In some ways, Robin Kahn and Abigail Hastings were destined to live together.
They had met years before in Manhattan, when they were both married. The two women became fast friends, took vacations together, just the two of them, and arranged regular play dates for their kids.
But then, as life went on, they drifted apart. Abigail, a creative writing teacher and playwright, got divorced in 1997 and raised her son in a large loft in New York’s artsy SoHo district. Four years ago Robin, a public speaking coach for organizations, also divorced. When that happened, she turned to friends old and new to discuss her circumstances.
“I made a list of people who went through difficult divorces,” she says, “and Abigail was at the top.”
After not seeing each other for several years, they met for lunch and talked and laughed and cried. At the end of the meal, as they were saying their good-byes on Broadway, Robin, then 58, mentioned that she didn’t know where she’d be living next. Her daughter had just moved 3,000 miles away and after 25 years of marriage she was all alone for the first time in decades.
Abigail, then 55, said her son had recently gone away to college and that she too was living alone in the same large loft apartment.
The words were no sooner out of her mouth than she added, “Why don’t you stay with me for a while?”
Robin’s response: “I’ll go home and pack.”
Modern ‘Golden Girls’
Robin and Abigail represent a growing trend: two (or more) boomers sharing a household. According to a recent study from Bowling Green State University, more than 1 in 3 people 50 or older are unmarried. Of this group, approximately three times as many women as men find themselves living alone because they divorced, never got married or their partner died.
Many, like Robin and Abigail, live on limited incomes — and with the ever-increasing anxiety that no one will be there to take care of them as they age. As a logical result, these women are establishing their own communal households.
“Women by nature socialize with others more than men do,” says Tamara McClintock Greenberg, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, who specializes in aging. “They often have powerful arrangements with friends similar to a ‘phone tree’ — where if friends don’t see or hear from them in a while, they know to check up on each other,” she says. “Communal homes are the natural extension of this.”
Wanted: Boomer Roommate
The reasons for the increase in “boomer roomies” boil down to the three “big Cs”: cost, companionship and community.
Cost For boomers who find themselves suddenly dependent on one paycheck (or a significantly smaller one), living alone can be prohibitively expensive. Sharing the costs of rent, utilities and food saves them money and can allow them to live in better (and often safer) neighborhoods.
Robin and Abigail, who live in expensive SoHo, readily admit it would be tough to stay there on their own. “Living together, we are able to enjoy the fun stuff we otherwise couldn’t,” Abigail says. This includes dining at nice restaurants (usually at lunch, which is cheaper), going to the theater (typically discount tickets) and taking dance lessons and yoga classes, all of which improve the quality of their lives. “We wouldn’t be very happy without these things,” she admits.
Companionship Research shows that solitude can have a negative effect on a person’s health. A 2012 study linked loneliness to decreased mobility and an earlier death in people over age 60. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, interviewed 1,600 people and asked whether they felt isolated, left out or lacking in companionship. Their findings: More than 40 percent reported feeling alone, which increased their risk of experiencing physical decline and dying over the course of the six-year study.
Community Women tend to miss the interaction of a family-like atmosphere and be more drawn to joining a community, Greenberg says. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to see this type of arrangement as a sign of weakness and may resent the suggestion that they need help or cannot take care of themselves.
“Women also realize they will live much longer than men, on average, and have no idea what the future might bring,” Greenberg says. “They better understand the importance of strength in numbers and know they may need assistance at some point.”
This point was driven home for Abigail a week after Robin moved in. “I returned home from a trip and was really sick — thank goodness she was there,” she says. “Another time I fell hanging a curtain and glad to have someone around to help. As we age, the vulnerability of living alone becomes more of a concern and you wonder who will care for you if something happens.”
Not everyone lucks into as perfect a situation as Robin’s and Abigail’s. While some boomers resort to searching Craigslist for a roommate, Robin says the best place to start is with your own friends and acquaintances. “Put the word out that you are looking,” she says. “You may be surprised how many other people are seeking same thing.”
Another thing both Robin and Abigail stress is establishing basic house rules at the outset. The most important is to discuss each other’s daily patterns to get a sense of work schedules and habits. This can help create boundaries and allow for ample “me-time” for everyone.
For instance, Robin is a morning person who’s often up by 6 a.m. Abigail is a night owl and sleeps in, so Robin uses this period for her quiet and private time. It is also important to have your own private space, Robin says. “You need a place to go to be alone, even if it’s only your bedroom.”
It’s essential from the get-go to be clear about financial expectations, like how much each person is to contribute for rent/mortgage, utilities and other household expenses. Anticipate upcoming expenses so there are no surprises, which can be calamitous for someone on a fixed income. And set specific due dates to specify when her share is expected.
Food and mealtime can be a delight or a major headache, so determine how responsibilities will be shared. Some people might prefer to take care of their own daily meals, while some households might rotate who makes dinner so everyone eats together.
Even in the best of circumstances, it is not always going to be easy. You’re still living under the same roof with other people, and that can be challenging at times. “Everything you have learned and experienced with relationships applies here as well,” Abigail says. “You must have good communication and the ability to listen to other people’s needs and learn from each other.”
But you may find this new arrangement better than anything you have experienced before. As Robin says, “In some ways living with Abigail is more fun than my marriage was.”
Matthew Solan is a frequent contributor to NextAvenue.org.