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When Living with Strangers Makes Sense

New house-sharing services help match housemates

Editor’s note: This article is part of a year-long project about aging well, planning for the changes that aging brings and shaping how society thinks about aging.

When Dottie Burns, a widow in northern Vermont, was taking care of her elderly mother who’d broken her hip, Burns decided she needed help. Rather than hire someone, she opened her home to a stranger — a Japanese woman who was studying in the U.S. Her new housemate lent a hand in exchange for an affordable living situation.

“She paid some rent and helped with the meals, the laundry and cleaning up the kitchen,” Burns recalls. Her housemate even helped Burns tend her mother. “She helped whenever I needed an extra set of hands, and she was wonderful.”

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Burns has continued to share her home, years after her mother died. Now 89, she has had a succession of housemates. The rental income helps cover her high property taxes. But even more than the financial help, she says, “The important thing for me is the security of someone coming and going and the camaraderie.”

She is one of a growing number of people who choose to live with strangers, rather than with family members or friends — or alone. House sharing is one way to deal with what some call an epidemic of loneliness. University of Chicago researcher John Cacioppo estimates that 60 million Americans — 20 percent of us — suffer from chronic loneliness, which significantly affects our health and well-being. Older people are especially vulnerable to loneliness and isolation.

“Sharing housing gives people informal, spontaneous social connection,” says Annamarie Pluhar, author of Sharing Housing – A Guidebook for Finding and Keeping Good Housemates. “We don’t have that anymore. We text people to make an appointment for a phone call.”

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Make The Right Match

Pluhar says that finding the right housemate depends on getting agreement on managing eight key concerns: cleanliness, neatness, kitchen use, routines, guests, noise, tasks and bills.

“You start with getting clear on what you must have and what you cannot live with,” she says. The “can’t live withs” might include dirty dishes stacked in the sink, smoking or loud television. (Among Pluhar’s helpful online resources is a questionnaire that potential housemates can each fill in and discuss.) Agreeing on each item isn’t mandatory, but agreeing on how you’ll manage differences is.

Conducting background and credit checks before inviting someone in is critical. That’s why, in some ways, living with a stranger might be easier than living with a friend, notes Louise Machinist, co-author of My House, Our House. “You’ll take less on trust and do a complete background check,” she says. “You might not want to hurt your friend’s feelings by asking for personal information.”

New Services Growing

New Web-based businesses, such as goldengirlsnetwork.com, are popping up to meet — or fuel — demand for housemates.

Karen Venable, founder of roommates4boomers.com, saw a need for homeshare-matching services for people like her — professional women in their 50s. Her service, which has 750 subscribers, mostly in the San Francisco Bay area and Sarasota, Fla., is growing nationally. The fee is $29.99 a month, which allows subscribers, through a member profile, to find compatible women to share a home.

Among the many options for finding housemates:

Nonprofit matching services. Local nonprofits see home sharing as a way to increase the stock of affordable housing, while helping older homeowners age in place.

HomeShare Vermont, for instance, matches older homeowners like Burns with homeseekers. “Most of our matches have some sort of service component, whether it’s just providing companionship or taking out the trash,” says executive director Kirby Dunn. “It’s more about the relationship between two people instead of just finding a room.”

The organization, part of a loose-knit network called the National Shared Housing Resource Center, provides screening and background checks of all homeseekers and deals with any problems that arise later.

According to the center’s most recent annual survey, 84 percent of older homeowners who shared housing said they felt happier than before, 75 percent felt less lonely and felt safer in their home and 67 percent said household chores were completed more regularly. A majority also felt healthier, and half said they slept better than when they lived alone.

“We’ve been focused on trying to get people at an earlier age to consider sharing their home for whatever reason, before change gets too difficult,” says Dunn. “A lot of empty nesters and baby boomers are more open to sharing.”

Women seeking women. Josephine Withers, 76, and Susan Green, 65, met at a Meetup gathering in Oakland, Calif., and soon thought they’d like to try living together. Green was extricating herself from a difficult housemate situation (the person wasn’t paying his share of the rent) and Withers was a recent East Coast transplant who didn’t want to live alone. The high cost of living in the Bay Area made housesharing a natural.

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Before deciding to become housemates, the women spent time together, including taking a day-trip to Napa Valley. They discussed nitty-gritty issues, from tolerance of dog hair (Withers has a pooch) to kids (Green likes having her grandchildren over).

Green was already renting a large three-bedroom, three-bathroom home. She and Withers divide its rent, utilities and repairs equally.

They eat meals together “irregularly,” and if one wants to host a dinner party and not include the other, that’s fine. The biggest challenges come from their different personalities and communication styles: Green is an extrovert who enjoys narrating rambling stories, Withers is an introvert who likes to get to the point. They’re learning to accommodate each other. Nipping issues in the bud is key to successful housesharing, they and others say, rather than allowing resentments to fester.

Group home — with help. Senior Home Sharing, a Chicago-area nonprofit, operates three small group homes for people 62 and older. Housemates pay on average $1,300 to $1,400 a month for a room, three meals a day, housekeeping and medication reminders, if needed. Executive director Wendell Gustafson says the group offers an affordable option to those who prefer a smaller scale home over a typical retirement community. A live-in house manager, as well as a social worker who regularly drops by, help mediate problems.

Jessie Joniak, 99, has lived in one of these homes for 18 years. “I never imagined I’d live this long,” she says. She plays pinochle daily, walks upstairs to the communal dining room for meals and gets along with everyone. Although homecooked meals are provided, she says, “We can help out if we want to stick our two cents in.”

“I would advise anyone to come to a senior home like this,” she adds. “I wouldn’t want to live in an apartment all alone.”

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