Senior living and the cohabitation option

Shelly Gigante

By Shelly Gigante
Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Posted on Mar 26, 2019

Seniors who are looking for lower living expenses, help with household chores, or even just companionship are turning to home-share programs as a simple solution to an age-old problem.

A concept made famous by the 1980s hit sitcom “Golden Girls,” home sharing involves offering accommodations to a guest in your house or apartment for a nominal fee or in exchange for basic household tasks (cooking, laundry, shoveling snow), or some combination of both.

“Home sharing provides affordable housing to guests, and it can allow hosts who are seniors to age in place,” said Jaimeson Champion, assistant director of programs for the New York Foundation for Senior Citizens’ (NYFSC) home-sharing program, which matches adult hosts who have extra rooms in his or her house or apartment with an adult guest who meets their needs.

Home sharing, of course, is not unique to retirees. Others who have embraced the model include persons with disabilities, working professionals, those at risk of homelessness, single parents, and people who are simply lonely and wish to bring life back into the house, according to the National Shared Housing Resource Center.

But the ranks of seniors who have embraced cohabitation have swelled considerably in recent years as the baby boomer population redefines retirement.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of U.S. adults in cohabiting relationships reached 18 million in 2016, up 29 percent since 2007. While roughly half of those living with an unmarried partner are younger than 35, a growing percentage are age 50 and older, according to an analysis of the data by Pew Research Center. Roughly one quarter (23 percent) of all cohabitating adults, it found, were seniors, a number that has risen 75 percent since 2007, due largely to the aging baby boomers.1

“The rising number of cohabiters aged 50 and older coincides with rising divorce rates among this group,” the Pew researchers state in the report.

Despite the growth in cohabitation, however, it is hardly the norm. In all, 7 percent of all U.S. adults were cohabitating last year, and 4 percent of unmarried adults 50 and older lived together, according to Pew. Most cohabiters (74 percent) aged 50 and older have been previously married, and the majority (57 percent) are in their 50s, while 30 percent are in their 60s, 10 percent are in their 70s, and the remaining 3 percent are in their 80s or older.

Safety in state-based home-sharing programs

Because home sharing helps to solve a multitude of problems — it improves access to affordable housing, fosters companionship for single seniors, and potentially helps older homeowners delay the need for assisted living services — more than a dozen states and many local housing authorities have implemented senior home-sharing programs of their own. They are California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, and Washington.

“We started this program in 1981 because affordable housing has always been a top priority need for senior citizens in New York City, and we recognized the need for a housing solution that was both affordable and one that could help reduce social isolation through shared living,” said Champion. “We’ve had many matches that have developed into wonderful friendships.”

While homeowners can easily find a roommate on their own via online classified sites likeCraigslist,Padmapper and Roomie Match, he said none offer what many state-based home-sharing programs can: safety.

All program participants in the free NYFSC program, for example, are thoroughly screened by licensed, professional social workers prior to making a match. The organization also checks references of both the host and guest applicants. And, as a final measure, to help identify the most potentially compatible matchmates, the social workers use a proprietary survey based on 31 lifestyle objectives.

(Roomie Match does indicate on its website that it screens all roommate profiles to weed out scams, spammers, and inappropriate posts.)

Per the NYFSC program, at least one of the matchmates must be 60 or older, but it is also available to hosts who are 55 or older and interested in sharing with developmentally disabled adult guests capable of independent living.

“The hosts may request a monthly contribution from the guest towards household expenses, but that is up to the host,” said Champion. “In lieu of a monetary contribution, the host may also request a service exchange in the form of assistance with household chores or errand running. Some simply request that the guest be in the home every night because they have anxiety about being alone.”

Cohousing communities

Seniors who seek financial and social support, but also wish to maintain their independence, have other options, as well. (Learn more: 3 ways to plan for retirement )

Cohousing communities, such as Phoenix Commons in Oakland, California, and Elderberry in Rougemont, North Carolina, are on the rise and offer opportunities to own single-family homes or condominiums in a community focused on communal living.

Many of the 165 established cohousing communities (another 140 are under development) are close to college campuses or metro areas, with easy access to transit, health care, grocery stores, parks, continued learning classes, and cultural programs, according to the Cohousing Association of the United States.

At Silver Sage Village in Boulder, Colorado, where active residents “age in community,” many who live there are volunteers, cyclists, hikers, writers, travelers, and crafters — and some still work full time. The community has 15 units and about 25 residents ranging in ages from the late 50s to 80s.

Rahima Dancy, 68, a retired teacher who moved to Silver Sage Village three years ago with her husband, said the residents eat a potluck dinner together twice a week, vote on budget priorities, and tend to each other’s needs when someone gets sick or needs a hand. Residents also contribute a monthly fee for shared expenses, such as landscape contracting, and have full access to common facilities, including the meditation, craft, and exercise rooms.

“It’s really for people who want a balance of community and privacy,” said Dancy, in an interview. “Our residents work together. We set the rules. It’s a lot different than an assisted living center where everything is determined for you.”

Shared housing and communal living is on the rise as baby boomers change the rules of traditional retirement, offering countless potential benefits to seniors, including shared responsibilities, social interaction, resource efficiency, and the ability to age in place.

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Pew Research Center, “Number of U.S. Adults Cohabiting With a Partner Continues to Rise, Especially Among those 50 and Older,” 2017.

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its subsidiaries, employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of MassMutual.