The custom-built ranch house in West Barnstable that Elizabeth Quinn, Janet Goldrick, and their three dachshunds share may look like one more gracious family home in a Cape Cod subdivision. Really it's a fully accessible, carefully planned old-folks-home-in-waiting, occupied by active 60-something friends anticipating the frailty of longevity.
One hundred miles to the north, in Amesbury, longtime friends Edith Heyck and Adair Rowland, both divorcees in their 50s, solved their financial problems when Heyck rented the attic suite of the cozy Victorian duplex that Adair owns.
These women herald a trend that experts expect to grow as the baby boom generation heads into retirement. Almost half of women between the ages of 45 and 59 surveyed by AARP last year consider living with a friend an attractive way to grow old. So do a third of women in their 60s and above.
Both demographics and disposition suggest plenty of boomer women will be in a position to do so. Not only do women outlive men, but boomers are more likely to have remained single or to be divorced than prior generations. A generation of women that redefined everything from marriage to motherhood to menopause will likely redefine aging as well.
"There are all sorts of reasons this will probably take place," says Rebecca G. Adams, a University of North Carolina sociologist who studies adult friendships. "Baby boomer women have been on their own more than previous cohorts have. . . . Many women who lived a very traditional married life are feminists and likely to want to return to an all-female environment.
"Will men live together? That's a lot less likely. They're less likely to outlive their wives. The quality of men's friendships is different than the quality of women's friendships. Men tend to be more activity-oriented than intimacy-oriented and therefore less likely to feel comfortable sharing the kinds of things one shares with housemates."
UMass-Boston gerontologist Ellen Bruce adds another reason: money. "Women have significantly less resources than men," she says, "but housing costs are high."
Says Quinn: "It's more doable than people might expect. You have to be lucky enough to have good friends."
'A wonderful option'
The metal relief of a globe hanging in Quinn and Goldrick's kitchen symbolizes their travels with their friend Jane Lovett. Pins on a map in a home office mark their destinations - Finland, France, Aruba, Arizona. A photograph of a sunlit summer night in Antarctica is a souvenir of Goldrick and Quinn's 2005 trip there.
That they travel well together led them to think living together might work. So did the vacation house in Dennis that Goldrick and Quinn co-owned - and Lovett visited - for a decade. "When we bought that house we didn't know if we'd still be friends or still single," says Quinn, 64. "We certainly did not say this is the first step toward retiring together."
Yet as Quinn, then school superintendent in Rochester, and Goldrick, deputy superintendent in Newton, and Lovett, a program director for Catholic Charities, neared retirement, they started thinking about sharing a roof. Quinn and Goldrick met as colleagues in Newton more than 20 years ago. Quinn and Lovett, who eventually decided to buy a separate house on the Cape, have been best friends since fifth grade and roomed together in their 20s and 30s. None ever married.
The Dennis house was too small. "If we came out of our bedrooms at the same time, somebody had to say, 'You go first,"' says Quinn. They saw nothing for sale that worked.
So they built their own 2,200-square-foot house with three master bedroom suites, space enough for Lovett should she give up her house. A cathedral-ceilinged great room combines living room, granite-countered kitchen, and eating area in one open area. The single floor of living space features doors wide enough for wheelchairs, accessible bathrooms, and no thresholds. The walk-out basement is designed to be easily converted to a caretaker's unit.
If lifestyle, present and future, provided motivation, then so did economics. After selling her house in Rochester and her share of the Dennis house, Quinn says, "I could afford a $400,000 house with a mortgage and all its attendant expenses." Instead, for about $350,000 apiece, not including the in-ground pool in the backyard, she and Goldrick have a larger, more elegant home than either could afford alone. They also split utility bills and upkeep.
"It's nice to have somebody else in the home," adds Goldrick, 68. "It's just fun."
"When you're older," says Quinn, "loneliness becomes a bigger issue than when you're younger and busier."
Meanwhile, Lovett, a frequent visitor, keeps a toothbrush, makeup, and bathing suit in the spare suite that she decorated.
"If I get old and decrepit and out of my mind, I hope Betty and Janet take me in," says Lovett, 64. "It's a wonderful option."
Helping each other out
What Goldrick and Quinn accomplished in five years, from idea to late 2003 move-in date, Heyck, 57, and Rowland, 51, pursued more suddenly last spring. The rent on Heyck's Newburyport apartment jumped from $900 to $1,500. Rowland was feeling crunched enough to consider selling her house. So they helped each other out. They are still too young - and too hopeful about eventually settling down with romantic partners - to call house sharing a long-term venture, but they find the same companionship and economies that Goldrick and Quinn do.
"At the time it was difficult because I've always been on my own or married. To suddenly have to share a kitchen," says Heyck, who is an artist. "We know and respect each other enough that we could communicate through any problem. We knew we could make it work."
They met working on community arts events 15 years ago. Their sons, now 21, became best friends. They've helped each other through divorce, comforted each other when their mothers died, and shared the ups and downs of raising teenagers. Indeed, Rowland initially refurbished the attic for her 18-year-old son, who now lives mostly with his father in Maine. For years, Rowland, a writer and editor, has had Heyck's paintings on her walls.
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Heyck's $500 rent helps Rowland with her $1,300 monthly housing payments.
There've been differences to adjust to: Heyck's tendency to leave the sponge in the kitchen sink, Heyck's orderliness, and Rowland's impulse to collect things. When one or more of their three sons is home, the house can get crowded. "Whatever's hard, it wasn't so easy before," says Rowland. "This is better."
Some evenings they watch movies. Sometimes they play music, Heyck on violin and Rowland on percussion.
"What began as a temporary financial solution became very mutually supportive. Our running joke is we're the ones we've been waiting for," Rowland says. "Both of us were experiencing and not admitting that when we were in our separate spaces it was beginning to echo. Even though both of us were very engaged socially and belong to a lot of organizations, when you come home at night you have to deal with the loneliness."
"I found myself very lonely after my divorce. My son gone and no husband. The isolation of being an artist," says Heyck. "I like being part of a family. I enjoy having a home, gardening, cooking dinner for [Rowland] when she comes home as a surprise."
Irene Sege can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Women and aging: a snapshot
A significant number of women will be alone as they age:
Widows: 42 percent of women
Widowers: 13 percent of men
2006 27 percent (18 percent divorced; 9 percent never married)
1986 15 percent (11 percent divorced; 4 percent never married)
Source: US Census Bureau