In Our View: Connecting Seniors

Program to help older residents share housing makes financial, social sense

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The idea of shared senior housing isn't exactly new. It wasn't even new when the TV sitcom "The Golden Girls" aired from 1985-92, focusing on four older single women who live together and win Emmy awards.

But because of vast societal and economic changes in recent years, shared senior living is becoming more and more common. The idea: Independent, physically capable seniors share housing in order to divide the costs, split up the chores, and enjoy some companionship. It might mean a homeowner with a spare room brings in a boarder; it might mean two or more like-minded people find a new place to share. Either way, it's just like the "Golden Girls," only without Bea Arthur.

As the Chicago Tribune wrote in the fall in a story about housing options for seniors: "It's a living arrangement none of the seniors imagined for themselves when they were young, married, and raising families in their own suburban homes." But with people living longer, healthier, and more actively than ever before, it is an arrangement that is making sense for a growing number of people.And the idea is spreading. Locally, Zoe Morrison and Michele Fiasca, longtime veterans in the field of senior care, have put together a non-profit agency called Let's Share Housing (503-719-5444). As reported recently by The Columbian's Scott Hewitt, the organization's website includes a roommate-matching function designed to bring like-minded people together. People who have "lived a long time and were just looking to share their lives," Morrison said. "They may have been isolated and depressed. They may miss having a family."

That is another factor behind the growth of shared senior living — loneliness. Numerous studies over the years have pointed out the benefits of companionship, whether through a committed relationship or simply through a friend to share the day with. Social connections actually become more important as we age, and isolation has been demonstrated to exacerbate both mental and physical health issues. As Connie Skillingstad, an expert in the field of senior services, told the New York Times in 2010: "We've sold ourselves this bill of goods about rugged individualism. We need each other."

Not all that many generations ago, shared housing was the rule rather than the exception. Households typically would include several generations of a family, and tough economic times frequently would lead to the sharing of a dwelling. During the Great Depression, it was common for neighbors to move in together in an effort to split costs. Since then, decades of prosperity, the growth of suburbia, and the notion that everybody should have an 1,800-square-foot home rendered such communal thinking as quaint, if not obsolete. According to the Census Bureau, from 2008-12 the average number of people per American household was 2.61; in 1940, that number was 3.67.

Social safety nets and improved health care have allowed increasing numbers of people to live independently, but many have discovered that such isolation comes with a cost. Finding a roommate or roommates to share housing with isn't for everybody; the transition can be particularly difficult for some who have lived alone for years. But the ability to connect with others can be beneficial to an individual's health, and the sharing of chores and costs can give seniors several additional years of independence. As Morrison described her project in Clark County: "Rebuilding community. That's how I look at it."