Not too long ago Garnet Beattie, 86, lived in a retirement home on the Westside, where she said the treatment was bad and the food was horrible, and where she was often lonely.
"It was terrible," she said. "I was there 13 months and I had one roommate after another. There was no one to talk to and finally I became ill from the food. I told my son that I couldn't take it any longer, I had to find someplace else to live."
She contacted Alternative Living for the Aging, a nonprofit organization that runs two cooperative homes on the Westside and helps senior citizens find roommates. Last month, Alternative Living introduced Beattie to Ethel Reuter, an 81-year-old widow who was looking for someone to share her home and living expenses with. The two met at Reuter's home just outside Culver City and were an instant match.
Now Beattie lives with Reuter, paying $400 a month for her share of the mortgage, utilities and telephone. The nursing home cost $800 a month. More important, she has a companion who accompanies her to church, doctor's appointments and on shopping trips. The two women also share household responsibilities. Reuter said she prefers to cook and Beattie enjoys working in the garden.
"She has short arms and I have long arms and it helps," Beattie said. "She doesn't hear very well and I don't see very well so between the two of us, we make one pretty good woman."
Since 1979, Alternative Living for the Aging has found roommates for 1,300 senior citizens, mostly on the Westside. The organization, which operates out of a small office at 7563 Beverly Blvd. in the Fairfax area, has been awarded a $20,000 grant by the city of Beverly Hills to extend its services there. The organization also receives a $50,000-a-year grant from the city of Los Angeles.
"The purpose of our program is to help people remain independent through interdependence with others," said Janet Witkin, founder and director of Alternative Living. "People don't have to live alone, they do not have to live in an institution. We are trying to create an alternative for older people of Los Angeles."
Witkin said that many senior citizens have come to believe that "two can live as cheaply as one" and are rooming together for companionship and to share expenses.
Alternative Living provides counseling for seniors and draws up personality profiles to help in the matchmaking process. The organization also stages social gatherings, featuring coffee and cookies, to introduce senior citizens to potential roommates.
"For older people who are facing financial difficulty or problems in continuing to live independently, there are not that many alternatives available, short of institutions," said Audrey Arlington, a community development specialist for the city of Beverly Hills. "Basically, Alternative Living offers increased companionship and security."
Witkin said that Alternative Living also helps seniors negotiate financial terms. Often, she said, differences are settled when one roommate agrees to do additional household chores if he is unable to pay more. "We are looking for a good blend," she said.
No negotiations were needed in the case of Gwendolyn McMurray, 79, who shares her one-bedroom apartment with Terry Joy, 83. "My grandson thought I was crazy, but sometimes people don't understand how lonely you can get," McMurray said.
McMurray keeps her bed in the living room and Joy sleeps in the bedroom. "I have more room and besides I don't mind it," she said.
Although they share early-morning walks, the two widows say they try to maintain separate lives. McMurray enjoys her family and television. Joy is more of a loner. She said she often reads and is also a member of a discussion group. "Sometimes we eat out together at a local restaurant," Joy said. "We are not big eaters, so we often just share a sandwich."
Not far from McMurray's apartment, Abraham Plotkin, 93, shares his two-bedroom apartment with John Zacha, 60.
"Three years ago, when my wife was alive, we could see then that we would have financial problems," Plotkin said. "We had just enough to pay the bills, but when our rent increased from $250 to $582 we knew that we were in for trouble. Then my wife passed away. The family helped a little, but I realized I could not pay the money that I was paying. There wasn't enough."
Zacha, a divorcee living on disability, faced a similar crunch. "I was just out of the hospital, penniless and between a rock and a hard place," he said. "I couldn't pay first and last month's rent. I couldn't do it. Right now I'm trying to get some employment somewhere, but when you are 60 years old, that is difficult."
Plotkin said his arrangement with Zacha is working well. "We eat together; sometimes I do the cooking and sometimes he does the cooking," Plotkin said. "He likes bagels and I like waffles for breakfast. Sometimes he goes out and gets waffles for me. We share the cost."
"He would do anything for me and I would do anything for him," Zacha said. "On days when I'm home, I take him around shopping or to the doctor. Sometimes we get a meal out together. I love the old man. He is quite a nice person. We are more like friends than roommates. "