Generations mix, learn flexibility in shared housing

The pleasant sounds of dinnertime conversations waft out from the dining areas inside a graceful 19th-century home on Marlborough Street in Boston's Back Bay. Around two tables, people catch up on one another's news.

Christine asks Nathan about his sister. Sally tells a guest how budget cuts will affect the school district where she teaches. Rachel asks everyone to give a cheer for Alice, who prepared the satisfying meal of beef, fish, potatoes, green beans, salad, and a scrumptious cake drizzled with bitterchocolate.

It could be a family home or boardinghouse, but there is a difference. The Shared Living House is an intergenerational cooperative housing venture that offers a lot of warmth among the 14 unrelated members, who range in age from 24 to 84, with every decade in between represented.

Created by the joint effort of the Back Bay Aging Concerns Committee (BBACC) and the Boston Gray Panthers, the Shared Living project is designed to overcome agism and the isolation of city life. It allows people who can't afford to live alone (or who just don't want to) to live in an interdependent household, while maintaining an independent life. House members, who pay rents from $148 to $265 , have their own separate rooms, can make their own meals except for Monday dinners, and share household tasks.

The mix of generations is maintained at 70 percent over and 30 percent under age 55. Rents make the project self-supporting, although grants have been used for the initial purchase and kitchen renovations and storm windows.

People join Shared Living for various reasons. Rachel, who arrived in June, was ousted from one apartment when it "went condo." She later moved to a home for the aged.

"I wanted to come back to where the magnolias bloom," she says, referring to the Public Garden and tree-lined streets of Back Bay. How does she like living in a household with others of disparate backgrounds?

"I love it," she says, during a tour of her spacious bedroom, replete with pictures of her daughter and grandchildren. "I like living with people of all ages."

"But I have a big problem with the chores," she confides. "I am supposed to sweep the front walkway. I tell the leaves to fall on either side of our building, but they don't pay attention!"

Julie, the youngest resident, became interested in Shared Living after she saw a sign at BBACC headquarters.

"I'm concerned about the problems of aging," says Julie, an assistant librarian at a historical library. "And I lived three months alone and didn't like it. My parents feel better about me being here than in a studio."

Her friends admit her living situation is unusual, but they are impressed with the building, as would be anyone who has combed ads for affordable apartments in Boston. Set in a quiet and pleasant neighborhood, there are some large rooms, the kitchen is modern, and the woodwork and architectural detail are delightful. A roof with a garden offers a spot for breakfast or picnics overlooking the dormer windows and rooftops of other brick homes.

"I fell in love with the house," he says. "I love to help fix it up." Paul, who is retired but quite active in community groups, says his experience at Shared Living has been "very good," although it is the first group-living situation he's been in since the military.

Two of the Shared Living House members are full-time retirees, but the rest fill their days with volunteer, part-time, and full-time work. Katie, a friendly woman with a twinkle in her eye, has spent most of her working days selling antiques. Now she has made a career switch; she baby-sits for a family three days a week.

"The baby will be a year old in November, but he acts a year old now," Katie says with grandmotherly pride.

As in any group-living situation, Shared Living House members learn to live with one another's idiosyncracies, which may be as simple as eating habits. At the dinner table, Kay Thomas, co-facilitator of the home with her husband, Ed, looks at the choice of food.

"Could I have your fish, since we don't eat red meat?" Kay asks one of the other diners, offering instead the dish with beef.

Christine, who is very active in elder affairs, is a two-year resident.

"The most difficult concept for me has been sharing," she says. "You have to maintain your autonomy, but also stay open to the other people. There have been hard times. But you stretch and grow no matter how old you are."

The population in the Back Bay home is relatively stable. Only two members have left in the last fiscal year, but five new members have moved in. It might be because people who come to the Shared Living Houe have a commitment in mind. Betty came to the project after hearing about it while living in New York.

"I wanted someplace I could benefit from and contribute to," she says. She's happy with her choice.

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