One of the early advocates of older people sharing housing was Maggie Kuhn. Guest blogger Bella DePaulo wrote about Maggie in her new book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. The excerpt below appears on pp. 64-65 of the chapter on home-sharing – Chapter 3, “One Big, Happy Friendship.” You can read more about the book here.
In the life story of the esteemed activist and iconoclast Maggie Kuhn, 1970 was a very big year. Forced into retirement from a job she loved simply because she had reached the age of 65, Kuhn issued her cri de Coeur: “Don’t agonize, organize.” The group she founded and led was the Gray Panthers, and old age has never been the same since.
Less well known is another source of significance: 1970 was when Maggie Kuhn began inviting other people to live with her in the two adjoining homes she owned in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. By 1981, she had seven housemates ranging in age from 21 to 39 – two single women, three single men, and one couple – as well as six cats, a dog, and a tank of fish. She called them her “family of choice.”
Sharing a home was Maggie Kuhn’s answer to the retirement communities that she dismissed as “glorified playpens where wrinkled babies can be safe and out of the way.” At Kuhn’s place, the couple and each of the single people had their own apartment that included a kitchen. Privacy was theirs when they wanted it, but they also shared meals frequently, sometimes celebrated holidays together, and cared for each other during illnesses.
“We’ve grown to have very close and loving friendships that endure,” Kuhn offered. “We depend on each other, without being sentimental about it.”
In front of a fireplace in Kuhn’s home, the couple got married. At the ceremony, Kuhn gave voice to her philosophy of living: “I said families and couples could not live unto themselves alone, and that two people being just internally involved are not going to make it.” Maggie Kuhn never did marry and had an answer for anyone who asked why: “sheer luck.”
In 1980, at a White House mini-conference on older women, Kuhn told the delegates about her family of choice. She won them over. In their conference report, they included the recommendation that older women should consider sharing homes with unrelated people of all ages. Not one to wait for others to act, Kuhn founded the Shared Housing Resource Center in 1981 and ran it out of the first floor of her home.
Maggie Kuhn died in 1995, but her vision of shared housing lives on. Today’s National Shared Housing Resource Center (NSHRC) is a clearinghouse of information for people looking to share their own home, to find a home to share with others, or to start their own home-sharing organization. State and regional home-sharing programs are listed in a directory. Housing professionals, researchers, government officials, and the media have all found useful resources at NSHRC. Maggie Kuhn would be proud.