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Taking a cue from ‘The Golden Girls’: House sharing has its benefits

And it’s not all about finances.
Crystal Sierra, left, and Sarah Sprague, who share a home, are pictured at Holiday Lights at the Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo. [Courtesy of Crystal Sierra]

Two months ago, Crystal Sierra and Sarah Sprague, both in their 60s, didn’t know each other. Never met.

Now, they are housemates, part of a growing trend of older Americans moving in together to save money.

What they’ve discovered, as in many similar arrangements, is that there can be benefits beyond dollars saved.

There’s no caretaking involved. Both women are health care professionals with their own jobs and work hours.

For Sierra, 61, an occupational therapy assistant, the quest to find a shared living space started last August when she learned her rent would go up $450 a month before the end of the year. After an internet search for “shared housing for seniors,” she found Silvernest.com, one of several sites that offers profiles and background checks for members looking to find housemates.

“I’ve always lived alone. In terms of a housemate, that’s a new thing for me,” she said.

“I preferred a private bedroom and private bath ... (and) interacting as much and as little as you like. She (Sarah) was pretty clear about that as well,” Sierra said.

As it turns out, the house that Sprague bought two years ago has 1,600 square feet, a pool and a double-wide driveway. It includes a “mother-in-law” attachment — a furnished bedroom and bath “en suite,” separated from the rest of the house by a sliding door.

When Sprague, 65, bought the house in St. Petersburg, she wanted a house that would accommodate a roommate. “It took me a while to get my act together,” she confessed. “I wasn’t thinking of a senior, just someone more my age.”

Sprague, a speech pathologist, said she tried several rental websites but the responses weren’t what she was looking for. “I got a lot of prospective input: Too young. Retired. Short-term stay. I had offers that I ruled out immediately.”

After reading each other’s profiles on the Silvernest website, Sprague interviewed Sierra. “She was the first one,” Sprague said.

They agreed on many matters: Utilities included. Nonsmoking. Both working. Both have their own cars. Under their house-sharing arrangements, Sierra has open access to the common areas — kitchen, living room, dining room, pool.

One of the big pluses, Sprague said, is that Sierra has a cat. Sprague has a cat and a dog. With the separate living areas, none of the pets interact, but the humans do. Having a pet-friendly housemate can have added bonuses.

“She’s wonderful with my cat,” Sprague said. “If I’m late getting home, it is a huge advantage to know someone is here who’ll let the dog out.”

Shared housing “is part of the solution of affordable housing,” according to Kathy Black, professor of aging studies at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. “In Sarasota County, 40,000 people 60 and older are living alone. In many cases ... people are living in homes they don’t own,” she said.

“They want financial longevity, particularly boomer women. One in three (is) single. Older women are more likely to live alone. It’s not just an immediate economic need,” Black said. “There are health and social benefits as well, including social camaraderie when we’re in contact with others.”

Women in general feel less safe living alone, Black said. “It’s kind of nice to have somebody (there).” House sharing is not for everyone, she said, “but it’s part of the mosaic of opportunity that is emerging.”

We all need money for food, medications, rent or mortgage, utilities, Black noted. “Moving in together saves money; this really is very appealing ... but we’re averse to it because we’re so much a nation of individuals.”

For Sprague, “Coming home to a house with a person there, it’s actually an adjustment having someone in the house. I’ve lived alone most of my life (but) it’s working out great.”

And for Sierra, the savings in rent means less stress and the chance to work toward the future. “My ultimate goal is to get a townhouse. I don’t want to rent all my life.

“It’s a win-win,” Sierra said. “I don’t have to be best friends or even friends but have mutual respect.

“I’m very aware that I’m sharing her house. It’s a different dynamic when somebody trusts you,” she said.

Contact Fred W. Wright Jr. at travelword@aol.com.

READING RECOMMENDATIONS

Kathy Black, professor of aging studies at the University of South Florida Sarasota, recommends several books about house sharing:

• Sharing Housing, A Guidebook for Finding and Keeping Good Housemates by Annamarie Pluhar

• My House Our House: Living Far Better for Far Less in a Cooperative Household by Karen Bush, Louise Machinist and Jean McQuillin

• Your Quest for Home: A Guidebook to Find the Ideal Community for Your Later Years by Marianne Kilkenny and Cheri G. Britton

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