Monday, November 24, 2014

Senior Homesharing a Win-Win

Decades after saying goodbye to college roommates, some older adults are finding their way back to the idea of shared housing. Whether motivated by economics or one of the many other benefits of homesharing, participating seniors with a spare bedroom provide a place to live in exchange for rent, companionship, or household services. Though not ideal for everyone, homesharing has proven an excellent solution for a growing number of aging adults who want to maintain their independence and stay in their homes as long as possible.

Homeshare allows seniors to "age in place"

Though homesharing is not limited to a particular age group, the arrangement provides some important benefits for senior home providers.

For someone living on a fixed income, even a small rental income can mean the difference between money troubles and financial security. And since cash-strapped seniors often are the target of home equity scam artists, some additional income could be the best protection against a predator.

Seniors who share their homes also have the option of structuring the arrangement to include some provision of services in lieu of rent. For example, a senior who no longer can drive might offer reduced rent in exchange for rides to medical appointments and other errands. In another case, the homeowner might ask the renter to do the grocery shopping, laundry, or yard work. Every arrangement will be different because every individual has different needs.

Depending on his or her needs, a senior home provider can request straight rent, all services, or a combination of rent and services.

Homesharing provides some important benefits for senior home providers.

Of course, for some seniors--and their adult children--the greatest benefit of homesharing is companionship and peace of mind.

Lynne Hartnett was looking for just that when she contacted Eva Gertzfeld, a program director for the Center of Concern, a Park Ridge, Ill., multiservice nonprofit that offers a homeshare program.

She and her siblings wanted their mother to have a roommate--a companion who also could be the family's eyes and ears--even though they knew she was capable of living alone.

Their mother's new "roomie," a 50-something woman, has her own bedroom and bathroom in Barbara Terry's Des Plaines, Ill., condominium. Her work and weekend schedule meet Terry's desire for privacy and independence, while still allowing opportunities for the two to share a cup of coffee or go out and try a new restaurant now and then. And since Terry's eyesight no longer allows her to drive, her "homesharer" pitches in to take her to the hair salon, grocery store, and other places.

"It has just worked out so well for all of us," Hartnett says of the arrangement.

Nonprofits play matchmaker

Gertzfeld's homeshare program is one of more than a hundred in the U.S. that bring together home providers and home seekers through what is called a "match-up" service. Usually administered by a nonprofit organization, some of these programs are open to all age groups while others require that at least one of the participants qualify as a senior--62 years and older.

A senior home provider can request straight rent, all services, or a combination of rent and services.

Much more than traditional roommate referral services, match-up program coordinators get to know the home provider and the home seeker individually so they can tailor every match to meet the needs of both participants. As part of the process, coordinators typically meet with the applicants, visit the home, check references, introduce prospective roommates, negotiate the written homeshare agreement, and mediate if a problem arises.

How often are mediation services needed? According to Jacqueline Grossmann, whose Interfaith Housing Center makes about 40 homeshare matches per year in the northern Chicago suburbs, very seldom. "Home sharing coordinators usually do so much work on the front end that mediation later is rarely required."

Hartnett attests to the thoroughness of the process. She recalls that in the process of arranging her mother's match, Gertzfeld did research on both her mother and the future homesharer. There also were a number of meetings, including ones with Hartnett and her sister; with Hartnett and her mother; and with Hartnett, her mother, and the prospective match.

"Eva asked a lot of thought-provoking questions," says Hartnett. "She really got things straight from the beginning." Terry and her roommate have been successfully sharing a home since September 2006.

If, despite everyone's best effort, the match does not prove to be made in heaven, either participant can withdraw by giving each other 30 days notice.

Match-up program coordinators tailor each match to meet the needs of both participants.

"To ensure as much as possible that the match be mutually successful, coordinators fill out, with the input of both the home seeker and the home provider, a homesharing agreement which both parties sign when the match begins," says Grossmann. "The agreement lists the house rules, the amount of rent, services such as grocery shopping which will be provided in exchange for a lower rent, and when the rent is due each month. The agreement is a way for both parties to have a clear idea of expectations at the onset of the match, avoiding miscommunication later," says Grossmann.

Flexibility, communication keys to good match

While homesharing can provide great rewards, the arrangement is not without its challenges. Though the person moving into the home will have a private bedroom, the home provider and the roommate may have to share a bathroom, and they certainly will share use of communal areas such as the kitchen, living room, and laundry." It is important that both persons in a match be able to communicate, problem solve, and deal with living in close proximity to each other," advises Grossmann.

"It's small things that can be a problem," observes Gertzfeld. Leaving a coat on a chair or a cup in the sink, she explains, may just be someone's pet peeve.

To avoid issues over minor transgressions, Gertzfeld and other coordinators listen intently to what their home providers and seekers are saying and encourage everyone to have realistic expectations.

A strong determination to age in place makes adjusting to a roommate's habits a little easier.

"I try to inform seekers that, as much as I try to make this a 50-50 agreement, you are going to be on someone else's turf ... you have to realize you are in someone else's house," says Gertzfeld. Likewise, she encourages home providers to focus on the fact that their most important need--rental income, companionship, or help around the house, for instance--is being met, rather than on a minor offense such as the pillows being out of place on the sofa.

Grossmann, too, sees the need for both sides to be flexible. She also notes that a strong determination to age in place makes adjusting to a roommate's habits a little easier.

Some homeshare programs recommend setting up a short trial period, of perhaps a week, during which participants live together and determine if they're compatible. That flexibility is part of the beauty of homesharing.

When asked if she would recommend homesharing to other seniors, Terry, the home provider whose daughters initiated the arrangement, gives an enthusiastic "yes" and calls the experience so far "delightful"--a word you might not hear many college students use to describe their roommates.

Finding a homeshare program in your area

There are homeshare programs across the U.S.--far more than in any other country--but not all states can claim a dedicated nonprofit homeshare program. In some cases, seniors and family members interested in homesharing will have to do some sleuthing.

There are homeshare programs across the U.S.

A good place to start is the National Shared Housing Resource Center (NSHRC), a volunteer membership organization of homeshare professionals. Online, the Resource Center offers a state-by-state directory of homeshare programs, both match-up services and shared living residences (where several people live together independently).

Some states do not list any dedicated homeshare programs. For residents of those areas, Eva Gertzfeld, who is co-president of the NSHRC with Jacqueline Grossmann, suggests visiting and clicking on your state to see if a program exists in your area.

The NSHRC board of directors invites consumers who need help finding a program in their area, or who just want to ask questions about shared housing, to email them; member names and email addresses are listed on the organization's home page.

Though homesharing programs are most plentiful in the U.S., they do exist in some other countries. For information about homesharing around the world, visit the site of Homeshare International.

Some nonprofit homeshare programs request a nominal fee or donation, but they don't turn anyone away for lack of payment.

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