Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging

Home sharing: Living with roommates in later life

Written by Karen Backes, masters research fellow in aging, Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging at the Institute for Public Health

Thanks to decades of advances in technology, public health, and medicine, many Americans are able to live independently or semi-independently well into late adulthood, and the vast majority of older adults seem to prefer to do so.

A report from the AARP Public Policy Institute revealed that 87% of adults age 65 and older desire to “age in place” for as long as possible, as they feel emotionally attached to their homes, their neighbors, and their overall community.

Unfortunately, aging in place is not always practically or financially feasible. Older adults who find themselves living alone in large houses may struggle to maintain the property due to the sheer amount of physical labor and financial expense required to do so. Additionally, rising rental costs and property taxes due to factors such as neighborhood gentrification force many older adults to relocate, especially those who are supporting themselves on fixed incomes. Although many individuals who find themselves unable to age where they are consider moving in with family members or transitioning to an apartment, condo, or assisted living, there is another potential alternative that is gaining popularity in the United States: home sharing.

Home share arrangements have been popular in other countries, including the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and France, for quite some time. They can take many forms, but they typically involve an older homeowner renting out space to a roommate, who may or may not be of a similar age. For some, this sort of arrangement is only a short-term solution to housing insecurity, but for others, it is a lifestyle. Regardless of duration, both older homeowners and their roommates typically enjoy a range of financial, practical, and social benefits.

Advantages of Home Sharing

First and foremost, homeowners gain an extra source of income to offset housing or maintenance costs; in exchange, their roommates often pay below-market rent for safe and comfortable housing. In light of the fact that over 250 million older Americans are living in poverty or near-poverty, according to the National Council on Aging, it appears that these financial benefits can be potentially life-changing for both parties. Students and young adults who choose to rent space in older adults’ homes also benefit financially in both the short- and long-term, as the low rent can help them avoid going into debt to cover their housing costs or reduce the debt they must take on while pursuing an education.

The details of home share arrangements can vary considerably, but often, homeowners offer reduced rent in exchange for help with chores, cooking, errands, or other household tasks. This is generally a fair trade-off, as roommates also enjoy practical benefits, such as being able to live in a more conveniently located or safer neighborhood than they might otherwise be able to afford. Further, sharing household responsibilities and eating occasional meals together can foster companionship, which many home share participants view as the most significant benefit of their arrangement.

Older adults who participate in home sharing frequently cite a desire for companionship as a strong motivating factor for seeking a roommate; they may even rank social interaction above their need or desire for lower rent or extra income. Multidisciplinary research findings have consistently shown that a sense of social connectedness is a critical component of healthy aging, and that social isolation can lead to a wide range of consequences for older adults, including increased mortality, increased susceptibility to infection, greater likelihood of developing depression or dementia, and more frequent and longer emergency hospital admissions.

Fortunately, living with a roommate can protect against these negative outcomes while helping both parties develop supportive and meaningful relationships with one another, often across generations. Home sharing can be especially beneficial for empty-nesters, widows and widowers who may struggle to adapt to living alone after losing their primary companions, but all participants seek to gain quite a bit from these arrangements. Ultimately, home sharing appears to be a viable strategy to alleviate housing insecurity and allow older adults to continue living independently in their own homes and communities.

How People Can Find Roommates

Some older adults choose to share their homes with longtime friends, but others may find themselves seeking alternative ways to connect with roommates. Luckily, the internet has made it possible for people of all ages to meet and screen potential roommates online, through a process that bears some resemblance to online dating.

Some roommate matching websites are designed to pair older adult homeowners with specific types of roommates. For example, Senior Homeshares connects homeowners with older adults on a fixed income who are seeking affordable housing. Another matching service, Roommates4Boomers, connects women over 50 who wish to share their homes with other women. Others, such as Nesterly and Odd Couples Housing are designed to meet the rising demand for intergenerational roommate pairings. Finally, plenty of more general matching services exist for those who may not be seeking a particular type of roommate, such as the online resource Silvernest and the National Shared Housing Resource Center, which helps connect people with locally-based programs.

Older adults living in St. Louis’ Skinker DeBaliviere neighborhood soon will have the option to find a roommate through a local home share program, one of the first to be developed in the St. Louis region. Under the leadership of Brandon Sterling, the Skinker DeBaliviere Community Council has recently launched a pilot of HomeShare St. Louis, an intergenerational program where neighborhood residents can opt to share their homes with graduate students at nearby Washington University in St. Louis. The program is supported through collaboration with Washington University’s Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging and Neighborhood CARE, STL Village, and other partners.

Sterling hopes that the program will foster personal relationships between older and younger neighborhood residents, so that Boomers and their Millennial and Generation Z roommates may eventually become advocates for one another, both within the neighborhood and in other areas of their lives. Enrollment is currently open for the program for the 2018-2019 academic year.