Diane Dye Hansen has a whiteboard full of grocery lists and appointment reminders, two friendly pups for which she doesn’t have to pay the vet bills, and a rock-solid retirement plan to keep her housing expenses low. The secret? She’s discovered the perks of midlife roommate life.
“I thrive off being surrounded by human energy,” says Hansen. “A few years ago, a relationship of several years had ended, and my dog had just passed away. And I was unimaginably lonely.” So Hansen, never married and 43, decided to open up her roomy Carson City, NV, home to a roommate.
The word roommate may evoke images of a messy apartment with pizza boxes scattered on the floor. Or say “roommates over 60,” and grab your flowered housecoat and wait for the Golden Girls cliches. But increasingly, cohousing — or living with roommates — is proving to be a smart option for single adults as they enter midlife. The choice provides company, increased financial security and lower expenses, and, critically, a greater chance to age independently and stay put in your home.
The growing popularity of co-housing and co-living arrangements also says something about our times. The so-called “sharing economy” may have been kickstarted by sharing rooms (Airbnb), rides (Uber and Lyft) and startup costs (Kickstarter), but the larger cultural shift those services reflect indicates a seismic generations-wide cultural movement: rethinking consumerism and sharing resources. This movement may have been started by Millennials, but Gen X and Boomers are increasingly aligned (not least because our planet demands it).
Aging Independently, But Not Alone
“Most days, we live our own lives,” says Hansen about her relationship with her roommate Diane Becker, 48. “But in these times, just having someone else around is such a relief.” The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic initially sparked a little stress about cleaning protocols and safety, but those were easily solved and Hansen says the benefits of going through the crisis with another person were immeasurable. “I can’t see myself living alone again,” she says. In the past two years of living together, she and Becker have become friendly, cooking together once a week for “Taco Tuesday,” or hanging out and watching movies on lazy weekend nights.
Barbara Smith, 71, has lived with her roommate, Maggie Boyd, in a Manhattan duplex for nearly five years. Previously, the pair, who have been friends since elementary school, lived in the same neighborhood in Jersey City. The two decided to sell their condos and pool their resources to rent a shared apartment. “We had both done the homeowner thing, and we were excited to have someone else to call on if something was broken,” explains Smith. We wanted to have financial liquidity, and the freedom and flexibility that comes with renting.”
Pooling resources gave them more bells and whistles than they would have been able to afford if they had rented independently. “We have two floors; we have a balcony. None of that would be possible on our own,” says Smith She also appreciates the opportunity to live in the city where, pre-COVID, the pair regularly went to the theater and dined out. “We have money, and we have time, so we can really do what we want to do in a way we couldn’t when we were younger,” she adds.
And while rooming together isn’t a new concept, tech has made it easier than ever to pair up. It’s not quite swipe-right on your future roommate, but emerging apps like Silvernest are making it easy to connect with folks in a similar lifestage looking to share housing. Silvernest not only asks targeted questions about your ideal roommate, but it also provides services to make splitting (and paying) financial obligations seamless. Silvernest CEO Wendi Burkhardt came up with the concept while looking for a housing solution for her mother, although she says the service is being used across generations.
Coliving Gets a Modern Makeover
Roommates is only one way to go in order to be smart about housing as you age. In her early 50s, Louise Bardswich, now 68, purchased a large home together with three women she knew, and they carefully renovated it, creating wheelchair accessibility and an additional bedroom for a possible future live-in nurse, among other future-thinking ideas. All the details of the home arrangement are laid out in writing, with contracts that serve as a “legal operating agreement” that outlines the boundaries for day-to-day communal living. “I recognized that at some stage I was going to be living with other people,” Bardswich says, acknowledging that the infirmity that comes with aging makes living solo if not impossible, at least unwise. “And if you recognize it’s going to happen anyhow,” she continues, “then take control, figure it out and live with people you want to live with.”
There are more options than ever for coliving, as investment dollars pour into shared housing concepts: buzzy startups, like Ollie, Common, and Quarters, are taking hold in major metropolitan cities. These sleekly designed living spaces — which feature tidy fully furnished studio apartments in buildings outfitted with extensive common amenities and spaces (think rooftop gardens, fitness centers, cafes, community event rooms) — at first blush might seem made for Millennials, but Ollie reports that 20 percent of its residents are 50 and older.
Cohousing, on the other hand, is a more suburban solution. Taking root in the US in the 1990s (after a brief rush of popularity in the commune-centric ‘70s), cohousing communities can take many different forms, but are frequently intentional neighborhoods made up of private homes surrounding shared community spaces, such as gardens, parks, shared kitchens and weekly community events. Today, there are more than 110 cohousing communities in the United States, with some targeted specifically toward seniors.
This movement is well underfoot, and cohousing advocates are working with city governments across the country to urge for changes in zoning policies that will accommodate more cohousing. And in response to the uptick in coliving demand, more new houses are being built to accommodate multiple individuals or families, as more builders create multi-family floor plans.
The tides may be turning against determined individualism being the model for growing older, something Silvernest’s Burkhardt has noticed in the app’s users. While 66 percent of the Silvernet client base is solo females, Burkhardt has also seen couples applying to find roommates, both for splitting the bills, and creating a built-in community of friends. “This,” she says, “is the new way of modern living.”
Turns out, independent living as we age just may be best enjoyed in the company of others.
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