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Judy Santamaria Headshot

Seniors Have Roomies, Too

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Most of us know that loneliness isn't good for us -- but as we age, many of us find our circle of friends and family diminishing in size for various reasons. Sometimes consciously, sometimes not, loneliness can creep in, and begin to affect our spirits in a less-than-healthy way. Recently, I've been hearing about some really interesting ways seniors are stacking the deck in their own favor to combat loneliness associated with aging, and I wanted to share a few of them with you here.

First, think about this: Brain studies prove that the more social we are, the longer we live--and the better quality of life we enjoy. In one study, researchers at Harvard Medical School followed nearly 45,000 people who had heart disease or were at high risk of developing it. The four-year study found that those who lived alone were more likely to die from heart attack, stroke or other heart-related problems than those who lived with others.

Many seniors live alone after divorce or the passing of a spouse -- as if they take for granted that it's their lot in life -- but it doesn't have to be that way. Instead, these transitions can become very creative -- and even fun new chapters in our lives.

Sharing space can save money as well as provide us someone to talk to and rely on, to share meals and conversations with -- and, of course, it guarantees that someone will be there if we need help as we get older. When shared housing works out, it can keep seniors at home longer than they would otherwise be able to remain alone. It can also be a boon for family caregivers, who worry about senior loved ones living on their own.

Gloria B. had lived alone for six years after her husband died. She struggled with rheumatoid arthritis but was managing "well enough." Her main worry was how to keep up the house now that much of her strength was gone, and she had nagging fears that she soon wouldn't be able to afford all the expenses. Gloria's daughter Jane lived 90 minutes away and tried to visit often, but with a job and kids of her own, she found it difficult to help her mom as much as she wanted to. And she worried about her all the time.

The idea of getting a roommate for mom first came to Jane when talking with a friend in Illinois whose father had taken in a boarder to help with expenses and was very happy with the arrangement. Jane started thinking this might work for her mother. After all, Gloria had a three-bedroom house, and her home was conveniently located near public transportation. She started asking around when she brought her mom to church and to doctor appointments.

Three weeks after her first inquiries, Jane was approached by Marie, a recently divorced woman in her mid-fifties who commuted into the city three days a week to her job as a publishing assistant. She recognized Gloria from church, and was hoping a room in Gloria's house would enable her to save up and buy her own apartment someday. Jane thought it was a perfect match but feared it would be a hard sell to Gloria.

She couldn't have been more wrong. When Jane framed the idea of helping out a fellow churchgoer establish herself, Gloria jumped at the idea. "At first, she didn't even want to charge her rent!" Jane marveled. They settled on $500 per month and Marie moved in -- having a bedroom, private bathroom, and full use of the rest of the house and yard. "That was 18 months ago, and it's been a very positive experience," stated Jane, who loves knowing there is someone there in the evenings with her mom.

Both Gloria and Marie agree. On Mondays, a day Marie doesn't work, she is available to drive Gloria to doctor appointments (agreed upon during rent negotiations) and she brings Gloria to the market every Saturday. They eat occasional meals together and "usually watch TV together on Sunday nights." The benefits go both ways, however. In addition to the low rent she pays, Marie often comes home from work to find a home-cooked meal that Gloria prepared. "I love cooking for others," says Gloria. And Jane couldn't be happier. "My only fear is what we will do when Marie decides to move out. Get another roommate, that's what!"

The concept of home sharing seems to have caught on first in California and the Midwest. The Center of Concern's Home Sharing Program in Park Ridge, IL, matches homeowners having extra space in their homes with individuals who need affordable housing.i The Affordable Living for the Aging (ALA) in Los Angeles, CA, has a similar program. According to ALA, shared housing can provide a source of income and is an "attractive option for seniors who wish to stay in their homes, and who may need companionship, caregiving support or help with activities like cooking, shopping and driving.ii The National Shared Housing Resource Center (NSHRC) is a clearinghouse of information for people looking to find a shared housing organization in their community. Region 2 includes New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

While some people are aging in place successfully by actively seeking home-sharing situations, some situations just seem to grow organically, like this group of a dozen New Yorkers who have found friendship, support and mutual caring in the Washington Heights apartment building they share. Or the 60-something bloggers Ann Fry and Dina Wilcox who write Senior Flatmates about their experiences as roommates "sharing adventures and space in New York City." (more on this in my next post)

So regardless of whether you have room to share, or are looking for somewhere to rent, what should you think about when considering sharing your living space?

  • First, recognize that while you will both reap financial benefits, house sharing is a human and social relationship as well as a financial arrangement. As a homeowner, be flexible about what you're charging; it's more important to find the right match than earn a little extra each month.
  • When considering a potential housemate, let go of preconceived ideas or prejudices about others. Be open to differences in people, because this new relationship may be your chance for a whole new life experience.
  • Discuss details of the house sharing arrangement ahead of time. The National Shared Housing Resource Center offers a publication called Consumer's Guide to Home Sharing for10. Use this as a template to discuss your rental arrangement as well as sharing of chores, handling of food, use of common areas, and schedules. If you have a need, such as help with groceries or rides to the doctor, discuss these ahead of time and give reductions on rent if your new roommate can help you.
  • Remember -- unlike college roommates, you and your home sharer do not need to have the same tastes in music, sleep schedules or personalities. Honesty and reliability may be the most important traits in anyone you plan to share your home with.
  • Finally, learn ahead of time if additional income from rent will affect your eligibility for any public assistance you receive. Meeting with a financial planner is always a good idea.

For more information or to find home sharing in your area, contact the National Shared Housing Program at http://nationalsharedhousing.org/program-directory/.

Next: Senior Flatmates: an interview with Ann Fry and Dina Wilcox, two 60-something bloggers "sharing adventures and space in New York City."

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i http://www.centerofconcern.org/sharing.html

ii http://www.alaseniorliving.org/