Shared Living Space
A New Old Way for the New Older Woman
Nancy Smith Robinson
"Ready or not, here she is, undefined in either academic or popular terms until now: the New Older Woman. She is unique in many ways. For one, she will live thirty years longer than her grandmother. Her daughters will live even longer... No one pointed out to her that she would have this gift of time, nor was society prepared for her. But even if she wasn't announced, she certainly was not prepared to have to struggle so hard for visibility in a culture geared to ever-youthfulness.
The world doesn't fit her any more - nor do its clothes, medical knowledge, attitudes, or living spaces. Indeed, society seems a little embarrassed to find her still here. Historically speaking, she should be dead. She is not only alive, but kicking!"
-The New Older Woman, by Peggy Downes, Ilene Tuttle, Patricia Faul, Virginia Mudd, 1996
By the time I was 55, I had been married twice and involved in a several significant relationships. My children were grown and off on their personal journeys. I lived alone and sometimes was lonely, but I had no desire to ever marry again or share a home with a lover. I worked, supported myself adequately, and owned a comfortable place to live. Finances weren't tight right then but had been in the past, and, as I got older, I knew they could be tight again. My situation was such that I could have muddled on for some time, living alone, worrying a little about money and personal safety, and over scheduling myself so that I wouldn't feel lonely too often.
Then something happened that got my attention. An excruciating headache that would not go away was thought to be an indicator of an aneurysm about to rupture. I was in the emergency room, alone and frightened. It was a dark, cold winter night. There was nobody there to pat my hand or tell me it would be all right - nobody who would even notice if I didn't come home. Of course there were people I could have called, but they all had their lives and obligations and I hesitated to intrude. Recently my closest friends had either moved away, gone a little balmy, or died. I felt very alone in the world. In the end, the physicians determined that my headache wasn't the medical emergency they thought it might have been, and I was sent home.
I emerged from this "tempest in a teapot" with a new resolution in mind. I was not going to be an isolated, lonely, and scrimping old lady who was dead in her bed for a week before anyone found her. What was missing was clear to me. It was a sense of community - being connected to the world and safer and better off because of it. My living situation was going to change.
Various solutions came to mind. Among them were co-housing, renting out rooms in my house, moving near my family of origin, or moving nearer my children and grandchildren. And then, quite out of the blue, the perfect solution appeared. It came about because I made no secret of my search for a different way to live - a connectedness. A casual friend with whom I had taken a trip or two called and said she was interested in looking into buying a duplex together - one side apiece. We both agreed it could provide each of us with company. Sharon, the friend in question, had gone through an unwanted divorce two years previously. We had, on a superficial level, some of the same interests and tastes. We liked to travel, worked in the same field, enjoyed going to movies, and neither of us cared to remarry. There were, and still are, some notable differences. I am an extrovert while Sharon is an introvert. Left to my own devices, I'm untidy and Sharon is orderly. I'm noisy, she's quiet. For most folks those would have been deterrents. Both of us, however, were intent on finding a more satisfying way to live. We started looking at duplexes straight away.
After a month or two of no success, we decided to look for a big house in which we could have shared areas (kitchen, guest room, laundry) and individual areas (bedrooms, sitting areas, and storage). Eventually, we found a place that suited us both.
Before we made the actual purchase we went to a lawyer to get a legal agreement setting out the terms of buying, inhabiting, and selling our new house. After cautioning us that we might be crazy or menopausal, the attorney drew up an agreement that still stands as a good foundation for our living situation. We sold our respective homes and each contributed equal amounts to the purchase. Six weeks later we moved in.
In the first years, the ups and downs of adjusting to new living conditions and expectations (stated and unstated) were exacerbated by financial and personal crises, and a near fatal illness. For example, not too long before our moving date, Sharon asked me if I would mind if her son Tim (an adult) occupied the garage apartment that was part of our new property. I knew that Tim, as a youth had been difficult, and as an adult, had been the object of police attention from time to time so I was surprised and taken aback, but in the interest of harmony, felt I couldn't say no, yet I did not take the initiative to clarify just what his role in our daily lives would be. It didn't work well - and fortunately, didn't last long. Tim was and is a drifter by choice and he drifted on.
Later in the first year, I added to the turmoil when I took in four or five stray dogs without asking - I announced. Taking in stray dogs in quantity was not unusual for me, but it was highly unusual for Sharon. And, like me regarding Tim, Sharon didn't feel able to say no. At one point we (although it was my doing) had three dogs of our own and a foster mama dog from the pound with her eight puppies, plus the dog of a friend of mine who was no longer able to care for her. It didn't work well, either. Between Tim and the dogs, it's a wonder we made it past the first year - and sometimes it looked like we might not. Mixed in with all the other adjustments, Sharon went into renal failure and without dialysis or a transplant, she wasn't long for this world. It was hard-decisions time for Sharon and only she could make them. She was, as anyone would be, very sick and sad. All I could do was watch and occasionally, against my better judgment, hover around, which aggravated her.
For quite awhile, it was unclear whether this attempt at house-sharing was a reasonable idea that couldn't work for one reason or another, or one that with continued effort would work the way we had hoped. In the course of making adjustments and compromises, Sharon and I both learned lessons large and small. Some that would be useful for others venturing into this territory are:
- Regardless of the reality of the situation, everyone will think you are lesbians or gay if you decide to live in the same house. Neither Sharon nor I gave a hoot what anybody thought, but some folks might.
- It is important to be polite at home. Sharing a house doesn't give license to be rude or inconsiderate - and, if you have a lapse, for heaven's sake apologize.
- Be generous with compliments and stingy with criticism.
- Assume nothing and always ask before incorporating other people or pets into the household and then listen very carefully to the reply.
- Remember, first and foremost, this is a shared living arrangement. Discussion and consensus on decisions that impact the day to day living arrangements are essential, but not always easy. A good rule of thumb is, if you can't reach consensus, don't do it. The corollary to that is, and don't stomp off. I am a stomper and it always makes things worse.
- Don't forget to do the things that initially caused you to enjoy each other's company. Sharon and I have the best of times when we take a drive to have a look around or drift through Nordstrom's Rack looking for bargains. If there has been discord, it brings us back to the good times.
- Laugh at yourselves.
Learning and living these lessons has enabled us to share a house and remain friends and good companions through vigorous disagreement. We have even learned to laugh at things that early on seemed like insurmountable difficulties. Some things, like Sharon's illness, helped us build community and learn to help one another. Don't be misled - shared living space is not for the faint of heart. It is, however, extraordinarily rewarding for those who can persevere, and we have persevered. From our mutual decision has come a satisfying life and relationship that, in the end, can be relied upon. We share a home and have become a family of choice.
In describing a group living in community, author and public speaker Meg Wheatley said, "All behaviors and decisions are based on three rules, and just three rules: Take care of yourself, take care of each other and take care of this place." Hear, hear.
© Nancy Robinson
For the last three years Nancy Robinson, MA, has conducted workshops and retreats in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska called Tools for the Rest of the Adventure (Aging with Spunk, Sass, and Style). Nancy began her workshops after a 20-year career as an innovative counselor and program developer in social service organizations and correctional facilities. She has worked with incarcerated women, single parents, families, and now, women growing older. Nancy is currently at work on a book based on her workshops called KickAss Wabi-Sabi Aging with an Auntie Mame Twist. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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