Bonnie Moore knew it wasn’t going to work out when her new housemate started reorganizing the drawers in Moore’s lovingly remodeled kitchen as though it were her own home.
“If I left something on the counter, it was like I had left something on her counter,” and the housemate got rid of utensils she thought were unnecessary, said Moore, 69, who has rented out rooms in her five-bedroom house in Bowie, Md., for about five years. “She threw out things that she thought were trash but to me were important.”
Such are the downsides of sharing a house with other older women, many of whom have spent much of their lives as mistresses of their homes.
But for those such as Moore who are embracing communal living in this era of longer lives and smaller pensions, the arrangement beats what one advocate refers to as “death by Bingo” in a retirement home.
“Most of us have been through putting our parents in a nursing home, and we don’t want that for ourselves,” said Marianne Kilkenny, 64, of Asheville, N.C., who lives in a “Golden Girls”-style house — named after the 1980s sitcom about a houseful of older roommates — and has written a guidebook to community living for older people.
Most Americans would prefer to stay in their own homes or communities for as long as possible as they age, according to surveys. But this can be difficult, especially for people who find themselves single after a divorce or the death of a spouse. Today’s older adults often have higher mortgages and more debt than their parents did at the same age, and for many who had planned to retire, the recent recession decimated their 401(k) accounts and home equity.
About 28 percent of people 50 to 64 years old lived alone in 2009, according to AARP, and while the portion of those living with unrelated people is only about 1 percent, the cohort approaching retirement age is so large that the number of older people sharing housing has risen considerably. In 2000, there were about 820,000 households where single people 46 to 64 shared housing with non-relatives; by 2013, that number had risen to 1,090,000, said Rodney Harrell, AARP’s senior adviser for housing. Roommate-matching Web sites have sprung up recently to fill this niche.
Shared-housing advocates say they have recently seen a spike in interest. Those who were young in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when communal living peaked in popularity, “are now going back and scratching that itch,” said Laird Schaub, executive secretary of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, which promotes cooperative living.
In the 1960s, Moore lived in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, where the youth counterculture embraced communal life. In 2008, living in Maryland, she got divorced, and her son encouraged her to move to Utah and live with him. But filling her five-bedroom house with like-minded women, who pay $700 to $850 a month, seemed to be a better way to hold on to her home and her autonomy after she retired from practicing law this year.
Each shared house has its own flavor and rules. Moore — who has given workshops and written a guide on starting a “Golden Girls” house and on Friday launched the Golden Girls Network, a national matching service — looks for people to live in her house who want to be part of a micro-community and not simply rent a room. “You want to be able to hang out, chitchat,” she said. “I want the interaction.”
But Nancy Shaffer, 66, a counselor and healing-touch practitioner, likes a model that is less social and prefers to share her Lanham, Md., house with men.
“Men seem to have a more simple life,” she said. “They don’t have as much stuff, and they’re happy with just their room, their computer and their TV.”
Although Shaffer and her roommates occasionally go out to dinner or celebrate a holiday together, she said: “I’d rather not have all the friendships and stuff. Everybody’s independent, everyone’s got their own life.”
Men are also helpful with handyman chores around the house, she added.
Communal living can take different forms, including a landlord-tenant model such as Moore’s, a cohousing type in which a group rents or buys a house together, and a version in which an older person rents out rooms at a reduced rate in exchange for companionship and household help.
As with housemates of any age, sometimes the match doesn’t work out. A vegan may be put off by people cooking bacon in the shared kitchen. A person with nocturnal habits may disturb others who like to rise early.
A roommate in Moore’s house who was a Jehovah’s Witness was uncomfortable with celebrating birthdays and holidays. “I like to have a birthday party for everyone — I put up Christmas decorations,” Moore said. “I was going to put up Halloween decorations, and the very next day she moved out.”
Moore tried including younger housemates, but one woman in her 20s seemed to see the arrangement as a version of being at her parents’ house.
“She went away for a few weeks and left her dog for us to take care of,” Moore said.
Moore eventually decided to stick to older people. “We’re at the same age. We’ve had the same experiences in life. We can say, ‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?’ ”
The transition from being a solitary homeowner to being a roommate is not always easy. “The renters, they don’t have the security that the landlord has,” Schaub said.
Lori James, who is in her early 50s, moved into Moore’s house in January after a divorce.
“I was like, ‘Well, I just need some place to be, so I’m going to try this for a while,’ ” said the kindergarten teacher as she stood in the sunny, expansive kitchen on a recent evening while a housemate and James’s 21-year-old daughter, who is staying there temporarily, cooked pasta for dinner. “This is my year for ‘yes.’ ”
After dinner, Moore stepped out front to check on her day lilies, peonies and hydrangeas. “My deal with my son is that I’m going to stay here until I can no longer do my gardening,” she said, adding that he sees her living arrangement as just “another of mother’s adventures.”
She smiled to herself as if she were in on a joke her son didn’t get. The sun dipped a bit lower, and she waved at a neighbor and headed inside.