“Shady Pines, Ma!” If that quip sounds familiar, it’s probably because you spent some happy half hours laughing at the hit Golden Girls sitcom in the 1980s or ‘90s. And you probably just read those words in your head in Dorothy’s gravelly voice. The character played by Bea Arthur was related to one other roommate — her mother Sophia — of their shared Miami home. The other two characters, Rose and Blanche, were, like Dorothy in their late 40s to mid-50s. Why were these women sharing a single family house? What brought – and kept – them together? And what are the takeaways for us decades later?
Golden Girls Lessons
According to entertainment site CBR.com, Blanche’s character owned a home and had rooms to rent to help cover her mortgage after her husband died, so she posted a notice at the neighborhood supermarket in those pre-Internet days. That’s how she met her future roommates.
Sophia was living in the fictitious Shady Pines while the three younger women roomed together. A fire at the retirement home inspired her move in with the trio. (Decades later, Covid would inspire many families like Sophia’s to move their older loved ones out of retirement homes too, not to return after the crisis ends.)
What are the housing alternatives for older and middle-aged singles? For many, it’s co-living, which provides advantages well beyond the financial, though those should not be discounted, as life changes often create economic challenges, like widowhood did for Blanche.
“The number one benefit, which greatly affected the Golden Girls’ mental and physical wellness, is the social aspect of shared housing,” explains Maria Claver, director of California State University Long Beach’s Gerontology program. Claver teaches a course called Women & Aging: Lessons from the Golden Girls. “More than any other lifestyle factor (including smoking, diet and exercise), we know that having social support is the most important predictor of morbidity (or illness) and mortality,” she notes. A quarter of older Americans live alone, she says, contributing to an epidemic of loneliness. “Loneliness increases the risk of mortality by 45%,” she reports.
“The Golden Girls could depend on each other for support when they could not perform these functions for themselves. Sophia no longer drove due to a stroke, so she often depended on her housemates for rides. Over the course of the show, every Golden Girl experienced a medical issue that resulted in a need for assistance with getting to the hospital or preparing meals, so they could depend on each other for that type of support,” Claver recalls. Having a social network is the number one predictor of wellness for older adults, the professor adds. In fact, she shares that she herself plans on adopting a co-living situation when her needs merit a move. What about you?
Is this something you’d consider? If so, location and architecture are factors to think about when choosing a place to share. Nikki Merkerson, a New York-based co-living developer, suggests, “For older adults, the design would be flat, not many stairs, and in a community where all the amenities you need are within walking distance. A place that has good weather and quality healthcare” should also be on your list, she advises. Broadband for tele-health and access to rides for those who can’t get to their medical teams are also essential for many older adults.
While some “baby-chasers” choose to move near their adult children and grandkids, many others want to remain in the communities where they’ve built relationships for decades. Let them decide, cautions Claver, regardless of what relatives may prefer. (Technology has made distances easier to finesse for many families.)
The professor actually likes multi-generational co-living arrangements. This works particularly well for those who live in college towns, she notes. “I am seeing more and more examples of older adult homeowners renting out a room to a young adult (perhaps a student) that can help around the house and share social time. My own parents plan to do this, as they live close to a university and have the space,” she says.
Merkerson also sees advantages to a multi-generational family approach. “The first thing that comes to mind is collaborating to build up the family’s wealth together,” the developer observes. “There are families renting separate units waiting to save enough money to become homeowners one day. Why wait; family members can combine their incomes and buy now!” she declares.
Co-living can involve some significant architectural changes that make sense for owners, not tenants. “They can separate the units to add privacy, but create common spaces for when they want to interact, it’s their choice. I always recommend, especially when co-owners are related, to have an agreement,” Merkerson suggests. “I call it a real estate prenup, so families can discuss what happens if things go wrong, what the exit strategy looks like, upfront.”
A housing prenup makes sense for co-living parties of all ages and relationships. Many of Merkerson’s clients are young adults starting out, she says. “Co-living with ownership has become a trend and a viable option for those seeking to become homeowners and to accumulate wealth. Millennials are taking a different route than their predecessors by pooling finances with roommates, friends, or partners to combat [the lack of] housing affordability,” she notes. Merkerson is building a platform called PairGap to facilitate an ownership-based co-living model to help housemates build equity.
For someone used to living with a spouse or alone and now planning to share a home with friends, family members or strangers, those space changes are crucial. It’s been years since some have had roommates. Co-living has evolved from student housing into an inclusive adult experience, notes New York-based interior designer Rochelle Samuels, who has created spaces for Merkerson’s projects.
The design needs to be a balance between private and community spaces, she shares. “For a co-living older adult project, I would design private living suites that includes private bathrooms, kitchenette and bedrooms. Think hotel/villa suites. The communal area would have a chef’s kitchen with a giant table to gather and entertain visitors.” She also suggests having a “large family room with lots of comfy seating and seating arrangements where you are able to move around.” This accommodates conversation flow between housemates and guests.
Other essential co-living spaces Samuels envisions are fitness rooms and outdoor areas “where residents can interact with nature.” A game room and creative/hobby zone are nice-to-haves with room for dancing, board games, art and computers, the designer says. Facilities for concierge laundry, grocery delivery, spas services and cleaning are great additions too.
“One of the benefit to shared living spaces is saving money and providing comfortable, flexible and convenient living conditions, that one may not be able to afford on their own,” Samuels notes. ‘This is the power of shared living and let’s face it, the future is shared economy; we are already sharing cars, work spaces and clothes.”
Having housemates is not the ideal living arrangement for everyone, including some modern day ‘golden girls’ (like myself). For those wanting their own space, but seeking the benefits of community and camaraderie, cohousing is a viable alternative. “Cohousing offers all of the benefits of living in community – connection, common meals, frequent activities, knowing your neighbors – but with the added benefit of privacy that isn’t always available in shared homes. Cohousing residents have their own home, as well as common spaces such as gardens, craft studios, dining rooms, etc,” explains Trish Becker, the Denver-based executive director of the Cohousing Association of the United States and adjunct faculty at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work.
“It also gives individuals access to social capital that we don’t have if we’re not part of a well-connected community. When we have access to a social safety net, neighbors who care about us, people who can drive us to doctor’s appointments or bring us meals during a difficult time in life, we are more likely to experience stability and wellbeing.” She notes that engaging in meaningful activities while having autonomy gives residents a sense of purpose.
This differs from traditional active adult developments in its greater interconnectedness, Becker comments. “While other neighborhoods may have common spaces and activities, residents of cohousing commit to showing up for their neighbors in a way that goes beyond common courtesy. When someone in cohousing has surgery, for example, you can bet that there will quickly be a meal train created and a rotation of neighbors taking turns with housework, etc. When a co-houser travels, they don’t need to look beyond their neighbor for someone to care for their pets and plants. There’s a commitment to one another that you don’t often find in traditional neighborhoods,” she shares. There are clear benefits for older adults – and there are cohousing communities designed just for them.
The Cohousing Differential
If you live in The Villages or a Del Webb community, you’ll develop friendships, engage in activities and help your neighbors, but in a cohousing community, it’s not a social nicety. It’s an expectation. “There are regular community meetings and often committees that run the programming and various community elements. Some people don’t want to spend their free time in this way. And relationships this deep and meaningful take labor too,” Becker comments. “It takes time and emotional energy to be in community, to listen deeply to others, to resolve conflict when it arises. Not everyone is made for that type of community,” she points out. Are you? If so, there are savings and social benefits to enjoy.
Contributors Becker, Claver, Merkerson and Samuels will be sharing their co-living and cohousing insights in an hour-long Clubhouse conversation tomorrow afternoon at 4 pm Eastern/1 pm Pacific. You can join this WELLNESS WEDNESDAYS discussion here. If you’re unable to attend, you can catch the recording via Clubhouse Replays or the Gold Notes design blog here next Wednesday.