Bea Witherell was desperate. She was 88 and in need of housing, but her options were running out. She had been living for two years with her son and his wife, but that had begun to wear on all of them. When the children started talking about finding a retirement home for Witherell--an idea she abhorred--she knew it was time to strike out on her own.
"I lived with my son for two years and I didn't even have a speaking acquaintance with the next-door neighbor," Witherell, now 89, said. "I didn't have a single friend, and I've always had friends."
Witherell knew she couldn't rent a place by herself--not in a county where one-bedroom apartments tend to start around $600, which is more than many seniors earn in Social Security income. So she placed an ad in the newspaper seeking an apartment to share. Her first callback, Witherell said, came from a man who said he'd give her a rent reduction if she would occasionally let him wear her clothes.
Discouraged and "feeling completely rejected," Witherell eventually found help in the same place that more than 1,000 other Orange County residents did in the past year--the Shared Housing program. Witherell was led to Mary Morphew, a Fullerton homeowner in her 60s who was willing to take in a roomer to alleviate her house payment. Witherell's son took her to meet Morphew, and the women hit it off immediately. They now have been roommates for a year, and they even picked up a third roommate, Jean Clark, 72, about two months ago.
Supervised by the county's Area Agency on Aging, the Shared Housing program has 17 offices throughout Orange County and is designed mainly to help seniors over 55 on fixed incomes find roommates with whom they can share housing costs. But the program also provides a rent break to people regardless of their age, if they are willing to live with a senior citizen and provide services for them.
Under the program, participants who move into someone else's home pay a maximum of $375 in rent. In cases where younger people provide household or personal services for an elderly roommate, the live-in's rent contribution is determined by the extent of the service, Chavez said. In cases where the senior citizen doesn't need any special care, rent and utility arrangements are worked out between the parties.
While the program clearly helps both parties financially, officials say it eases the participants' minds as much as their pocketbooks.
"The program is one of the only options many seniors have from the financial standpoint because of the high cost of living," said Susan Gattis, who oversees the program in South County. "The other benefit is just knowing someone is there at night. So many people are frightened at nighttime. It's so nice to know another person is in the other room. You'd be surprised, even in a community like Leisure World where many people live in apartment buildings, how they feel isolated once they're in that apartment at night--or even in the daytime."
The program's roots go back as far as 1978, when it was sponsored under a different name by Saddleback College and operated largely by volunteers. The county first funded it in 1983, and the Area Agency on Aging assumed its coordinating role in 1984. Now operated by a coalition of nonprofit agencies through various city and county offices, the program will receive about $175,000 for the coming year, according to program coordinator Juan Chavez.
The three women who share Morphew's four-bedroom home say they have gotten along famously. "Amazingly, I never felt like Mary was a stranger," Witherell said. The women, all widows, say the companionship has been as important as the financial benefits.
Each of the three has her own bedroom and television set. And while new roommates often have to tread lightly around each other initially, the women say there were no touchy moments. "There's never been a cross word around here," Clark said. "We just do our own thing."
Jokingly, she added: "I've never had a writer for a roommate before."
The joke is directed toward the 89-year-old Bea, who began writing historical novels when she turned 80. She has written eight as-yet unpublished, book-length stories, she said, all in longhand and in a strong, legible handwriting that belies her age.
"I sit for hours at my desk writing, and nobody disturbs me," Witherell said. "Sometimes I close the door, but if they see me at the desk, they never bother me."
Noma Green and Pearl Smith, both widows, consider themselves another success story of the program. Paired 15 months ago, Green, 76, moved into Smith's El Toro home. Smith will be 102 next month. Green said she has enough money to live alone but was hoping to find a roommate, both for company and as a way to pay less rent.