Retiring with roommates: The merits of shared living as you age

The idea of four older, single women sharing a house together was enough to develop a TV series that ran for years and earned critical acclaim.The Golden Girls was a comedy, but retiring with roommates could be a reality for more and more Canadians.

A modern-day Golden Girls (or Guys)-type setup has numerous benefits: sharing a domicile allows for people to look out for each other, plus helps maintain their housing and financial security.

And the demand for affordable, practical, and positive housing options is only going to grow with the aging of the Baby Boomers.

“People are starting to realize how drastic the need is going to be,” says financial advisor Gwen Kavanagh, chair of the Barrie, Ont., chapter of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP). “There’s going to be almost a tsunami with the Baby Boomers.

“The need is getting greater every day for alternative housing,” she adds. “Here in Barrie, rents are expensive, because there isn’t much in the way of affordable housing, and affordable housing has four- to six-year waiting lists. If you’re a senior, four to six years is a long time.”

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Seniors’ incomes tend to be reduced and fixed in retirement while their expenses increase over time. According to Statistics Canada, nearly 6 per cent of seniors live in poverty — surviving on less than $20,000 per year — and 18 per cent of single women over 65 would fall into that category.

Members of CARP have reported struggling with basic cost-of living expenses: almost 20 per cent said they’ve had to make trade-offs between paying for energy bills (averaging $270 a month) and other necessities. Ten per cent of CARP members report skipping medications due to the cost.

Seniors who may otherwise be able to afford their home may not be able to cover the help needed to age in place, such as homecare services. Meanwhile, according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the average rent for bachelor units or private rooms where at least one meal is included was $1,995 per month in 2013, with Ontario posting the highest average at $2,789.

In Barrie, members of CARP’s senior housing committee as well as local builders and community members joined forces with Solterra Co-Housing Ltd.for a new form of housing. In a nutshell, it works like this: four to six people are tenants in common, forming a corporation where each owns his own unit consisting of a bed, sitting room, and bathroom. The residents share a common area as well as the services of a kind of “house mom”, who helps with cooking, shopping, driving and minor care, working as many hours a week as needed.

If the time comes when someone needs more intensive care and has to move to another facility, they can sell their share. Potential ‘roommates’ are screened for compatibility.

“This model keeps them on the property ladder, gives them some independence, and they share all the costs,” Kavanagh says. “If you have a caregiver you’re paying $20 an hour for, then splitting the expenses four, five or six ways makes a huge difference.

It alsodoes away with elder abuse, which I have seen as a financial advisor: it’s not always physical but sometimes financial,” she adds.

Other alternatives gaining steam

Other types of shared housing are popping up across the country, some with ownership aspects and others as rentals. Abbeyfield Houses Society of Canada, for instance, provides accommodation for up to 10 seniors, each with his or her own bedroom, kitchenette and bathroom while sharing everything else. A live-in house manager helps with daily routines and meals.

“There are two things that cause seniors to become frail: poor nutrition and social isolation,” says Elizabeth McIver, chair of the Abbeyfield Houses Society of Kingston. “This way people have the opportunity to socialize if they want to. They have someone to check on them if they don’t show up for meals. We’re kind of the not-for-profit arm of the retirement home system.”

The cost of living at Abbeyfield homes vary, but in Kingston it’s about $2,200 a month, all in, which includes food, utilities and rent.

Another option is for seniors to check out classifieds and find a room to rent out in a house. That can work for some, but McIver says that most people feel strongly about having their own privacy as well as the option to socialize, having their own bathroom, and being safe.

Cohousing advocates like McIver and Kavanagh say that fundraising is always taking place to help support seniors in need of this kind of housing arrangement, and that sustainable funding is both a challenge and a necessity.

For instance, the Calgary Seniors’ Resource Society had a HomeShare program in place, but it’s coming to an end because of lack of funds.

“We have to start looking at aging as a process, and we have to give more options for living accommodations,” McIver says. “One of my friends in her 90s said to me ‘I can’t afford the private sector; what do I do when I need to move?’ Well, she can stay in her apartment until she has to go into a nursing home. That’s a dire option; that’s going from one extreme to the other. Canada has either the private sector or nursing homes, and that’s unfortunate.”

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