John and Shirley were expecting a baby, but rents in Seattle, as elsewhere, were expensive; they couldn't afford a two-bedroom apartment. In addition, neither had family in the area, and they might need help with the infant if Shirley went back to work.
So the couple came to the Homesharing for Seniors office and signed up as people seeking a home. They were soon matched with Edna, a widow who was willing to share a home. She had room to spare, longed for company, and was delighted with the prospect of becoming an instant "grandmother." John and Shirley got two bedrooms in exchange for doing repairs and light housework.
Many people whose children have grown and moved away and who are widowed are left with a house too big care for, but too much a part of their lives not to care about. And there are other people, young and old, who need a place to live , but can't afford rents or a mortgage. Programs such as Seattle's Homesharing for Seniors bring these people together.
Seattle's program, which was inspired in 1978 by a visit from Maggie Kuhn, the Gray Panther leader, follows the lead of such programs as Project Match in Santa Clara County, Calif., and Project Share in New York's Nassau County. Tere are nearly 100 programs around the country that promote home sharing.
Despite its name, the Seattle program also promotes intergenerational, group living, and co-op housing. Currently 10 to 12 large, single-family homes in the same neighborhood are being bought. Ownership shares will be sold on a subsidized basis.
So far, 297 people have been brought together in 135 home-sharing matches. About 150 applications are on file, and Homesharing, short of counselors, can't keep up with the demand. Services provided by the staff, besides the initial interviews and match-ups, include guidance in negotiating a home-sharing agreement, advice on moving and home repair, and ongoing counseling.
Leah Dobkin, director of the program, believes shortage of counselors has contributed to a decline in the success rate. About 54 percent of the arrangements made a year ago are still functioning, against the 61 percent rate of previous years.
The staff recommends a three-week trial period before any commitment is made. About a third of the arrangements that fail are considered to be bad matches. About 15 percent of the arrangements break up for unexpected circumstances.
When a new application comes in, the staff searches the files for a possible match. Although the program actively promotes intergeneration sharing, most people prefer someone of their own age and sex.
The principle is the same in all the projects. Since there is a shortage of housing, why not share what there is? And since some people lack money, skills, and time, why not share those also?
Some older people have been able to stay out of nursing homes, and others have been able to avoid selling a house because someone is there to help pay the mortgage and taxes. For younger people, there is the knowledge of their elders to be learned, and for the old there is the renewed sense of life that companionship brings.