As a longtime happily single woman, whenever I've caught an episode of The Golden Girls, I get flutters in my stomach. My need for personal space is so huge that the idea of a communal living situation like theirs fills me with dread.
But then two things happened: My daughter went to college and the economy tanked. I found myself looking at that extra bedroom/bathroom with a renewed sense of possibility. I have not yet taken the step of converting my one-woman house into a two-person haven, but if I do, I'll be part of a growing trend.
An increasing number of single midlifers and retirees are moving in together to improve their standard of living and find companionship. Of those, the vast majority are women. In 2010 there were approximately 480,000 boomer women living with at least one female nonrelative roommate -- without a husband in sight, according to an AARP analysis of population survey data. That's approximately 130,000 Golden-Girl-type households across the country.
Why are so many more women taking this step than men? Some think it's in our hard-wiring.
Tips on how to get the best results
1. Research potential partners thoroughly. Ask for references. Hang out with them before making that all-important decision. Don't be afraid to ask tough questions.
2. Get clear upfront on finances. Who pays what? What can everyone afford?
3. Think about how you live. What are your requirements for living in peace with others. Do you object to night owls? Do you want pets to share your space? How about smokers? Kilkenny suggests going away for the weekend with a prospective housemate to see how well your rhythms mesh.
4. School yourselves on good communication. "It is key," says Kilkenny. "Everyone comes from different backgrounds, and it's critical to be on the same wavelength."
"Women seem to be just much more interested in connecting, and in quality friendships," says Marianne Kilkenny, an educator and founder of Women for Living in Community in Asheville, N.C. "Connecting is a basic human need, but guys are more about doing things together and less about sitting and talking and communicating."
Kilkenny, 61, entered the co-housing world a few years ago after some life-changing events. "My parents both died in a nursing home, and I was divorced and didn't have children. And I thought 'What's going to happen to me?' Also, I'd fallen down the stairs in the house where I lived alone on Christmas Day. It was a perfect storm of events that made me think about communal living."
She found a four-bedroom home that had been on the market for a long time and persuated the owner to let her rent it, along with two other single women and a married couple. She has never looked back -- and has become an educator and consultant about the value of co-housing.
"There are so many things I love about it," Kilkenny says. "I can live in a wonderful area I couldn't afford otherwise. My quality of life has gone up because I'm not spending as much on my housing. And I really like it that when I come home after dark someone has left the light on for me."
The benefits for the landlord are also clear. "The guy who owns the house is very pleased," she says. "He gets his rent on time, and no one is twentysomething in our group."
Is there a downside, as far as she's concerned? "No, not really!" she says. "I was worried about the noise, but it has not become an issue. There is a certain kind of comfort in being able to hear these people, but knowing I don't have to talk to them if I don't feel like it."
Kilkenny says the housemates agreed to have dinner together once a week, "but otherwise, we're on our own. Although of course we share -- whether it's a meal or our thoughts. It's really worked beautifully well."
Around the country, agencies have begun offering match-up services for those interested in taking the co-housing step.
"We always have a steady stream of both home seekers and home providers," says Cynthia Hansen, lead coordinator of the HomeShare program at San Diego's ElderHelp organization. "Most people, whether home seekers or home providers, come to HomeShare because of financial challenges or because they're seeking companionship."
She agrees that there is a very specific demographic that seeks the organization's matching services. "About 90 percent of them are single women," she says. "They might be offering to rent a spare room for extra income or exchange a room for services like housekeeping, transportation, meal preparation and companionship."
She notes that the average rent for members of HomeShare is between $500 and $600 a month. Hansen says there is an additional reason single women find this an appealing lifestyle. "Women live longer than men. And most of the older women I meet prefer not to remarry, compared to older men. Older women also seem to prefer to fend for themselves, whereas older men seem to have a greater need to be with someone."
Does she see a downside to this arrangement -- other than a loss of privacy? "When the right people match up, there is little or no downside, and loss of privacy may or may not be an issue. The secret is taking the time to make a good match -- and that happens when both parties communicate their needs and expectations before they move in together. If they choose carefully, and for the right reasons, there is no downside."
Kilkenny agrees that the most important thing is to choose carefully. "When you're 20, you can throw people together and hope it works out. But when you reach your 50s-60s-70s, you come with a lot of requirements and even baggage. One of the things I do is train people on co-habitation, communication, and such. You want more than just to tolerate each other -- you want connection."
For Kilkenny, if the low point of recent years was falling down on Christmas, the high point was likely her recent birthday.
"I was feeling blue, and when I left my room, on my doormat were four birthday cards and two little gifts."