The Abbeyfield concept

Hilary Stace

As our population ages, new ways of living with respect and dignity are required. The family home might no longer be accessible or suitable, a unit might be too lonely and/or a retirement village a step too far or too expensive. One solution, available in several New Zealand towns and cities, is the international model of community-based supported flatting known as ‘Abbeyfield’, a volunteer-based organisation providing housing for older people. Founded in the mid-1950s in a poor borough of London, now more than 10,000 residents in over 16 countries live in Abbeyfield homes. 

The concept has operated in New Zealand since the early 1990s when it was introduced to Nelson by a local GP who travelled to the United Kingdom to look at older peoples’ housing options. Enthused by the Abbeyfield concept, he returned home where he promoted the idea and recruited supporters and Abbeyfield New Zealand was born. The Foundation was registered in July 1999 and regions run their own Abbeyfield Society centred on their residences.

There are now 14 Abbeyfield houses in towns and cities around the country, including Whangarei, Sandringham, Takaka, Nelson, Christchurch, Westport, Queenstown and Dunedin with more in the planning and development stages. Some are the result of partnerships with local community groups such as with the RSA in Motueka. Most houses have between 8 and 10 residents who are aged from their mid-60s. Every home is purpose built and residents have their own large studio room with ensuite. As with most family homes, there is a communal lounge, dining room, kitchen and laundry and in some houses a guest room for visitors.

Each house is staffed by a live-in housekeeper who takes care of the shopping and prepares the two main meals of the day which are served at the communal dining table. But other activities, from gardening to governance and social and leisure activities, are done by volunteers who form voluntary house committees. Residents contribute as much as they can, are involved in the management of their house and in the selection of new members of their house. An Abbeyfield House aims to be ‘a typical house in a typical street’ (although usually a large one) offering companionship, independence and support in rental accommodation at a price affordable to most older people on a pension.

The aim is to enhance the quality of life for older people by enabling independence, privacy and companionship, dignity, involvement and housing security.

The philosophy centres on the older person, with the skills and time of volunteers the key to the concept and to keeping prices down. Abbeyfield houses are a home, not an institution, and provide full board and accommodation at a rate which is no more than National Superannuation. Each resident nominates a friend or relation as a personal advocate who can be contacted and consulted in case of an emergency or difficulty, by either the resident or the Society. Care services are not provided but residents can be assisted to access home care services if needed. There is housing security for as long as they can live in the relative independence of the communal flatting environment, and many residents are well into their 90s.

Values underpinning the concept include the belief that people can work together to help older citizens have a secure, comfortable and companionable life in a regular household. As well, older people have an important role to play in the lives of their families, friends and communities. For example, residents of Abbeyfield Dunedin recently staged a protest against the planned removal of their local New Zealand Post post-box, a threat which would limit their participation in the wider community.

Several projects were completed with the help of Housing New Zealand’s Innovation Fund. With the government’s enthusiasm for social housing the Abbeyfield national board has looked at how Abbeyfield might be best positioned to take advantage of that policy.

The whole concept depends on dedicated volunteers locally, nationally and internationally.  JB Munro is one New Zealand volunteer who has had a significant role in the movement, following his retirement as head of the IHC. He chaired Abbeyfield New Zealand for many years and also served as the organisation’s International Chairman, overseeing Abbeyfield work in numerous countries. When he retired from that role in March 2014 his contribution was recognised at a dinner in London attended by the movement’s patron, the Prince of Wales. He had previously been awarded the Abbeyfield International Royal Patron's Award, an honour which is presented to only one volunteer per year from across the world.

There are still many regions in New Zealand without Abbeyfield Houses or without spare capacity. But each residence starts because volunteers gather and organise around an identified need. For many middle aged people the Abbeyfield concept of gently supported affordable flatting provides an appealing concept for parents and older relations. But by getting together now with a group of friends to establish a society of volunteers and develop a purpose built facility they may also be addressing their own future housing needs.


Dr Hilary Stace is a disability researcher attached to the Health Services Research Centre at Victoria University. She has a particular interest in autism, intellectual disability and human rights. She is currently working on a biography of JB Munro, formerly head of the IHC.