What most people have in mind when they think about home-sharing programs is something like the television show "The Golden Girls": Divorced, widowed or retired older women move into one house.
But when James R. Heirtzler got into Howard County's home-sharing program, he gave it a spin. The 65-year-old NASA geophysicist -- who works, travels and runs -- ended up with a 24-year-old acupuncture student living in his Columbia town house. And, somehow, it works.
"I've traveled; he's traveled. He's studied physics; I work in that area. He's interested in computers too. I can talk his language," said Heirtzler, who has been sharing his house for four months.
It has taken some getting used to, of course.
"He's young, he's socially oriented. There are sometimes some young ladies around," said Heirtzler, who said he had trepidations about the arrangement at first. "But we talk about things, we talk it all through. And I'm not that uptight."
The county program that brought the two together is intended to match seniors in need of companionship and extra income with those in need of affordable housing in Howard County.
"It makes a lot of sense for someone who's, say, a widow with a four-bedroom house on her hands," said Sadie Perkins, a counselor for the program.
Since it began in February, the home-sharing program has mostly attracted seniors seeking housemates their own age. But organizers of the matching program try to encourage flexibility, because those who come to them in need of low-cost housing often are younger people, perhaps recently divorced or just starting out.
"Sometimes, they're surprised. They start out looking for a sister and end up finding a daughter," said Diane Perry, housing coordinator for the county Office of Aging, which supervises the program.
So far, however, six of the seven matches made through the program have been exclusively among seniors. Companionship is the main reason senior citizens are looking for housemates.
"With the way society is, with the way families are being scattered," Perry said, "we felt there was a need there."
Other counties are running similar programs, inspired in part by the state's home-sharing initiative announced last year, which included small grants to six Maryland counties. Howard receives $3,000 in state money for the program.
The program uses a private Columbia-based roommate referral agency, which usually charges about $60 for a listing. In addition to picking up that fee, the program provides counseling to help seniors screen and select a housemate, draw up financial arrangements and a contract, and work out the details of communal life.
"There are things they're going to have to work out, like who pays for the toilet paper and where does the ketchup go," Perry said. "They sometimes get on each other's nerves but they work it out, they're getting along."
Applicants fill out detailed questionnaires about themselves and their lifestyles and, if their initial meetings go well, spend a trial period together.
The program is not intended for people who need medical or nursing care, but it can end up bringing together people who help each other with shopping, cooking and errands.
"We haven't had any yet that didn't work out," Perry said.
Those interested in the program can call the Howard County Office of Aging, 730-7697.