The New Golden Girls
The number of older adults sharing homes is growing, as is the number of companies that help roommates find one another
Editor’s note: In this last week of 2022, we are featuring some of our most popular stories of the year. This piece was originally published in October.
Betty White's death at the end of last year brought back memories of her role as the kind but dim retiree Rose Nylund on the 1980s sitcom "Golden Girls," in which four older women shared a house in Florida.
Women who watched the show as young adults are now at or near retirement age themselves, and many are finding that they're New Golden Girls, sharing homes because of financial concerns or a desire to fill the social void left by the loss of a partner.
According to SpareRoom, one of the growing niche businesses that help people find rooms, sublets and roommates, the number of people over 50 living with a roommate is growing at twice the rate of any other group, with one in five saying they're living with a roommate for the first time.
Research by the Joint Center for Housing at Harvard University suggests this trend has been gaining speed since at least 2006. It concluded that a "small but growing number of older adults" now live with a non-relative roommate.
"I really don't like living alone, but I'm also not big at socializing either."
Marlene Mears, 64, knows how important it is to find a compatible roommate. After a long marriage that ended in divorce, she first downsized to a townhouse in Michigan, then decided she really didn't know where this chapter of her life would end up.
"My kids are young and scattered in different states. They don't have children yet and I just didn't know where to live," recalls Mears. "I tried teaching in Costa Rica, but then decided I would like to go back out west."
Baby Boomer Roommates
She first tried home sharing a few years ago, but the roommate wasn't the right fit. "She had strict protocols and was demanding," says Mears. "She was up at 5:30 every morning and wanted me up, too, and for me to be there to help her all the time."
They soon parted ways, and Mears temporarily stayed with a cousin in Denver before deciding to look for another roommate. "The experience didn't put me off," she says of her first attempt at house sharing. "I really don't like living alone, but I'm also not big at socializing either."
A year and half ago, Mears signed up with Silvernest, a home-sharing matching website specifically for older adults, and found Becky Miller, 72, who owns a two-bedroom, two-bathroom ranch-style townhouse in Longmont, Colorado.
After Miller's divorce, she became a single parent and just didn't save as much as she needed for retirement. She got a part-time job but decided to also rent spare space in her home. A year and half ago, she and Mears matched on Silvernest.
"Marlene contacted me, she came over and had an interview," recalls Miller. "She met my needs and we just hit it off."
Home Sharing Is Growing
Riley Gibson, president of Silvernest, which is based in Boulder, Colorado, says his site added an average of 3,000 registered users a month over the past year. Los Angeles, Denver and Phoenix are its biggest markets, but users are spread throughout the West. Gibson says there are 56 other home-sharing programs in 23 states.
Some matching services are offered by not-for-profit organizations. The National Shared Housing Resource Center, a network of independent non-profit home-sharing programs, has a directory of member agencies across the country.
"Our typical user falls between the ages of fifty to seventy and sixty percent are female," Gibson says. "We don't have scientific data on the benefits of older people home sharing, but we know that it helps people achieve financial stability, which is key to health, and it reduces social isolation, which is also key to health."
Debbie Gentry, a realtor for The Villages, one of the largest communities for people 55 and older, says the number of residents who live with roommates is growing, but people didn't want to be interviewed about it. "They're embarrassed," Gentry says.
Dealing With Roommate Stigma
Mears says many of her friends and relatives think it is "odd" to live with someone at her age. "They ask why I'm doing it," she says. "I must explain the benefits."
Being an older adult with a roommate carries a bias for many. "The biggest challenge is normalizing it," says Gibson. "We're finding the view beginning to shift and we're even seeing households with more than one roommate, creating their own "Golden Girls"-type household."
"It helps people achieve financial stability, which is key to health"
Gibson says Silvernest surveyed 300 people last year and found that 26% of the responders said they were more likely to share a home than they would have been in the past.
Mears and Miller say they believe they have forged a lasting friendship. They have met each other's families, and Miller has even welcomed members of Mears' family into the home during visits. The roommates help each other by, for example, driving to medical appointments and say the key to making a roommate situation work is mutual respect.
"The only downside is knowing that Marlene may move one day, and I'll have to find someone else," says Miller.
Tips on Finding Compatible Roommates
Gibson says his company does basic due diligence on prospective roommates, such as background checks and identity verification. It also tries to match people based on the following:
- Making sure each party knows whether the other's interest in being a roommate is based on financial need, a desire for companionship or both.
- Determining if each roommate is a smoker or non-smoker, and whether either has strong feelings about it.
- Asking if roommates are comfortable with pets, which species are dealbreakers and whether pet care and costs will be shared.
- Deciding who, if anyone, will work at home and where remote workers can set up office.
- Reaching agreement on the division of chores.
- Establishing if roommates can agree on whether to keep the house warm or cool.
"The biggest mistake people make is trying to rush it," says Gibson. "We encourage both parties to be picky."