Meeting Friends, Helping Ends Meet : Elderly Putting New Stock in House-Sharing Plans

Times Staff Writer

Though she appears to be two decades younger than her 91 years, Luna Johnson is one step from the nursing home door. She can barely see, and is unable to cook, drive, sort out her various medications or take care of herself in an emergency.

But instead of trying an institution or costly live-in attendants, Johnson turned for help to a gregarious, somewhat arthritic 89-year-old named Wilson B. (Fig) Newton, and invited him to live with her.

Johnson and Newton are housemates, matched in a relationship of mutual advantage 16 months ago by one of four San Diego County agencies devoted to keeping elderly people in the security of their own homes while providing a low-cost alternative to others seeking housing.

They are part of a nationwide boom in home-sharing programs for the elderly that has taken place this decade, during which the number of agencies making such arrangements has soared from 25 in 1981 to about 400 today nationwide.

Besides financial help, which is the major reason for shared living arrangements, elderly roommates give each other badly needed companionship, help with household chores, and provide a sense of security from the twin threats of emergencies and a seemingly hostile world.

Older people "don't want to give up their house, but they can't afford on their income to keep it," said Carol Schreter, a Baltimore gerontological consultant who studied home-sharing arrangements in Washington, D.C. "And if they have physical problems, they may need some assistance around the house."

In return for room and board in Johnson's large mobile home, Newton cooks Johnson's food, drives her around in his 1963 Chevrolet, tries to accomplish some yard work despite his increasingly painful arthritis, and keeps watch over her health.

'Nearly Blind'

"You see, I'm nearly blind," Johnson said. "He can cook certain things. He takes me every place--to my doctors and down to the club." Otherwise, Johnson would "have to go in the home or something. But the homes are so expensive. I don't have the money."

Savings on Food, Rent

Newton, who lives on a Social Security check and a small savings account, said, "It saves me rent, and rents today are pretty high. And it saves me food (costs)."

According to the 1980 U.S. Census, 670,000 people age 65 and older are sharing their homes with non-relatives, 35% more than in 1970.

In part, the jump represents the continued increase in the nation's elderly population. But people who work in shared-housing organizations also believe that it is a result of increased emphasis on keeping older people in their homes, the continued rise of housing prices, and new acceptance of a living arrangement that few old people had heard about just 10 years ago.

"There has been a lot of attention paid to the benefits of home sharing," said Mary Gildea, director of educational projects for the National Shared Housing Resource Center in Philadelphia. "Five years ago, if you asked an older person what they thought about shared housing, they wouldn't have known what you were talking about. Today, what we're finding is that there's much more understanding of the concept."

In a nationwide poll of 1,500 people over the age of 60 last year, the American Assn. of Retired People found that 15% would consider sharing their homes with another person, and 12% would consider moving into someone else's home. In a 1980 survey by Bryn Mawr College's social work program, about 7% answered the same questions positively, said Katie Sloan, housing specialist for the association.

Federally supported home-sharing agencies also save the government money by placing older people in homes at less than half the cost of building or subsidizing elderly housing, Gildea said.

Arrangements vary so widely that it is difficult to describe a typical match. Many include some exchange of money, usually involving the home seeker paying a small rent to the homeowner or, more rarely, the homeowner paying a small fee for the aid a roommate provides. Other arrangements, like Johnson's and Newton's, involve no cash transactions.

Nationwide, about half of all home-sharing arrangements involve two elderly people, Gildea said. Most of the rest are inter-generational, perhaps a student or single mother sharing living quarters with an older person.

Sharing Lives

About 200 of the 400 agencies that set up matches concentrate on larger, congregate living facilities where as many as 20 people share a group home or small apartments with common living areas, Gildea said. The rest try to match individual home seekers with homeowners.

About 70% of the nation's elderly own their own homes, and most have paid off their mortgages. As they continue to live longer lives, more elderly people are finding themselves with excess space that once was shared with spouses and children. That situation is ideal for home sharing.

The concept is essentially an extension of the old "room for rent" idea, with a twist--instead of a landlord-tenant relationship, agencies encourage their clients to share in one another's lives.

Matched 380 Residents

"There's a different mind-set with shared housing . . . than the old rooming house idea," said Donna Pitts, shared housing coordinator for Lifeline Community Services in Vista, which has matched 380 North County residents since 1984. "That person (in the rooming house) was not part of the family.

"(These people) are sharing the kitchen. They're sharing the living room. We tell people that it's not going to work if you enter into it as a homeowner thinking, 'This is my house and my kitchen and my furniture and my dish.' "

Even as her eyesight deteriorated, Johnson resisted bringing in a roommate, especially a man. "This little lady was hesitant about me coming because she was afraid of what people would say about having a man in the house," Newton said. "But that idea is gone today, and we get along like brother and sister."

"It was hard," Johnson agreed. "But he is a gentleman and he's been very, very nice and decent to me. I held off, with a man, thinking people would talk about me."

Forces Facing Facts

Taking in a roommate also meant that Johnson had to acknowledge lost self-reliance and independence.

"I just got along alone," Johnson said. "I was a fighter. . . . I've always been a woman who said I can do anything."

But that was before the time she fell in her home and lay on the floor for two days before a relative returned from vacation and came to the rescue. "I never thought it would happen to me," Johnson said.

Newton has become an old hand at providing this kind of assistance. While caring for his dying wife, he took classes in home-care skills, learning such necessities as how to change a bed with someone in it.

When living arrangements with his sons' families did not work out, he moved in with an elderly El Cajon woman and took care of her for four years until she died. He then shared the home of another Santee woman for more than three years before she died. His match with Johnson, one of more than 100 arranged since 1985 by the East County Council on Aging, began in February, 1986.

South County matches are handled by the South County Council on Aging. The City of San Diego is covered by Mid-City Senior Enterprises, and Lifeline arranges North County matches.

Successfully matched housemates report experiences similar to Johnson's and Newton's. Some start out with a primarily financial arrangement and find that they have made friends. Chula Vista resident Joan Perry, 58, took in 58-year-old multiple sclerosis victim Nora Wilson for $200 per month to help with her house payments. For Wilson, the fee was far less than the price of a one-bedroom apartment, which typically costs no less than $350 per month, according to Anne DeMeules, program manager for the Area Agency on Aging's Ombudsman Program.

"I did this to save my house, because my husband died and left me a widow when I didn't expect it," Perry said. But the relationship turned into more.

"I get the friendship. I get the company. I have companionship, I have a friend, I have security and I have the money," Perry said. "That's a lot of good things.

"I'll tell you this: When her daughter gets out in this area and takes her back, I'm probably going to cry for her. I'm going to be lonesome."

sh Retaining Independence Eighty-nine-year-old Elnora Law was able to retain her independence and remain in her spacious El Cajon home by taking in 49-year-old Sharron Jenkins in return for room and board. Law's daughter, Laura Peterson, lives in another home on the same property and helps out by providing food. Her husband keeps up the yard.

After surgery on both hips a few years ago, Law "didn't want to come into my home," Peterson said. "She has a beautiful home and she wanted to keep her independence, and she didn't want to be a burden on her family.

"In this way, she not only has her independence, she has a very wonderful roommate who is caring. It's an excellent combination for both of them."

Not all home-sharing arrangements work so smoothly. Success rates vary, but San Diego's four agencies report that about 40% of their matches break down in the first few months, despite the fact that agencies do extensive screening interviews to arrange compatible matches, ask housemates to sign agreements, and remind them that home sharing involves a good deal of give and take.

The most common pitfall is "unreasonable expectations," said Shirley Melvin, shared housing coordinator for the East County Council on Aging. "The homeowner feels that this person is going to fill the gap left by a spouse who has died, or the person who is moving into a home feels like it's going to be like their own home."

In Schreter's study, 44% of the homeowners interviewed listed disagreements over managing the household as the major disadvantage of home sharing. An additional 24% cited personality conflicts, 8% mentioned the lack of freedom to have company, and 24% said there were no disadvantages.

Household management problems were cited by 46% of the people moving into others' homes. An additional 31% cited the lack of freedom to have company, 19% mentioned personality conflicts, and 4% said there were no disadvantages.

Home sharing also is typically temporary. People die, remarry, find jobs or new sources of income, and get on their feet after health problems. Schreter concluded that the arrangement is "best suited for people in transition."

"Ninety percent of the people I interviewed had had a serious life event in the previous six months, like loss of a family member, or loss of a job or income," she said. For many, home sharing provides a stopgap alternative, a way to struggle through before returning to a more familiar way of life.

"It's not the American dream, but it's better than the current situation," Schreter said. "You're trying to regain your balance, regain your situation after loss of a family member, loss of income or a health problem."

Despite frailties that make it increasingly difficult for Newton to care for Johnson, both see their living arrangement as perhaps their last. "You might say that both of us are living on spare time and hoping to luck," Newton said.

"I found out that God isn't ready for me," Johnson added. "But I'm ready for Him when He is."

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