Shared housing for seniors. It’s a way of to live that is simple to say, complex to do, but if done right can make all the difference in the world.
It can prolong living at home and in one’s community, which is what most people want as they age.
Some of the benefits are obvious and some are subtle. They can be grouped into five major categories.
- Help in maintaining a home
- Help in an emergency
- Whole person health
Housing is everyone’s largest cost. A rule of thumb used by financial planners is that housing should not be more than thirty percent of one’s income. While this might not be an issue when working and earning a salary, it can become a big problem on retirement income and/or a widow’s pension.
Cost burdened is spending more than 30% of your income on housing. According to the Joint Center on Housing, 9.7 million households with residents aged 65 or over were cost burdened. Another 4.9 million were severely cost burdened, spending at least half their income on housing. Combined these means that 14.6 million elder Americans, over a quarter of seniors, were struggling to pay for housing.
While there are complex reasons for the rising cost of housing, there is no question that there is a scarcity of affordable housing nationwide.
For many people, retirement income is simply not enough. Social security wasn’t every meant to be the sole source of income for retirees, but that is what is happening for almost half of single seniors. According to the US Census, Current Population Survey in 2017 forty-eight percent of elderly unmarried women were ninety-percent dependent on Social Security. In that year the average Social Security payment for a woman was $1196 a month. Men are slightly higher, at $1503. (Social Security Data). That’s average. Many try to make do with much less. If we use the thirty-percent rule, a woman with the average Social Security payment should be paying less than $358.80 a month in rent!
Income from house sharing can make a significant difference. If you have housing with an empty room, consider how just $500 a month can turn into six thousand dollars in a year. What difference would that make in your life?
Arnie is an unusual example of sharing housing for income. She owns a huge Victorian building in the center of Concord, New Hampshire. She inherited it from an aunt who lived on the second floor until her death. When Arnie’s husband died at an early age, she was suddenly a widow of very limited means. Committed to keeping the home she loves, she got creative, renting every single bit of it in a number of innovative ways. She calls her home “my accordion house” because of the way she can expand and contract its use.
Originally, Arnie rented the second floor with its four bedrooms to law students. Now she is renting those rooms to older single women. That floor has a kitchenette and bathroom. On the ground floor a former drawing room has been converted to an Airbnb room. The living room and kitchen are rented out for functions. A wall in the second-floor living room is rented to labor organizers who keep a desk, printer, and bulletin board in the space. They use it one day a week. A converted carriage house is rented out for worship, weddings, and other large gatherings. All this means she keeps her house and earns income. She also loves the interaction with all the people she gets to meet and know.
Nancy lives in shared housing that allows her to live in the middle of town, where she can walk to all her activities. It’s the retirement she dreamed of.
Many started sharing to have some additional income. For instance, there is a special education teacher who rents to medical residents and saves the income to tide her over during the summer months. Suzanne who found herself deeply in debt and began renting a room in her condo as a way to begin to climb out of that hole. There’s Amy, a librarian who wanted to not feel so stressed about money and uses the extra income to treat herself to massages, eating out, and other extras.
What people discover when they have a compatible home-mate or more is that it is nice to have the companionship of another person/people around. We’re wired to have constant human connection. (Yes, really!) It turns out that being alone too much of the time has negative effects on physical and emotional health. We need people in our lives. Here’s a good overview of the research on the epidemic of loneliness, causes and effects.
We live in a society where it is really difficult to simply hang out with others. Where do you go when you feel lonely? When you want to talk to someone else? This problem is compounded by the fact that as we age, we are more likely to lose friends and family. It’s good to have connections with people who are younger.
Some people fear that by choosing to share housing they are suddenly going to have a constant companion. It doesn’t work that way. Every person is different, and every home share situation has its own character. You can choose how much company you want. For instance, some want to share meals while others want to be completely independent. Nonetheless, the spontaneous “Hello, how was your day?” can lift the heart and make all the difference.
Ramay was not interested in sharing her space at all! In fact, she was very resistant to it. But she needed the income, so she built a mini-apartment in the back of her garage. The schoolteacher who moved in turned out to be a perfect match and Ramay discovered that she rather liked knowing that there was another person around.
Help in Maintaining a Home
There are so many big and little tasks that need to be done at home, for instance emptying the dishwasher, taking out the trash, buying toilet paper, dusting, lawn mowing, and cleaning the floors. Everyone has their own list and their own standards. In most couples and families these tasks are shared and maybe without really noticing. When you live alone you do it all. Having someone else around who can share the work lightens the workload. The other reality for elders is that tasks that were once easy become more difficult with physical abilities diminishing.
Many home share matching programs specifically arrange for a certain amount of work in exchange for a reduced rent. Tasks can include gardening and yard work, being driven for errands or medical appointment, preparing meals, and pet care, to name a few. It depends on the situation.
Help in Emergencies
The biggest threat to the health of seniors is falling down. One in four over the age of 65 falls in a given year. Falls are the leading cause of fatal injury and the most common cause of nonfatal trauma-related hospital admissions among older adults. While having someone at home might not prevent the fall, a home-mate can help if a fall does occur.
Many hospitals do not like to release a patient unless there is someone at home. Sharing housing solves that problem.
Less critical than falls or medical recovery are the things that happen we might call “lesser emergencies” that are also helped by having a home-mate. Lock yourself out of your home? Sick with the flu and need some chicken soup? Awaiting a package that needs a signature? Any of these become much easier with another person who shares your roof.
Whole Person Health
Human beings need human beings. All the research on loneliness and social isolation point to the truth that we are wired to be connected. It goes deeper, though. We believe that humans need to give and to receive. Dr. Cacioppo, a leading researcher on loneliness, says, “We all need witnesses to our lives and people to look after.” We feel good when we help others. It’s in our nature. We shrivel up when we don’t have these opportunities. It’s why volunteering is an excellent recommendation. It’s why we think that living with others is a good idea. We need someone (or more) to witness our daily story.
Caveats and Cautions
The naysayers will warn about nightmare housemates. Yes, there are nightmare housemates.
Nightmare housemates come about because of an incomplete, ineffective, or non-existent selection process. It’s why we work on teaching people how to do the selection process thoroughly. Nightmare housemates are those who can’t live by the essential four principles for living well with others.
Many people insist they like living alone. Yes, living alone allows for a freedom from being observed and the ability to dance naked in the kitchen if that’s what you want to do. Living with a home-mate might cramp that style, but in general, having a good home-mate should be a comfortable match with the way you live at home. If you want to be a slob, then live with a slob. If you get drunk every night, then find someone who also enjoys a drink at night. If you want the kitchen looking like nobody has been in it, find someone who has the same standards.
Do people lie about whom they are? Only if they have something to cover up. References are very important. Getting to know someone is very important. Being desperate to find someone to pay rent can lead to mistakes. A proper vetting process can guarantee you won’t get a problem home-mate.
Shared housing for seniors just makes sense. We human beings have been banding together and helping each other out for millenia.
Of course, successful house sharing takes work. It is a process to find compatible partners. It takes care, clarity about who you are and what you need, and honesty. Creating a safe home with others doesn’t happen overnight. But it is completely doable. There are lots of nice people in the world.
If you are single and living in straitened circumstances, please consider how your life would improve if you were to have a home-mate (or two!). If you are currently living with others (partner, family members), help the single people you know by talking about this idea. It’s a sensible, smart solution to a real issue affecting millions of people.
Here’s how you might start:
- Play with the idea, imagine yourself in various situations.
- Read the stories on our website about real people sharing housing.
- Talk to your friends about it.
- Read “Sharing Housing, A Guidebook for Finding and Keeping Good Housemates”
- Look around your current home. How could you make space for others?
- Sign up for our newsletter to get used to the idea and share it with others.
Have you considered sharing housing? Are you doing it? If you’ve thought of it and not done it, what has gotten in the way? Have you ever lived with others? What was that like? What questions do you have about it? [needs one more sentence to address this sentence.]