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Loneliness And High Rent Have California Seniors Looking For Roommates

Amita Sharma/KPBS
Roommates Eleanor Stone and Rose McGehee chat about their memories of when they first met, Feb. 8, 2019.

At 95, Eleanor Stone has outlived her siblings, her husband and her three children.

“I’m all alone,” Stone said. “I don’t have anybody.”

That reality prompted the retired school cafeteria worker to move a roommate into her San Diego home in 2013.

No hard figures exist but she’s part of growing number of California seniors opting to live with other seniors for companionship and to reduce their expenses. 

“Living alone puts people at higher risk of depression,” said Caroline Cicero, University of Southern California gerontology professor. “If you fall, if you live alone, you’re more likely to be injured. If you live alone, you’re more likely to be a victim of a fraud or a scam. You’re also more likely to have poor nutrition and poor health outcomes.”

And living alone in California can sap a senior’s finances.

“Older adults face a lot of the same problems that we all have in California -- affordable housing, usable transportation, health care, a high cost of living,” Cicero said. “Those who are homeowners have major advantages over those who are renters, lifelong renters.”

That was true for Eleanor’s roommate, 68-year-old Rose McGehee, in 2013.

“I was living in my own apartment, and I hadn’t been able to find work. The money was just going, and I knew I wasn’t going to make the next month’s rent,” McGehee said.

A San Diego group called Elder Help matched McGehee with Stone. Elder Help associate director Anya Delacruz said McGehee’s story is a familiar one.

“That’s a trend we’ve seen growing in the last few years,” Delacruz said. “Seniors who have lived in apartment buildings for decades and the rents keep going up. They’re on fixed incomes so there’s no way for them to make up that difference. They tell me, `I don’t know what to do. I’m scared. You know it’s looking like I might be homeless.’ ”

But Delacruz said shared living isn’t for everyone.

Matching up the elderly, who have long established likes and dislikes, isn’t easy. Elder Help reports the average time their pairings last is three years. McGehee and Stone credit their six years together to space. 

“We get along good,” Stone said. “She does her thing, and I do my thing, and my cat does her thing.”

McGehee likes that Stone doesn’t, in her words, crowd her too much.

“Because I’m an introvert and strongly an introvert,” McGehee said. “And for us, we build energy by being alone. When we go out and we’re in groups of people, then our energy feeds off and I get frantic. So then, I have to come home and be totally alone.”

The two have different schedules. McGehee rises early, eats breakfast, works until 2 p.m. and then watches something on Netflix in the afternoon.

Stone wakes up at 8:30 a.m., grabs a coffee and the newspaper.

“First, I read the sports section,” she said. “Then, I read Dear Abby, then a Jumble.”

Stone likes to experiment with new recipes in the afternoon but the roommates don’t cook together.

“Eleanor is a wonderful cook but she’s not gluten-free,” McGehee said.

McGehee helps Stone with computer questions and takes her to doctor’s appointments.

“I know I can count on her,” Stone said.

McGehee said she likes living with Stone.

“There’s somebody to talk to, because I think if I lived alone I may never see anybody else, you know,” she said.

But she added she wouldn’t choose living with someone else if she had more money.

And for Stone, having Rose there hasn’t warded off the loss of her family.

“I’m still lonely, you know,” Stone said. “And then I thank heaven somebody is here.”

Copyright 2019 KPBS