A few years ago, when my wife and I separated on the way to divorce, I left our rural Michigan home and returned to my city of longtime residence, Chicago.
For financial and social reasons, I decided to look for a shared-living situation. This choice, I was convinced, would allow me to save a few bucks on rent, live in a decent neighborhood and avoid extended periods of time alone during the long Chicago winter.
The big difference, of course, was that I was no longer the fresh-faced kid right out of college or even the 30-year-old who first arrived in the Windy City in search of a better life. I was a guy in the deep shade of 50 leaving a marriage of 16 years, 14 of them as a landowner. I had done some living and seen some things. Now I was returning to my adopted hometown once again, hoping the lightning of good fortune would strike twice in the same place.
So I dropped an ad on Craigslist, scrolled through a few related listings there and waited for a nibble or a sign. My “ask” spelled out the specifics: older (but fully mobile and healthy!) male professional, returning to Chicago to start his next chapter, seeking a shared living arrangement.
One roommate loves to cook with lots of garlic and never cracks a window. The other forgets to flush. And are we really out of toilet paper?
I spent the next few years living in two very different environments with other single, older adults — one situated in a suburban, largely orthodox religious community, the other in a more diverse urban neighborhood.
Two Living Situations, Similar Issues
On the surface, the circumstances could not have been more different. One scenario paired me with a widower and a divorcee close to my age, the other with two divorced forty-somethings.
In the former, I was a cultural outsider on a quiet block of cookie-cutter homes where entire families walked dutifully to Saturday worship. In the latter, I lived among apartment buildings and single-family homes where kids raucously played outside my window, dogs barked, sirens wailed (I lived between a fire station and a hospital), and commuter trains roared through. In both cases my roommates consisted of one male and one female.
Despite the obvious environmental differences, it quickly became clear to me that some issues never change, regardless of whether roommates are friends, strangers or kin. But I also soon discovered that moving in with new people later in life presents its own unique challenges and opportunities. It tested my resolve and flexibility, challenged my personal boundaries, and yet surprised me with unexpected moments of joy.
Here are the seven lessons I learned on how to survive — and even thrive — as an older roommate:
1. Know the Ground Rules Going In
Older roommates have more routines and responsibilities than younger versions, but they can vary enormously. One may like early-morning alone time while the other always bathes before bed. His school-age daughter stays over two nights a week and her book club meets in the living room once a month. Are meals communal or separate? How is cleaning handled? And what’s the house policy on, ahem, “overnight guests”? Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions upfront.
2. Assume Nothing
It’s crystal clear in your mind’s eye: As soon as you get home tonight, you’re going to cook your favorite meal, put your feet up and binge-watch that new show everyone’s talking about.
Except it doesn’t quite work out that way. One roommate got to the kitchen before you and is cooking up a storm. The other has commandeered the flat-screen for a night of sports TV. And your favorite roosting spot is apparently occupied for the next several hours.
When you’re used to having the run of your own house — or at least successfully maneuvering around family members — the reality of sharing space with unrelated others hits home quickly.
Unless you know your other roommates’ plans and schedules and/or express your own desires in advance, you’re dealing with a first-come, first-served home life. That makes personal communication very important (see below).
3. Get Zen and Let Go
One roommate loves to cook with lots of garlic and never cracks a window. The other sometimes forgets to flush. There’s whiskers and toothpaste in the bathroom sink. Someone left the oven on. And hey, are we REALLY out of toilet paper again?
Unlike the family home, where squabbles over personal etiquette, hygiene and responsibility can be given full voice, the dance of roommates, especially older ones, demands a significantly subtler approach. Everyone has their own baggage and sensitivities around personal habits, and not every roommate shares the attitude of “we’re all in this together.” Throwing a hissy fit or unleashing a full-on rant will either ignite an equal reaction or introduce a prolonged, chilly silence. And roomie, you do not want to go to either place.
So if friendly reminders fail and the roommate’s habit bothers you enough, take the initiative and go crack that window, flush that toilet, wipe out the sink or turn off the oven. Accept what is, get over it and move on. (Bonus advice: Keep a private stash of TP handy.)
4. Respect Common Space
As already suggested, kitchens and bathrooms tend to be the pinch-points in any home, let alone one accommodating a blended group of individuals. As such, don’t be the one who regularly leaves dirty dishes in the sink, dominates refrigerator or pantry space or lingers too long in the bathroom during high-demand hours.
Sharing space can bring out the worst in even the best of us. People say or do things they often later regret. It’s better to air grievances than to bottle them up. Better yet, try to avoid pent-up hostility altogether through regular household meetings or spontaneous, brief check-ins.
6. Go to Your Happy Place
When all else fails, hightail it to your room and curl up with a good book. Or take a long walk. Run a warm bath. Find a quiet corner to meditate. Stick in the ear buds and crank up Foo Fighters. You get the picture.
Your home should be your sanctuary. During those (hopefully) rare times when it’s not, find sanctuary within yourself. It’s there when you need it.
Always remember: You’ve made it this far, and tomorrow is another day.
7. Be Open to the Unexpected
One evening, I came home after a particularly bad day and all I wanted to do was to disappear into my room and pout.
I had just been through a perfect storm of unfortunate incidents over which I’d had little or no control. I was mad at the world. I wanted to be left alone to simmer in self-pity.
Earlier that week, my roommate had asked if I would mind if his 9-year-old daughter, as part of her usual Friday night stay, hosted a few girlfriends for a movie that evening. I automatically said yes, since “Friday night” was an abstraction at that point and it was his condo anyway. He was just being considerate by giving me an early heads-up, I figured, who was I to say no? I forgot the conversation almost immediately.
Days later, as I lumbered up the stairs in my misery, I detected a rumble of activity. Something that began to bubble up in my memory was confirmed the moment I opened the door into a roomful of screaming, laughing kids. I was way outnumbered, with no other choice but to run a gauntlet of geeked-out little girls to reach the sanctity of my room.
A funny thing happened in that instant: My sour disposition dissolved. Suddenly it wasn’t All About Me. I have no kids of my own, but I am not immune to the laughter and joy children can so freely express.
As I crossed the threshold into my room, I realized my mood had taken a 180-degree turn. I was smiling and almost giddy myself.
I poured a glass of wine, not out of desperation as I had first imagined, but in celebration of having survived another challenging week. Then I turned on my favorite alternative rock radio station and cranked it up.
After all, who was going to complain about a little loud music?