Home Sharing Makes Living Easier All Around

Elderly keep their homes and independence when younger folks move in to help out

After her husband passed away seven years ago, Alice Clark didn't want to live alone. Meanwhile, newly divorced Helen Stanwell needed an inexpensive place to live and liked the idea of helping an elderly person.

Ms. Stanwell moved into Mrs. Clark's Seattle home in 1991. They've lived together ever since.

The two women met through a nonprofit program that matches people seeking affordable housing with seniors who have rooms to rent.

Senior Citizens' Homesharing Program, run by Senior Services of Seattle, was one of the first programs of its kind when it started 18 years ago. Though 400 programs nationwide now exist, Seattle's remains one of the most successful, having brought more than 4,000 housemates together.

Other places with active home-sharing programs include Baltimore, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Mo., and Columbus, Ohio.

In areas like the Puget Sound region, where elderly care and affordable housing are scarce, the response to the program has been tremendous, says Homesharing manager Jill Sheldon.

"There are a lot of seniors who need help [in caring for their homes.] They need someone who will take out the garbage and rake the leaves in the fall," Ms. Sheldon says.

Most prospective tenants are low income, some on the verge of being homeless. Depending on the situation, tenants either pay low rent or do chores in exchange for rent.

Ninety percent of matches live together one year or longer. That high success rate might be due to the program's strict screening process.

Applicants must provide references and submit to criminal background checks. They also undergo lengthy interviews, during which they are asked how they feel about smoking, pets, TV addicts, fanatic housekeepers, and so forth.

After all that, the staff matches applicants who seem compatible. The home owners and potential tenants meet and decide for themselves whether they want to live together. They also decide whether and how rent payments will be made. The referral service is free.

After 45 years in the same house, Alice Clark wants to stay there as long as she is able. She goes to mass every morning at a church down the street, buys her groceries around the corner, and knows all her neighbors. To be uprooted from that would be disorienting.

Her son lives in Seattle with his family. They visit often. But Clark is uninterested in moving in with them or having them come live with her. "They have their own lives," says Clark, who prefers to remain independent.

Still, she's unable to do strenuous chores. Without the help of Stanwell, she may have ended up in a retirement home.

At first, Stanwell met with a few prospective housemates. None of the situations felt right until she met Clark. "She opened the door, and I knew immediately, this was it. She had such a nice warm smile," Stanwell says of Clark.

They decided to live together and agreed that Stanwell, who is a supervisor for 22 county parks, would do chores in exchange for rent.

She does yard work, vacuums, scours the tub, helps with shopping, and walks Clark's golden retriever, Frasier.

A couple of times, Stanwell has been a life saver. One morning, Clark tripped over the dog and couldn't get up. Fortunately, Stanwell was there to help.

The housemates are close, but live independently, each pursuing different interests. Stanwell loves being outside, gardening, and going out with friends. Clark is a homebody who stays up late each night reading.

The pair accept each other as they are. "She doesn't try to change me, and I don't try to change her," explains Stanwell. She has great respect for her older friend and believes she has gained a lot from living with her. For instance, she values her friend's wisdom. "She's seen a lot and read a lot. So when things come up at work, she gives me her insight."

She's learned history from Clark. "Her life was totally different than mine growing up. She didn't even have electricity. I can't imagine having no light," says Stanwell.

And she's learned not to take for granted things she can do easily as a younger person. When Stanwell first moved in, many of the light bulbs were burned out because Clark was unable to reach the bulbs to replace them.

Stanwell changed all the bulbs, a simple task that helped make the house more a home for both of them.

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