenue) to background, sideline, or virtually invisible roles, while older men seem to gain more respect, with age are the norm.
There needs to be a huge culture shift in the way we value our elderly population, especially women and minorities. When did we decide that being invisible or far away from the mainstream was the right way to treat people of a certain age? One particular retirement home in France was built to be an antidote to the negative messages around aging and celebrate women as they get older.
The Babayagas house was built in the Paris suburb of Montreuil, France in October 2012, after being conceived by feminist activist Thérèse Clerc. It took 13 years for the idea to come to fruition, and when it did, Therese was 85 when it was finally opened, proving age should never be a deterrent.
During the 13 years before the Babayagas house opened, Therese and her team sought government funding and ended up securing four million Euros from 8 different public sources after explaining how the house was designed to benefit the community as well as the residents, which would end up saving money.
The women who live there all care for each other, and they each are responsible for 10 hours of chores per week. There are no paid professional staff or nurses, instead the residents pool resources together to have a doctor or nurse come to pay a visit once a month. Unlike traditional retirement homes, this place is located within the heart of Montreuil, close to shops, cinemas and the rest of the city.
This was by design, as the founder wanted the residents to know they are still part of society and to remain active. There is also an intergenerational center where courses, workshops, and concerts are staged. One of the tenets of the Babayaga model is that the residents will be actively engaged with the world politically, socially and culturally.
The building houses 25 self-contained flats. 21 are adapted for the elderly and four are reserved for students. Residents pay an average of 420 euros to live here. There are also a number of women who live close to the poverty line, which is one of the reasons Therese wanted to build a place where women are valued despite their socio-economic status.
According to SeniorPlanet.org, passionate feminist Therese knew there were a generation of French women who were never able to work and save for retirement due to the culture at the time which required them to stay at home and care for families. This meant that older women are among some of the poorest populations in the country. The state-run old-age facilities didn’t cater to women in the way Therese envisioned and decided she would do something about it.
“To live long is a good thing but to age well is better,” she said in an interview in 2013.
Her desire to empower her generation of females was also driven by the need to see a shift in the way mainstream culture values older women.
“Growing old is not an illness. We want to change the way people see old age, and that means learning to live differently,” she said.
The current residents range in age from 60 through to 90, and all are encouraged to be independent, yet community-minded. By staying active and participating in daily life at the Babayagas, they are prolonging the aging process and keeping their minds sharp.
“Staying intelligent will keep us healthy…. I believe women who are happy, not bored, will live healthier lives,” said Therese.
In case you are wondering about the name, the word Babayagas means “witch” in Slavic mythology.
Born in 1927 Therese was very politically active in her younger years, campaigning particularly for the Movement for the Liberation of Abortion and Contraception ( MLAC), the peace movement or the PSU, according to Archy World News. She was the mother of 4 children and 14 grandchildren. She was married at the young age of 20 and divorced by 40, and realized she preferred the company of other women.
Sadly, Therese passed away from cancer in February 2016, but her legacy and hard work are continuing to make an impact. There are plans to build similar centers in other French cities, as well as in Canada where an interest list in Toronto for Baba Yaga Place has attracted 150 people already. They too plan to seek government funding to get off the ground.
Similar to the way the original Paris location admitted residents based on what they were able to offer in the way of skills and shores, the Toronto version will use this as a selling point to securing funding for their design.
“We have lots to offer to our working neighbors, who may benefit from an experienced cook, dog walker, someone to sign for their parcels, or a babysitter…The socio-political aspect of Baba Yaga means we stay active and involved in the broader community, not isolated,” said 60-year-old founding member of Toronto’s Baba Yaga Place Iris Kairow.
The focus on ensuring elderly people are not isolated away from the rest of society seems to be a major factor in the appeal of Babayagas.
“We have learned that the government policy promoting Aging in Place can lead to isolation and mental health deterioration. It’s also expensive for funding the safety modifications that make individual homes accessible as mobility declines with age, and for funding the nursing care to each person’s home,” said Iris Kairow.
It seems like a no-brainer that should be implemented everywhere, especially when you consider some of the health issues can be avoided by preventative measures that don’t cost a lot.
“The savings to our society will be evident by avoiding mental health issues, by staying independent and active, and by postponing entry into nursing home care — all expected to be significant cost savings,” Iris added.
While the Paris location is exclusively reserved for women, the Toronto Baba Yaga Place will be open to all genders, but with a focus on women.
Filmmaker and director Jean-Marc La Rocca made a documentary about Therese and the Babayagas called ‘We will age together, the saga of the Babayagas’ in 2013, and Canadian documentary filmmaker also released a film in 2012 called ‘Baba Yaga’s House’.
Clearly Therese Clerc was onto something when she conceived of this idea, and we hope to see many more elderly women benefit from her activism and persistance to place value on lives often forgotten or rendered insignificant by parts of society. Before her death, she told a Canadian radio station in 2012 of her plans to make the most of the remaining years of her life in benefit to others.
“I’m 84, but what time I have left is going to be happy and fulfilled, I’m sure of that. Old age isn’t about being shipwrecked. It isn’t an illness. It can be beautiful, and I plan to live it that way, with my friends and colleagues here,” she said.