A HIT 1980S sitcom in which four senior women share a home in Miami. Hilarity ensues, and the world falls for “The Golden Girls.” But more than just a beloved television show, the concept on which their wise and friend-first adventures were built is becoming a more common arrangement for regular people to age in place and get the most out of their later years with friends by their side.
Senior or elderly co-housing “isn’t a new concept,” says Sue Johansen, vice president of partner services with A Place for Mom, a senior referral service based in Seattle. “But what is new is that people are trying to explore it in different ways. What we’re seeing today is that seniors are wanting to stay in their homes longer,” with two primary reasons driving that move: socialization and cost-sharing.
“It’s usually the financial piece that’s the stronger driver that we’ve seen,” Johansen says. Co-housing offers multiple seniors who’d rather not move into an assisted living community or nursing home another option for staying at home longer while spending less money to keep up a separate household. “It allows both the senior who owns the home and others who rent a room to be in an independent environment for longer, to pool resources financially, to live more comfortably and to share an environment with somebody who may face similar challenges.”
For example, if none of the co-housing residents are able to keep up with housekeeping duties, perhaps they can split the expense of hiring a cleaning service. Home health care may also be more economical when delivered in a co-housing situation. “Facilitating care for multiple residents” is a common feature of these sorts of living situations. “They may have a home care company that comes in or they may have a cleaning service or an errand service that can help serve all two or three seniors in a home together,” Johansen says.
Similar arrangements can often be found in senior co-housing communities that have been planned to cater specifically to adults of a certain age who are living in co-housing situations. The Cohousing Association of the United States reports there are more than 160 of these communities across the U.S. today, with 130 more in development. “A cleaning service will do multiple homes on a block or a home care company will have multiple clients in a small radius,” Johansen says. Grocery or meal delivery services might work with all the residents in a certain neighborhood to improve efficiencies.
For many seniors, that financial piece may play the biggest role in pointing them toward co-housing as their best option, says Roxanne Sorensen, an aging life care specialist and owner of Elder Care Solutions of WNY in Rochester, New York, a case management consultancy. Sorensen says that as older adults live longer, finding an affordable housing option that fits their needs is a challenge that co-housing might be able to help address. “Why not take the model of developmentally disabled group homes and mimic that for seniors?” she asks. By moving several seniors into one home rather than each living alone, that will reduce the cost of procuring home health staff while perhaps also reducing loneliness.
In addition, Sorensen says changes to federal programs such as Medicaid may make co-housing a more attractive option in the future. “The funding keeps drying up. Every time they do something to Medicaid it affects the seniors” and the level of care they can afford. “The people who have paid into the system like the elderly, they shouldn’t be penalized,” but she says reforms to federal benefits programs like Medicare and Medicaid could curtail their ability to live out their golden years the way they want.
There are lots of reasons why an older adult might find him or herself feeling isolated or lonely. For one, divorce among seniors is on the rise. According to the Pew Research Center, since the 1990s, the divorce rate among adults aged 50 and over (so-called “gray divorce”) has more than doubled. For others, death leaves the surviving spouse living alone. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 28 percent of people aged 65 or older lived alone when the census was conducted in 2010. And these individuals are more likely to be female, given that women’s life expectancy is 81.2 years versus 76.4 years for men. (Life expectancy in the U.S. has been following a downward trend over the past several years, with an editorial in The BMJ reporting the cause being despair resulting in increased suicide and substance abuse.)
Social isolation and loneliness are associated with higher mortality in older adults, and senior co-housing might be an option for alleviating some of this isolation. Simply living with another person or people – especially if you have shared experiences or other things in common – can provide a wonderful opportunity to socialize and feel part of something bigger than yourself. Who wouldn’t want to live with friends? Much like any other shared housing arrangement, this one can yield a new partner or friend with whom to have adventures and good times.