SANTEE — Though she appears to be two decades younger than her 91 years, Luna Johnson is one step from the nursing home door. She can barely see, and is unable to cook, drive, sort out her various medications or take care of herself in an emergency.
But instead of trying an institution or costly live-in attendants, Johnson turned for help to a gregarious, somewhat arthritic 89-year-old named Wilson B. (Fig) Newton, and invited him to live with her.
Johnson and Newton are house mates, matched in a relationship of mutual advantage 16 months ago by one of four San Diego County agencies devoted to keeping elderly people in the security of their own homes while providing a low-cost alternative to others seeking housing.
They are part of a nationwide boom in home-sharing programs for the elderly that has taken place this decade, during which the number of agencies making such arrangements has soared from 25 in 1981 to about 400 today nationwide.
Besides financial help, which is the major reason for shared living arrangements, elderly roommates give each other badly needed companionship, help with household chores, and provide a sense of security from the twin threats of emergencies and a seemingly hostile world.
Older people "don't want to give up their house, but they can't afford on their income to keep it," said Carol Schreter, a Baltimore gerontological consultant who studied home-sharing arrangements in Washington, D.C. "And if they have physical problems, they may need some assistance around the house."
In return for room and board in Johnson's large mobile home, Newton cooks Johnson's food, drives her around in his 1963 Chevrolet, tries to accomplish some yard work despite his increasingly painful arthritis, and keeps watch over her health.
"You see, I'm nearly blind," Johnson said. "He can cook certain things. He takes me every place--to my doctors and down to the club." Otherwise, Johnson would "have to go in the home or something. But the homes are so expensive. I don't have the money."
Newton, who lives on a Social Security check and a small savings account, said, "It saves me rent, and rents today are pretty high. And it saves me food (costs)."
According to the 1980 U.S. Census, 670,000 people age 65 and older are sharing their homes with non-relatives, 35% more than in 1970.
In part, the jump represents the continued increase in the nation's elderly population. But people who work in shared-housing organizations also believe it is a result of increased emphasis on keeping older people in their homes, the continued rise of housing prices, and new acceptance of a living arrangement that few old people had heard about just 10 years ago.
"There has been a lot of attention paid to the benefits of home sharing," said Mary Gildea, director of educational projects for the National Shared Housing Resource Center in Philadelphia. "Five years ago, if you asked an older person what they thought about shared housing, they wouldn't have known what you were talking about. Today, what we're finding is that there's much more understanding of the concept."
In a nationwide poll of 1,500 people over the age of 60 last year, the American Assn. of Retired People found that 15% would consider sharing their homes with another person, and 12% would consider moving into someone else's home. In a 1980 survey by Bryn Mawr College's social work program, about 7% answered the same questions positively, said Katie Sloan, housing specialist for the association.
Federally supported home-sharing agencies also save the government money by placing older people in homes at less than half the cost of building or subsidizing elderly housing, Gildea said.
Arrangements vary so widely that it is difficult to describe a typical match. Many include some exchange of money, usually involving the home seeker paying a small rent to the homeowner or, more rarely, the homeowner paying a small fee for the aid a roommate provides. Other arrangements, like Johnson's and Newton's, involve no cash transactions.
Nationwide, about half of all home-sharing arrangements involve two elderly people, Gildea said. Most of the rest are inter-generational, perhaps a student or single mother sharing living quarters with an older person.
About 200 of the 400 agencies that set up matches concentrate on larger, congregate living facilities where as many as 20 people share a group home or small apartments with common living areas, Gildea said. The rest try to match individual home seekers with homeowners.
About 70% of the nation's elderly own their own homes, and most have paid off their mortgages. As they continue to live longer lives, more elderly people are finding themselves with excess space that once was shared with spouses and children. That situation is ideal for home sharing.