Communal Housing for Seniors

Sharing the load can make sense



Illustration by Kristina Rowell

ROOMMATE WANTED: Must be courteous, clean, respectful, responsible and over 55.

If you’re a Blanche and able to find a Dorothy, Rose or Sophia, shared housing can be mutually beneficial while making the golden years a little less lonely and a lot more financially comfortable. 

After all, it worked out beautifully for the four older divorced or widowed women in the plotline of the sitcom “The Golden Girls,” which was hugely popular in the 1980s and 1990s. It all centered around Blanche renting rooms in her Miami house to the other three women.

Nowadays, the co-housing concept is taking off all across the country for seasoned citizens who find themselves single and would prefer not to live alone for one reason or another.

Good-bye sitcom, hello reality show.

“My husband and I sold our house in Hampton, and we were looking for a new place. Then my sister, who is a widow with her only child and grandchildren living in Colorado, said, ‘Wait. This is crazy. I have the whole downstairs in my home available — you should come live with me.’ So we moved into her Hampton home,” says Diane Demers, a retired educator in the Manchester school system. “My sister didn’t have to be alone, we could eat all of our meals together, do fun things together and watch out for each other. And with housing costs on the Seacoast being so exorbitant, it was a really attractive situation.”

Demers is fortunate to share housing with family. But these days, living with perfect strangers is also starting to make perfect sense.

When some seniors are hit with the breakup of a marriage or the death of a spouse, they can be stuck with a huge mortgage, still waiting for their retirement accounts to recover from the recent recession, and end up sliding deeper into debt.

For those who don’t own their own homes, escalating rents often price them out of the marketplace. A recent Harvard University study found that almost half of retirees aged 65-80 who are renters run into substantial trouble when trying to cover their housing costs.

Co-housing is easier on everyone’s pocketbook, and it provides a safe and comfortable accommodation for the renter while allowing the homeowner to stay put and age in place. Companionship, of course, is another big bonus.

But how, and where, do you find the right roomie?

Roommate matching websites are popping up all over, and the most popular is a national service not so coincidentally named Golden Girls Network. Almost half a million seniors are already living in a “Golden Girls” scenario, notes AARP, and the numbers are expected to keep climbing as the so-called silver tsunami sweeps across the country.

But there are other types of communal housing.

Nubanusit Neighborhood and Farm, located on 113 idyllic acres just outside of Peterborough, is New Hampshire’s first co-housing community. It features 29 environmentally-designed homes with one to four bedrooms that are for sale or rent, plus there is a common house with guest rooms.

The Pinnacle Project, which has already attracted 15 committed members who hope to build on purchased property in Lyme (if and when zoning issues are resolved), would be the second.

Both properties are sustainable and intentionally multi-generational, with Nubanusit members ranging in age from infants to octogenarians.

“I would not be interested in living in a place that was restricted to just seniors. I would find that drab, lacking diversity and lacking reality,” says Suzy McDonald, a retired teacher, who bought a home at Nubanusit with her partner, Ed, a clinical psychologist. “We enjoy interacting with the children here, and when my grandchildren visit from Boston, there are kids here for them to play with. There is a wonderful camaraderie here with fascinating, accomplished and interesting people who are enjoying the different stages of life.”

McDonald points out that the community’s kids benefit from what is akin to an extended family with some adult residents assuming the role of additional and wise grandparents, aunts and uncles.

“We have a group named ‘grannies on call,’ and we’re a resource for the mothers who need someone to watch their kids once in a while,” she says. “One of our neighbors here will never have grandchildren, and others have children and grandchildren who live far away and are unable to visit often, so they really like being around the young families and involved in their lives.”

Another plus, particularly for singles, is that in times of need, the community rallies around.

“We’ve had people experience serious accidents, injuries or illnesses, and that’s when this neighborhood rises to the challenge,” says McDonald, who found that out firsthand when she broke her ankle and was incapacitated last winter. “This is a pretty special place, but it’s not utopian.”

One of the detriments is the price tag. Homes in Nubanusit, where there are monthly association fees, and the Pinnacle Project can be expensive, if not completely cost prohibitive.

“We’re not trying to be a 55-plus community. The people who had the money to make a significant capital contribution were people who were in their fifties and above,” says Liz Ryan Cole, a Vermont Law School professor and a founding visionary of Pinnacle Project. “There are now a couple of young families who are extremely interested in joining us, but they would have to get a mortgage. They think this is a great idea, but it’s very tough to live in the town. The average cost of a new home in Lyme is $837,000. It’s the wealthiest town in New Hampshire until you hit the Seacoast.”

The Demers and Diane’s sister, JoAnne Cronin, decided to relocate to Florida, and they purchased separate homes almost next door to one another. The Seacoast residence was sold in August.

“Two sisters bought it,” Demers laughs. “It’s going to be the same scenario. They will live there together and share the house. They said that what we did, and what worked really well for us, is exactly what they want.”

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