Jane Callahan-Moore was living with her daughter and granddaughter in a Chicago suburb, but she felt something missing.
And neither owns a car. Edgewater is a walkable neighborhood with rail and bus access nearby, plus restaurants and shopping.
“Everything is just here at our fingertips,” Callahan-Moore said. “I would not have access to a condominium half as beautiful or half as beautifully located if I didn’t have a roommate situation. 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 car-dependent 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 over 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 after the 1980s sitcom that featured four older women living together as housemates.
“In the broader population, 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 home-sharers 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 in huge amounts, 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 United States, 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 who have a decreased capability to engage with the outside world and maintain their independence.
Homes that are close by foot 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. And then you can meet people because you can walk to meet them. They can walk to meet you.”
Doris Richardson, 74, has discovered this herself. 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 restaurants and neighbors, often strolling around the lake outside her front door. She decided to become a housemate to cut expenses as she started a nonprofit group.
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. It takes you outside of yourself,” 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.”
This presents a challenge among older people. Social isolation and loneliness in that age group are associated with increased mortality, poorer cognitive performance and poorer self-reported physical and mental health.
Older people can be more susceptible to isolation because they may be retired and not have family nearby, said Painter, who has studied what drives household formation. Walkable neighborhoods can help people stay connected, in addition to providing exercise.
“If you have a community which is more connected, and the ability to kind of engage within that community in a way that is safe and that you can walk, you not only get physical exercise, which we know is linked to longer-term [positive] health outcomes,” but staying connected to the community could also improve mental health, Painter said.
The urgency to address where older people live and how they can stay socially engaged will only grow. By 2030, one in five U.S. residents will be 65 or over, and older people are projected to outnumber children for the first time in the country’s history, according to the U.S. 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.”
Kilkenny said older people need a variety of options of where to live as their population expands. She hopes this will influence how homes are built in the future.
“Shared housing fits into this as one alternative possibility,” she said. “I’d love to have the house builders and developers see the possibility of a housemate situation, really looking at a viable economic thing for them, so they will build houses with more than one master suite all on one floor.”
In the meantime, Clark and Callahan-Moore are enjoying their walkable neighborhood in Chicago. Clark said she often walks three to five miles a day, and that helps her stay physically active. And with transit, the pair can reach almost any place in the city in an hour.
Clark rents out her space to Callahan-Moore for $700, primarily because she wants a companion — something they both have found in each other — not just for the money.
“Affordability is the key, and that’s why the $700 to me is nice, but it is not going to change my lifestyle,” Clark said. “But for Jane to have a place like this for $700 is nirvana.”
“Truly,” Callahan-Moore agreed.