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Golden-age roomies: Seniors share homes for cost-savings, companionship

In this July 17, 2014 photo, Carolyn Allen, a 69 year-old widow who has suffered two strokes, makes her way through Marcia Rosenfeld's Ditmas, Brooklyn, apartment in New York. Allen shares Rosenfeld's two-bedroom apartment thanks to a home-sharing program run by a New York-based non-profit agency. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

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In this July 17, 2014 photo, Carolyn Allen, a 69 year-old widow who has suffered two strokes, makes her way through Marcia Rosenfeld's Ditmas, Brooklyn, apartment in New York. Allen shares Rosenfeld's two-bedroom apartment thanks to a home-sharing program run by a New York-based non-profit agency. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

NEW YORK, N.Y. - It's not exactly "The Golden Girls," but for Marcia Rosenfeld, it'll do.

Rosenfeld is among thousands of aging Americans taking part in home-sharing programs around the country that allow seniors to stay in their homes and save money while getting some much-needed companionship.

"It's a wonderful arrangement," said the white-haired Rosenfeld, who when asked her age will only say she's a senior citizen. "The way the rents are these days, I couldn't stay here without it."

She shares her two-bedroom, $1,000-a-month Brooklyn apartment with Carolyn Allen, a 69-year-old widow who has suffered two strokes and no longer wants to live alone.

Agencies that put such seniors together say the need appears to be growing as baby boomers age and struggle to deal with foreclosures, property taxes and rising rents. The typical situation involves an elderly woman, widowed or divorced, who has a house or an apartment with extra room and needs help with the upkeep.

"Our seniors want to remain part of the community they were raised in, where they worked and went to church," said Jackie Grossman, director of the home-sharing program at Open Communities in the Chicago suburbs. "They don't want to be just with other seniors. Maybe they love their garden, their tool shed, and they would have to give that up if they move into senior housing."

At the New York Foundation for Senior Citizens, where applicants have tripled since 2008, the average boarder pays about $700 a month. The same average holds at the HIP Housing program in San Mateo, California, but it is about $500 at the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center in Baltimore.

Agencies handle the background checks and other screening and consider various lifestyle criteria — smoking, pets, disposable income — in making matches. When a match is made, the new roommates sign an agreement covering chores, overnight visitors, telephone use, etc.

Not all agencies limit applicants to seniors. In the New York program, only one of the two people has to be 60 or older.

The agencies' services mean people who want a roommate don't have to post notices in neighbourhood weeklies or online and worry about who will respond.

"Craigslist can be very scary, especially for women," said Connie Skillingstad, president of Golden Girl Homes Inc. in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, which refers women to housing resources including home-sharing. "They'd rather go through a respectable organization."

In the past, program directors say, many of the people offering space were willing to take household help — grocery shopping, housecleaning, repair work — in lieu or some or all of the rent.

Recently, though, more people have insisted on dollars rather than services.

"In the last five years, we've really seen more people looking for financial aid rather than barter," said Kirby Dunn, executive director of Homeshare Vermont in Burlington.

Companionship is an important side benefit.

"Independence is great but isolation as we age is a growing concern, so companionship can be almost life-altering," Dunn said. "People are telling us they're happier, sleeping better, eating better. ... If I could sell you a drug that did that, you'd pay a lot of money."

Grossman said many long-lasting friendships develop, "and for others there's just mutual respect and that's fine, too."

Rosenfeld and Allen, who have been roommates for three years, both said they feel more like business associates than longtime friends like TV's "Golden Girls," but they gabbed like sisters and giggled about the apparent highlight of their time together: "the bathtub incident."

Allen, who gets around with the help of a walker, had slipped in the bathtub and gotten stuck, with one leg wedged awkwardly behind her. She tried and tried but couldn't get up.

"If I was living alone I might have been there for days," she said. But Rosenfeld was home, and although she's too petite to extract Allen from the tub, she was able to call 911 — and provide a towel for Allen to cover herself when rescuers arrived.

"Thank God Marcia was there," Allen said.

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