Jane Callahan-Moore, 69, and Stefanie Clark, 75, are part of a growing trend. Some have called it the “Golden Girls” trend, named after the 1980s sitcom that featured four older women living together as housemates.
Almost 80 percent of Americans older than 65 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.
But Callahan-Moore and Clark have found a solution: Move in with a roommate in a walkable area, where they can cook each other meals, go out together and provide support.
“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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Clark and Callahan-Moore are also 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.”