Sharing a roof and a way of life

Los Angeles seniors choose a housing option that fosters independence and a family environment.

Philip takes out the garbage and delivers the mail. Two of the three women all named Ida go to exercise class together once a week. Red hibiscus flowers bloom in the courtyard thanks to Pearl's green thumb. Harvey breaks into song, serenading his housemates whenever he gets the notion.

These seniors are part of a successful experiment in communal living that saves money and combats loneliness. Eleven single seniors have formed a family that shares expenses, chores, conversation, dinners, and laughs in the security of a co-op home here.

It's called Rothman House, and it was conceived by Janet Witkin, founder of Alternative Living for the Aging.

"They have each other to care about, to share jokes with, to discuss the news of the day," she says. "It's the interaction that keeps them healthy. My philosophy is that people can stay independent as long as possible through interdependence.

"What kind of life is it," she continues, "to get up alone, to go out alone, to come home alone, to eat dinner alone, to go to bed without having anyone to say good night to? Is that worth having all your own possessions around you? Or would it be better to downsize a little and share life with others?"

Home-sharing programs - in which seniors either join a group home or live with a housemate - are gaining ground in the United States. California, along with Oregon, Wisconsin, and Vermont, is leading the way. A 1993 survey by the National Shared Housing Resource Center in Baltimore found 350 shared-housing programs in the US.

Rothman House, which opened in 1985, consists of 14 private bedrooms and baths laid out in a horseshoe shape, with two kitchens and two living rooms at the end and a courtyard in the center. The site, in the Beverly-Fairfax area of Los Angeles, was chosen to be near services and transportation. One of the purposes of the co-op is to keep seniors involved with their community.

"It's a very sociable atmosphere," says resident Ida Farver. "It's less work. I don't have to bother cleaning or cooking every meal. The main thing is security. You know you're not alone."

"This is the best compromise between wanting privacy and wanting socialization," says Gabriel Tiefer, a one-month resident who always seems to have a smile on his face. "It's a little community. If you fall in with the team, fine. If you're the disagreeable type, you won't fit in. People accepted me and it's working out fine."

The seeds for Janet Witkin's home-sharing idea were planted when she was in her 20s. She watched her grandfather steadily decline as he moved from an assisted-living home to a convalescent hospital. In 1977, she was taking teenagers to visit elders when she met a man named Abe who reminded Janet of her grandfather. She figured that Abe would do better in co-op housing and in 1978 Alternative Living for the Aging (ALA) was born.

Janet's nonprofit agency offers co-op housing for seniors who don't want to live alone but who don't need institutionalization.

ALA is adept at determining whether prospective residents will fit in. The agency also has a roommate or housemate matching service as well as four other co-op facilities in Los Angeles. Two of the co-op buildings were built from scratch; two, including Rothman House, are renovated facilities; the fifth is a historic building. Funding for ALA programs is provided by government grants and loans; private contributions from individuals, corporations, and foundations; and The United Way. ALA staff members have counseled more than 14,000 people and matched more than 6,000 in the roommate program since it began.

"We look for people who are cooperative and flexible. People who are willing to live with others," Janet says.

With so many seniors living on fixed incomes, the co-op housing alternative is a creative solution to a problem that will only become larger.

"As 76 million of us baby boomers move toward our senior years," Janet says, "we, as a nation, need to think about how we are going to house these 76 million soon-to-be elders."

All Rothman's residents are low- or moderate-income seniors older than 62, who are able to care for their own basic needs such as cooking, shopping, and laundry. For $485 a month, they get a private room and bath suite, including utilities and secure parking, and five home-cooked dinners a week.

"When I got here I didn't expect to stay but a few months," says Harvey Goodman, who found himself living alone in a condo. "But, after I'd been here a couple months I couldn't leave because they felt like family."

"Can I read to you now, baby doll?" Harvey says as he enters Edith Rappaport's room to read "Dear Abby." Edith has been partially blind for the last three years. "We all have strengths and weaknesses, so we help each other out," Harvey says as he breaks into song.

More Information on home sharing

American Association of Homes

and Services for the Aging

901 E Street NW, Suite 500

Washington, DC, 20004

800-677-1116

ALA in Los Angeles 213-650-7988

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