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The New Housemates

Whether widowed, divorced, or single, more and more women are finding a surprisingly practical living arrangement.

The New Housemates

— Brian Pieters/Radius Imgaes/Getty Images

"I've had a couple of marriages, two kids, and lots of different living arrangements," says Leah Song, 65, who is in the midst of contemplating some big changes—including whether she should move to Santa Cruz, California, where she'd be close to her daughter, as well as the possibility of a new career in financial services. So renting out part of her Weaverville, North Carolina, house to a friend, also in her 60s, makes perfect sense right now. While Leah and her friend (who is in the midst of buying a condo) make plans for the future, Leah earns an extra $525 in rental income that affords her some breathing room.

Peace of Mind

For Zenaida Yap, in her early 50s, making the decision to move in with another woman—in her case, someone almost 40 years older—has given her an entirely different perspective about her own future. She has lived in the San Francisco area for years, and while she still dreams of owning her own home someday, she came to realize that—given the current cost of housing—it just might never happen. And increasingly, she found herself worried about her future: "I started thinking, 'What if I lost my job? What if I got sick?'"

Zenaida considered home sharing. The more she thought about it, the more sense it made: between her long commute to her job in apparel production, 12-hour workdays, and trips to the gym, she figures she is away from home about 15 hours a day anyway. Because she has a cat, it took more than a year and a half before she found a "match": 91-year-old Helen Holmelund, who'd been in California's San Mateo area since 1940 and who'd been renting out space in her home for more than 20 years.

Helen, a wheelchair user, and Zenaida clicked right away. Turns out Helen loves Coco the cat, which alleviates Zenaida's guilt about leaving her furry pal alone for such long stretches. And the configuration of the house, where Zenaida has two bedrooms and a private bath, allows for plenty of private time. Still, it was a big adjustment sharing the common spaces. "I work such long hours, and there are just days when I cannot talk—I just don't have it in me," she says. "And since Helen has been alone all day, I can sense that she wants to." So Zenaida makes more of an effort to make that connection. "As I move toward retirement, the reality is that I probably will find myself in some sort of co-op for seniors—I think it's healthier, and a better social environment. So I think this is a good transition for me," she says. "Unfortunately, when you live by yourself, you can get very set in your ways."

Companionship

For some women, living with other women—whether an old friend or a complete stranger—offers a perk that goes beyond extra money or someone to go to the movies with. It is the spark that some women need to move to a higher sense of living. "Sometimes all it takes for a woman living alone and just existing to rev up her life is reconnecting with another human being," says Joan Medlicott, author of the popular Ladies of Covington series of novels about the adventures of three older women sharing a home (see The Covington Chronicles). "All of a sudden the women find themselves sharing their interests and strengths and, eventually, helping one another reinvent and reinvigorate each of their lives."

Maggie Glaros, 50, who now lives in Plant City, Florida, experienced this firsthand. Several years ago she rented a basement apartment from a stranger, and it turned out to be one of the most important friendships she's ever had. "My roommate started out by saying, when I first moved in, what a private person she was. And I kept saying how private I was. But we became close friends, and within weeks we both came out of our shells, not just with each other but also with neighbors.

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