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Shades of Gray

Doubling Up : Shared Housing Can Help Ease Loneliness, Financial Pinch

May 23, 1991|Agnes Herman | Agnes Herman is a writer, lecturer and retired social worker living in Lake San Marcos

"I have the best roommate I have ever had," says Charn Kibler, not quite 40 years old. Her roommate is past 60.

They have been together for a year and a half and share more than living quarters: The foundation of their compatibility is good will and an ability to compromise. Two congenial cats complete the household.

Not coincidentally, Kibler is the supervisor of Senior Services and Shared Housing for Lifeline, a social service agency in Vista. She is not only an enthusiastic advocate of the project, but also a very satisfied client.

Lifeline is a nonprofit, United Way-supported agency with offices in Vista and San Diego. Lifeline provides a number of services, including transportation of senior and disabled citizens to doctors' appointments and social outings. Lifeline also provides emergency food, clothing and shelter to needy seniors, counseling for all age groups, youth programs, including outreach for gang prevention, support groups for caregivers and, finally, shared housing.

The concept of shared housing has caught on around the country in the past decade.

As early as 1980, Seattle launched a program called "Homesharing." It was developed to enable folks to remain in their own homes. Seniors began opening up their homes to take in roommates, share expenses and thereby make their houses more affordable.

Lifeline's comparable program began in Vista in 1984. There is great interest in the project in North County because the area is elderly-oriented. For example, last year in Seattle, 108 "sharings" were accomplished; in North County, through Lifeline, there were 160. Two professional social workers and two trained volunteers are responsible for Lifeline's program.

Folks interested in sharing their home follow suggested guidelines and are advised to act carefully when choosing a housemate. Most "matches" last from one to two years; participants do not hesitate to return to the agency for a new match. Lifeline's professional support and guidance are valuable tools for avoiding pitfalls and errors intrinsic in these relationships.

There are two groups served by the program: homeowners and home seekers.

The owners are usually 55 and older, the seekers between 20 and 45. Many older people have difficulty in financially maintaining their homes but are reluctant to move to lesser quarters. A multitude of young and not-so-young people are searching for appropriate housing, eager to create a home.

Occasionally, restrictions must be overcome. Some housing developments do not permit young people to reside permanently. In many cases, though, a younger seeker provides a service that an elderly individual requires but cannot perform, and that seeker can reside with the homeowner as a "helper." Examples of such services are transportation, gardening, companionship and security.

Shared housing is a sound solution for many who are living alone but not enjoying it.

The savings in dollars for both parties are evident. When it comes to rent or mortgage payments, two certainly live cheaper than one. Some people detest the silence of living alone and resent the companionship of only a television set. There are those who are frightened and insecure alone. For some, cooking and cleaning are monotonous burdens, made easier when shared. Help in maintaining the yard is essential for many.

Arthritis, the curse of our "Shades of Gray" generation, slows us down and prevents the reaching, stooping and lifting we did in more youthful times. An able-bodied person around the house means that someone is there to move that heavy chair or take the dishes from the top shelf.

But not all matches are help-related.

Folks of the same generation who participate in shared housing develop a symbiotic attachment: While sharing living costs, they relate to one another and form a hedge against loneliness.

Is there a warranty for a successful relationship?

Kibler said that while there is no guarantee, shared-housing matches made through Lifeline have had a good record. The agency provides services structured to protect both parties from disaster. Everyone who applies for housing is interviewed and screened by a trained staff member who focuses not only on finances, stability and medical status, but also on common interests and hobbies, even mutual worries and allergies.

Differences are not insurmountable as long as people are willing to confront them and discuss them. "Odd couples" can learn to lower their voices and trim expectations, to mellow old habits and accept new ones.

The final decision for a match is entirely up to the individuals involved. Though Lifeline workers help people talk it out, they do not make the commitment. Homeowners and home seekers have the final word.

The agency suggests a commitment of six months as a probationary period. If there is difficulty with the relationship, mediation service is provided. If roommates need a third party to disentangle a knot in their relationship, Lifeline is there for them.

Two years ago, "Newsweek" published a special issue on the family. One of the problems for future concern is elder care for today's baby boomers who are childless. Who will be their support system in later years?

According to one researcher, "millions . . . will band together in the kind of dorms, shared apartments and communes they inhabited in their youth. Many are already doing so. Living together saves people a lot of money, gives them companionship and reduces the sense of isolation--which, especially for older people, can be a really scary thing."

The idea of shared housing is here to stay. Each year will bring increased numbers of owners and seekers who will reach out for housemates.

For more information on Lifeline's shared-housing program, call 726-4900.

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