Seniors becoming housemates offers a great opportunity for companionship, affordability
Jane Callahan-Moore was living with her daughter and granddaughter in a Chicago suburb, but she felt something missing.
“While I loved being with them and seeing them every day, I found myself getting increasingly depressed because I didn’t have any contact with people my own age,” said Callahan-Moore, 69.
So, in late 2017, she became housemates with Stefanie Clark, 75, and moved into Clark’s high-rise condo in Edgewater, a lakefront neighborhood in Chicago. Now, the pair share space and time. They cook each other meals, go out together and provide support.
Neither owns a car. Edgewater is a walkable neighborhood with rail and bus access nearby, plus restaurants and shopping.
“I would not have access to a condominium half as beautiful or half as beautifully located if I didn’t have a roommate situation” Callahan-Moore said. “I probably would still be living with my daughter and being very unhappy because I miss my senior companions.”
Callahan-Moore and Clark are in the minority of people 65 and older. Almost 80 percent of Americans in that age group live in cardependent suburban and rural communities. As older people lose the ability to drive, many find themselves trapped in their homes, unable to run errands or meet with friends. This can lead to social isolation.
Walkable areas have a mix of amenities nearby, allowing people to get around without a car. But these areas also tend to be more expensive, a financial burden for the many people older than 65 — especially women — who don’t have enough savings to live through retirement.
One solution? Split the costs with a roommate. Callahan-Moore and Clark are part of the “Golden Girls” trend, named for the 1980s sitcom that featured four older women living together as housemates.
“Shared living in the last decade has exploded, especially in cities where housing costs are quite high,” said Gary Painter, professor in the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.
The number of people 65 and older who live as roommates is small — just under 2 percent in 2016 — but rising quickly, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. In the decade leading up to 2016, the older population grew 33 percent, while the number of older homesharers jumped 88 percent.
This practice could allow more people to live in walkable areas that support independence and mental health.
“We have a huge issue and problem with elders aging in this country ... not living as we should,” said Marianne Kilkenny, founder of Women for Living in Community, an organization that brings women together to create communities for growing older. “We’re wanting the social cohesion, and know that we need to be connected and want to be, but the path isn’t there.”
Driving is the only way to reach services and social activities in much of the U.S., but older people are outliving their ability to drive safely by an average of seven to 10 years, according to AAA. This can lead to otherwise healthy adults having a decreased capability to engage with the outside world.
Homes that are close to stores, parks and transit can fill this need.
“My cohort is more interested in walkable, generally speaking,” Kilkenny said. “It’s like, if needed, I can walk various places, so I feel better about that. The next thing is, then you can meet with friends, which then makes your sphere larger as well.”
Doris Richardson, 74, has discovered this. Richardson shares a home in Lyons, a mountain-surrounded town in northwestern Colorado, with another older woman.
“We baby boomers, I think, are redefining that whole senior thing,” she said.
Richardson walks to visit restaurants and neighbors, often strolling around the lake outside her door.
Richardson said neighbors look out for one another, bringing food when someone is sick or taking a walk with someone who needs a mental boost. “Everybody kind of understands and is on the lookout for people who might need some help,” she said.
Walkability to nature also helps Richardson feel productive. When she began sharing a home nearly two years ago, she made that a priority.
“I’ve just fallen in love with nature, in a way, and it feeds you mentally, emotionally, spiritually,” Richardson said. “What I see so many times with seniors is they just get so inward and kind of stay in a cave and they don’t reach out.”
Social isolation and loneliness in seniors are associated with increased mortality, poorer cognitive performance and poorer self-reported physical and mental health.
The urgency to address where older people live and how they can stay socially engaged will only grow. By 2030, 1 in 5 U.S. residents will be 65 or over, and older people are projected to outnumber children for the first time, according to the Census Bureau. Painter said the share of older roommates will probably continue to increase.
“We have a housing stock that has a lot of single-family homes, and those single-family homes often have rooms that are empty,” he said. “When people are thinking about ways that they can generate more income for themselves, they’re going to start thinking about those kinds of shared living arrangements. And then people who have that need but don’t have the ability to actually pay for an apartment on their own are going to start looking to those situations as a way to mitigate their housing cost.”
Adina Solomon is a freelancer for the Washington Post.
Jane Callahan-Moore, left, moved from her daughter’s house in the suburbs into Stephanie Clark’s high-rise condo on Chicago’s lakefront.
Clark and Callahan-Moore fix breakfast in Chicago.