High Cost of Living Is Pushing Florida Seniors to Share a Roof

IN a tiny one-bedroom apartment just a block away from the beach, octogenarians Martin Silverman and Paula Clark plan to live their remaining years together.

He does the food shopping and runs the errands. She does the cooking and cleans their rooms crammed with momentos from previous lives in the Northeast.

The couple met four years ago at a Miami Beach senior center and soon decided to share a roof.

''It wasn't love or anything like that,'' says Mrs. Clark, a widow who was married more than 50 years to the same man. ''Our relationship is strictly platonic. We moved in out of simple economics: It's cheaper to live with a roommate.''

The phenomenon of seniors living together may conjure up images of the ''Golden Girls,'' the popular 1980s television sit-com. But it's not just women or couples sharing quarters. Half of all couples living together are ''golden guys,'' according to one study.

Unmarried couples older than 45 are the fastest growing type of household both in Florida and across the nation, says a new report from the US Census Bureau. If Medicare reforms boost premiums, tighter personal finances may accelerate the trend of seniors sharing quarters, notes one researcher.

Already, their numbers have quadrupled since 1980 to 1.2 million people nationwide.

In Florida, where nearly 1 in 4 people is over age 60, about 50,000 seniors have chosen to spend their golden years together. ''It's a major cultural phenomenon, and it could drastically transform elderly care in the future,'' says Larry Polivka, director of the Florida Policy Center on Aging at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

''As more older people live together and care for one another, it may even reduce the need for nursing homes.''

Nationally, most seniors sharing quarters live in the South. And south Florida, in particular, with its large elderly population, has become a proving ground for this type of living arrangement.

Some seniors do it to save money. Others do it for platonic companionship. Still others give the same reason that some of their children and grandchildren use: They love each other, but are not quite ready for marriage.

But even those who want a legal union often say they can't afford it.

Glenn Daniels and Lynn Martell have lived together in Hallandale for the past three years. They have wrestled with the moral challenges of what they call ''living in sin.''

Each divorced, the two have considered marriage, but so far have discarded the option. It's not for a lack of commitment, but rather a reduction in income.

''We live mostly on welfare and disability payments,'' says Mr. Daniels, who used to own an appliance-repair business in the Midwest. ''Under the federal guidelines, if we were to get married, our payments would be reduced.''

''Marriage, no matter how much I believe in it as an institution, is just not economically feasible.''

But even those who choose to live together and remain unmarried often face legal and financial challenges.

While many insurance companies and employers have begun to make their plans available to same-sex couples, no plans exist for the ''elderly senior roommate'' demographic group.

Couples like Daniels and Mrs. Martell also don't have the right to decide medical treatment for each other at most hospitals because of the lack of a lineal or matrimonial relationship. For that same reason, they are often denied medical visitation rights in some circumstances.

''It's also not clear whether federal housing and discrimination laws cover them,'' says Joyce Winslow, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in Washington. Elderly couples who want to purchase a home together, for example, often run into obstacles.

''Mortgage lenders tend to shun group homes, and there's very little that can be done about it legally,'' says Ms. Winslow at the AARP.

With unmarried elderly couples growing in numbers daily and with baby boomers fast approaching their golden years, the AARP has taken up their cause.

A study on the subject was recently completed for the national elderly group, and its findings have been made available to federal, state, and local governments.

One of the AARP findings is that while many people may think of a couple like Daniels and Martell when discussing elderly roommates, ''golden guys'' actually make up 50 percent of these nontraditional households.

''For elderly males living as roommates, the medical care problems are magnified,'' Winslow says. ''Very few hospitals will allow one best friend to make an important medical decision for another friend.''

While the government, insurance companies, and hospitals decide what legal status should be given to unmarried couples older than 45, this fast growing demographic group shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, the pace may quicken.

''In Florida, where the proposed changes to Medicare would affect nearly 1 of 5 residents, more seniors will be forced to live together out of economic necessity,'' says Mr. Polivka. ''The higher premiums and deductibles for recipients that are envisioned by Congress may make living alone a hardship for many retirees.''

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