Today, widowed persons make up fully one-third of the U.S. population age 65 and older. The vast majority of them are women. Women are more likely than men to be widowed for two reasons.
First, women live longer than men. And second, women tend to marry older men, although the gap has been narrowing.
For several decades, the proportion of our senior population living alone has been increasing, especially among those age 85 and older, and more people are living alone now than at any point in the country’s history.
Losing a spouse is one of the most traumatic events that can occur in a person’s life. Oftentimes there is a snowball effect—first the trauma of losing the life partner and then the trauma of living alone.
According to “The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century,” authors Drs. Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz cite studies that living alone increases social isolation as well as loneliness and results in reduced happiness, health and longevity.
Choosing a housemate can reduce being lonely, of course, but cohabitating provides benefits besides companionship. A housemate can help financially, sharing the rent or mortgage and the utility costs, and can also help with tasks like taking care of the dog and being the go-to person in case of emergencies.
It is in our nature to live with others. People are social animals; even in caveman days we lived communally. So what prevents widows from considering shared housing?
First, admitting loneliness in our society isn’t easy. It’s more socially acceptable to be depressed than lonely, Olds and Schwartz say in their book. So widows aren’t talking about it.
Once identified, how does one fix loneliness? Going to a bar, attending church or joining an activity? The process is really hard.
But shared housing can be a viable option for widows, especially if they have a home with extra space.
At the recent Positive Aging Conference in Washington, D.C., I met with Annamarie Pluhar, the author of “Sharing Housing: A Guidebook for Finding and Keeping Good Housemates.” Pluhar has lived in shared housing for over 20 years and has developed a practical process for selecting and keeping good housemates.
She defines a home-mate as “a person you like and respect that has a way of living that you are comfortable with.”
Pluhar’s book takes you on the journey from the first thought about whether you should consider a housemate, to discovering your “must-haves and can’t-live-withouts,” to getting the word out, first contact, the evaluation phase and then the final move-in.