This article first appeared in the Solo Aging volume of Generations Journal, a publication of the American Society on Aging.(Summer, 2023)
When Blanche, Rose, Sophia, and Dorothy became household names through the sitcom The Golden Girls, they modeled for a generation the life of four women sharing a roof and all the laughs and fun they could have. Some Solo Agers want to duplicate a Golden Girls home when they think about their future. The show modeled camaraderie, laughter, community, and belonging. While it is not entirely reasonable to expect a life like what is portrayed by scripted professional comedians in a weekly sitcom, it is reasonable to want a living situation offering the community and belonging shown there. This provides a cushion of safety and eases the burden of paying for a life otherwise lived alone.
Home sharing is a natural way to live.
We are wired for living in a tribe—this is how we lived for millennia. Living in close communities, our ancestors interacted daily with many people. Being alone, being solitary, was reserved for holy people or outcasts; it was not the day-to-day reality for most.
Now we live in a world in which adults who are not partnered and are not parents are more likely to live alone than not. For older adults, according to the 2021 Profile of Older Americans, “About 27% (14.7 million) of all older adults living in the community in 2020 lived alone (5 million men, 9.7 million women). The proportion living alone increases with advanced age for both men and women. Among women aged 75 and older, for example, 42% lived alone” (Administration for Community Living, 2021).
The consequences for individuals and our society are manifest. The epidemic of loneliness in the United States has been well-documented. Surgeon General Vivek Murphy, in his book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World (2020), makes the case that this epidemic is a public health concern.
It doesn’t have to be this way. People can live with others. They can choose to join forces with one or more people to share housing and create the community they want. They say it takes a village to raise a child; we should also consider how being with others and having a community at home, can help in the later stages of life, too.
People can live together. This is simple to say but takes effort to implement.
Spending Less Money
Because home sharing can be a complex process, it helps to have a clear purpose in pursuing it. The benefits of shared housing need to outweigh the human tendency to accept the status quo and avoid change.
It’s the pain of housing costs that pushes most people down the path to shared housing. For Solo Agers, high housing costs, a lack of affordable housing, and low retirement income mean that many are cost-burdened—spending more than 30% of their income on housing. As Jennifer Molinsky (2022) of Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies testified in the Senate, “Over 10 million households headed by someone 65 and over are cost-burdened; half of these pay more than 50 percent.”
This is not too surprising. About 40% of all older adults are entirely dependent upon Social Security (Bond & Porell, 2020) for income and the average monthly Social Security benefit is $1,630.93 (Social Security Administration, 2023). Who is below that average? A study by the National Institute on Retirement Security found that people who are unmarried have less retirement income than married people, and Blacks and Hispanics have received less in in Social Security payments than Whites (Bond & Porell, 2020).
When individuals choose to share housing their financial situation changes.
The difference can be quite significant. As an example, a low rent of $500 a month amounts to an additional income of $6,000 a year for the householder, while for the home seeker a rent as low as $500 could mean the difference between being on the streets and being in housing. What the householder decides to charge is totally dependent upon their situation. Both home seekers and householders can benefit from reducing their housing costs. It can mean not having to choose between medicine and groceries, as too many low-income older adults must do now (Brandus, 2021).
For some householders, renting out space in their home enables them to stay there. For others, the additional income provides a financial cushion. As Amy, a small-town librarian who shares her home said, “I love the rent check! I put it in a separate account—it’s there as a safety nest.”
(All quotes not formally cited are on the blog, www.sharinghousing.com/category/real-people-sharing-housing.)
She uses the “extra” money to treat herself to luxuries she couldn’t otherwise afford, such as expensive restaurant meals and massages, and she also lets it accumulate. For Melissa, a special education teacher, the income from sharing covers the summer months when she doesn’t receive a paycheck. Sharing housing is not only about rent costs. Shared housing means sharing all the other utility expenses as well: water, heat, air conditioning, and internet.
And while the pain of housing costs is the first reason a person might turn to shared housing, other benefits are significant.
Feeling Less Alone
While Amy is clear that the additional income is her main reason for sharing her home, she said, “It’s really nice having someone in the house. In the old days, I never minded coming home to an empty house; now I find that I like it that she’s here. And while we don’t look to each other to hang out or do things, there’s a companionability. I don’t know how else to say it. I simply feel less alone. We touch base, chitchat for a while if we feel like it. Usually, we meet in the kitchen. This daily exchange is grounding, kind of like family in a way—but without the stresses of family. We’ve found a nice balance between being in touch and leaving space for each other.”
Exactly. “I simply feel less alone.” There is something about having someone else aware of one that is comforting. Or as one home sharer said, with a housemate around, “It helps me get out of myself.” Or another, “Just having someone ask you ‘How was your day?’ gives a little lift to the heart.”
Much has been written about the dangers of social isolation and loneliness, especially in people as they get older and are less able to make connections outside the house. Research has found that a “lack of social contacts among older adults is associated with an estimated $6.7 billion in additional Medicare spending annually” (Flowers et al., 2017).
Another study showed, “Social isolation and loneliness among older adults is a serious phenomenon affecting the fastest growing segment of the United States population. Causes of isolation are plentiful and well-documented, but a cure can be extremely elusive” (Zinberg & Merino, 2020).
People can live together.
The housemate relationship is unlike living with a spouse, partner, or family member, with whom one has complex histories and interdependencies. A housemate is chosen for the express purpose of sharing a home. The relationship can be so independent that housemates pass “as ships in the night,” or it can become more familial. It all depends upon the people and the situation.
Ideally, the relationship becomes one of a “home-mate.” A “home-mate” is a person you like and respect whose ways of living at home are compatible enough with yours that everyone is comfortable. It is unlike any other relationship a person can have. A home-mate is not family, nor spouse, nor partner. Your home-mate is not your best friend. A home-mate can have a completely independent life. It is a mature housemate relationship.
Sharing Household Duties
Housemates have the benefit of sharing the work of maintaining a home and a life. Couples and families help each other all the time, divvying up the work associated with having a home. Maintenance tasks of everyday life such as taking out the garbage, vacuuming, and dusting can be shared. A housemate can be asked to pick up soup when one is sick with the flu or to feed a cat for the weekend. Having a housemate at home allows for a release from the hospital after a procedure. There is also the comfort of knowing that if there is an accident, a housemate will know about it. There are all sorts of ways that having a housemate can make life easier.
Sharon Kha’s story is on the extreme end of the spectrum.
One day she realized she could no longer live alone. When she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, she thought, “Either I find someone to come live with me to help, or I need to go into assisted living.” She decided to look for someone. Concurrently Deborah Knox was contemplating how she could live rent-free and get out of debt. They found each other through their networks and have now been living together for 5 years. They are so delighted with their arrangement that they are working on making it more available in Tucson where they live (see Tucson HomeShare).
There are home-share match programs that specifically arrange for an exchange of work for reduced housing costs. This works very well when an older person who has room in their home needs some help to do tasks that used to be easy, such as driving, shopping, or snow shoveling.
Some housemates choose to have meals together and thus share the work of shopping, cooking, and cleaning up. How often they eat together and how they manage it will depend upon what they want—from eating all evening meals together to doing so once a month and everything in between. It depends on what the home-mates decide.
Choosing to live with others is a decision to live sustainably. Two or more people under one roof means they are using less of the world’s resources for heating and cooling and keeping the lights on. It also means that they can combine stuff—all those things which we consider necessary for a modern life, such as coffee machines, toasters, microwaves, vacuum cleaners, blenders, irons, and ironing boards. No need for two sets of living room furniture or multiple pots and pans. How housemates manage this “stuff,” from big furniture to forks and knives, is part of the discussion on how to live together. It depends upon the desires and needs of the housemates.
Mutually Beneficial Giving
The benefits of cost, companionship, mutual aid, and sustainability would be enough on their own. But there is another consideration that, though theoretical, seems to resonate with lived experience. “Whole person health” is the idea that as humans we exist to give and to receive. This is universal: All religions teach the importance of giving to others. It is the reciprocity of giving and receiving that enlivens us and makes us feel good. When multiple people live under one roof, it is easy to have a regular cadence of helpfulness and participation. But when we don’t have that, something inside shrivels up and causes pain. When we do for another, we are the beneficiaries.
These five benefits together make a compelling case for people to home share. When housemates grow into home-mates they can have the benefits of saving money on housing, having a spontaneous social connection, mutual help in maintaining a home, sustainability, and whole person health— all of which lead to the comfort of belonging to a small community, a “Golden Girls home.”
Some wonder about sharing a home but don’t take action because either they don’t know how to go about it, or they feel that it is too risky.
Concerns About Home Sharing
Sadly, we’ve become a society that fears the stranger rather than welcoming them. While all major religions have injunctions to show strangers hospitality, in our world we’ve developed what Dr. George Gerbner in the 1970s called the “Mean World Syndrome.” His research revealed that people may perceive the world to be more dangerous than it is, due to long-term moderate-to-heavy exposure to violence-related content on mass media (Gerbner et al., 1980). And that was before the Internet! We are now a society steeped in stories of violence and harm, accounts that work on us unconsciously. One consequence is that people perceive shared housing as scary and high-risk rather than warm and caring.
The biggest worry is the nightmare housemate who makes home life miserable.
Nightmare housemates are always the result of an incomplete, ineffective, or nonexistent selection processes. Householders can learn how to flag and reject the nightmare housemate during the selection process. To do so effectively takes having clear requirements for a housemate, trusting one’s inner wisdom, and not overruling it. This is not rocket science. Competent adults have navigated many other crucial life decisions. The key is knowing how to conduct a housemate interview process and noticing any red flags.
When asked about how a bad housemate happened, people will say, “He seemed nice enough,” “She was my niece,” or “I was uncomfortable about something in the interview and thought I could handle it.” Those situations are all indicative of an incomplete or nonexistent selection process.
Another obstacle to home sharing is a worry about losing privacy. It’s true, sharing a home isn’t the same as walking through the front door and knowing you are alone. Privacy is found in one’s own space. A shut door is a signal that says, “Do not bother me.” Many people can live with that level of privacy. People living in shared housing talk about the pleasure of coming home to a house with lights on and company, rather than being alone.
What does it take to live well with others? There are four principles to guide us.
Four Guiding Principles to Living Well with Others
The first one is The Golden Rule—Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. With home sharing, this means being willing to compromise and adapt behavior for the comfort of others in the home. This principle assumes that the interviewing process would have found any irreconcilable conflicts before agreeing to live together. Small adaptations are natural.
The second principle is, Do it while it’s easy. This is a communication skill, to speak up about a little annoyance before it becomes a big nightmare. It is much easier to say something early on, before it spirals out of control. Michelle said, “This is a really silly thing. Our housemate was given permission to use our stuff in the kitchen, but I found that every time I wanted to use a particular thing it wasn’t where it belongs because she was using it. It took me a while to say something, and I just felt myself getting annoyed. I finally said something about it, and she went out immediately and bought her own since she realized she liked it so much.” Often speaking up allows for a minor adjustment and everyone is comfortable.
The third principle is Your room is your own. Always. In shared housing, there should be no reason why anyone would be in the housemate’s personal space. This is how privacy is maintained.
The fourth is the incest taboo. This is really important. Housemates are like family. Good housemates can become intimate friends, but if housemates sleep together the relationship changes. A few—very few—settle into a long-term relationship. More often, the expectations about what sex means to the relationship differ and the ensuing unhappiness means someone has to move out of the home. It’s preferable to ensure that housemates are off-limits by laying down the rule at the outset.
These four principles are all that is needed to live well with others. But how does a Solo Ager who wants to live in shared housing find others with whom they can share?
Creating Shared Housing
Just as there is a large variety of types of homes, there are many ways to create shared housing.
The most common shared housing arrangement is for the householder to decide to rent space in their home. This arrangement is also the easiest to set up and get going. There are householders who simply do this on their own.
Others turn to programs that help by offering to match the householder with a home-seeker. There are home-share social service agencies that have a formal application process. They do the screening of potential housemates, including background checks and the initial interview. When they see a potential match, they introduce a householder to a home seeker and help negotiate the housemate agreement. The National Shared Housing Resource Center offers a list of these programs. There are not enough of them.
There are online web-based matching services that allow for householders to list their rental where potential housemates can find them. Silvernest and Nesterly are for-profit ventures. Senior HomeShare is a nonprofit organization. One issue for all the online matching services is that there have to be enough people in a specific geographical area to be useful for the user.
Sharing Housing, Inc., is working to empower adults to find their own housemates by providing education in how to do a selection process. A pilot program, SHIFT—Shared Housing Incentives for Taking Action—is a project in the southeastern counties of Vermont. Focused on homeowners, it offers a cash incentive to help homeowners make their home more comfortable for sharing. It combines education through online minicourses, a home visit, and support services for the housemate search and decision.
Buying or Renting with Friends
Buying or renting a home with friends to move in together is another variation on home sharing. That’s what Nicky did. She bought a house with her friend Mary. At the time, Mary was living in a home that was becoming too much to manage and Nicky needed a place to live. Both of them were pre-retirement age and divorced. Said Nicky, “The time was right, and we had the opportunity to do it.” They realized that by pooling their resources they could afford a better house with space for all of their needs, plus some disposable income left over. Owning a home together was a win-win!
They now own a large house in the suburbs of their metropolitan area. They have adapted it to their needs with a caretaker apartment on the ground floor should they need that in the future. Currently, they rent that apartment and have a third housemate in the big house. Nicky said, “When people share housing, it should be a move up to compensate for the loss of autonomy. Here, everybody feels like they’re getting a ‘win.’ This house is better than what we had alone.”
Karen Bush, Louise Machinist, and Jean McQuillin bought a house together. Their book, My House, Our House: Living Far Better for Far Less in a Cooperative Household (2013) details how they found the house and what agreements they made to ensure everyone was comfortable.
Creating a Home-Share House
Creating shared housing as a small investor is what Feliz Tanga did, with her husband. They own a six-bedroom ranch house with three bedrooms upstairs and three bedrooms downstairs. It has a ramp to the front door. There are three bathrooms, two kitchens, and two laundry rooms all on one floor, with a full basement with egress windows (large enough to use to leave the building in case of a fire). They explored setting it up as an assisted-living house but found the regulations too onerous. Instead, they’ve created a home-share house for five women ages 55 and older. The sixth bedroom is a guest room. One of the bathrooms has a walk-in shower, and all the bathrooms have grab bars.
The women who live in the house are screened by Tanga. For a new person to move into the house, all current residents have to meet the potential new housemate and agree to living with her. There is a 6-month trial period. As that period is ending Tanga will call each resident to ask if the housemate should be allowed to stay. If any one person says “no” the housemate is asked to move out. These are smart policies to ensure that the home is comfortable for everyone. (For more on this topic, see Invest in Shared Housing (How Jude Does It).
Any of these methods for creating a home that is shared can result in a Golden Girls home. The outcome depends upon the people involved and the relationship they develop. The key is that they are compatible enough in how each person uses their home and that they like and respect one another. It doesn’t happen immediately. Like any relationship, it grows.
Organically Developing a Home Share
This story illustrates the organic development of a home share.
Jennifer said, “I met Abigail at a business event. We clicked instantly and discovered we were both planning on going to a conference that was out of town. Because I was late in registering for the conference, I wasn’t able to book a hotel room, so I was planning on commuting from home. Abigail said, ‘Come share my room,’ and I said, ‘I’ll bring the wine.’”
“We ended up chatting all night. At the time I was living in a large four-bedroom house, my last child was moving out, and I was just going through a divorce. Abigail was in the early stages of separation and divorce.” I said, “You will have a tough year, I’ve been there. I’m happy to listen and if you ever need a place to get away, just feel free to come to my house. The key is under the propane tank.”
The friendship developed.
Jennifer said, “I invited her to move in, knowing that in the first year of marital separation managing finances can be difficult. I thought, ‘I’ve got space, why not share it?’” They lived together for 4 years, including moving to a smaller house together.
Notice the cadence of offer, acceptance, and reciprocity. Jennifer and Abigail “clicked” when they met. Abigail then offered to share her hotel room. Jennifer reciprocated by offering her home as an escape and then as a home. The first offer was a risk that was time-limited. If it didn’t work out it would be short-lived. Then Jennifer made an open-ended offer to use her house. Abigail might not have followed up on it, but she did. That laid the foundation for the ensuing home-mate relationship. This is how good relationships develop—through a cascade of reciprocal offers and acceptances. It requires being open to what is possible.
A Golden Girls home develops over time.
It is not instantaneous. Whether they first meet each other through community networks and personal efforts or through matching programs, it takes time to grow into the comfort and ease depicted in Golden Girls. It is an excellent solution for Solo Agers. A good home share provides community and belonging that enlivens the spirit and brings joy to life. It is nice to see the lights on when coming home.
The Administration for Community Living. (2021). 2020 profile of older Americans. https://acl.gov/sites/default/files/aging%20and%20Disability%20In%20America/2020Profileolderamericans.final_.pdf
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Bush, K. M., Machinist, L. S., & McQuillin, J. (2013). My house our house: Living far better for far less in a cooperative household. St. Lynn’s Press.
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Murthy, V. H. (2020). Together: The healing power of human connection in a sometimes lonely world. Harper Wave.
Pluhar, A. (2018). Invest in shared housing (How Jude does it). Sharing Housing, Inc. https://sharinghousing.com/invest-in-shared-housing/
Social Security Administration. (2023). Monthly statistical snapshot, March 2023. www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/quickfacts/stat_snapshot/
Zinberg, S. & Merino, M. (2020). Interventions that work to stem the effects of social isolation and loneliness. Generations Journal. https://generations.asaging.org/interventions-stem-effects-isolation-loneliness
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