CHICAGO — The roommates share bathrooms and have each other’s shower times memorized. They fold each other’s laundry when someone leaves it in the dryer too long. They play cards together in the afternoon and watch “Dancing With the Stars” together at night.
And they ride along in the ambulance when one takes a bad fall.
It’s a living arrangement none of the seniors imagined for themselves when they were young, married and raising families in their own suburban homes. But time, age and circumstances led the five roommates — two men, three women ranging from 64 to 98 years old — to the red brick house in suburban Lombard, Ill.
There, next door to a young family with a swing set, and across the street from a high school, the seniors share a sprawling ranch as part of a Wheaton, Ill., non-profit organization’s mission to bring a unique housing option to the Chicago area’s elderly population, which is expected to double by 2040, officials said.
For the last three decades, Senior Home Sharing has placed seniors who are self-sufficient, but in search of company, into homes nestled on typical residential neighborhoods. What began as a one-house experiment in Lombard, Ill., has grown to include houses in Naperville, Downers Grove and Elmhurst, Ill., where the seniors get three prepared meals a day and medicine reminders from a live-in house manager.
But in every other way, the home-share residents are completely independent and typical roommates, sharing living spaces, granola bars, and, in Lombard, even a vegetable garden in the backyard.
“I grew up in a family of seven (kids) and two parents and this is like home again,” said Bill Kelly, 64, who moved into the Lombard home a year ago and takes daily walks to pick up litter and greet the rest of the residents on the block.
“I’m getting to know the neighborhood. I meet their children, I pet their dogs.”
Advocates for the aging say the housing shares, which officials hope to expand to other parts of the Chicago area in upcoming years, offer a novel and important option for the elderly.
“People are getting older in communities that were never really meant for older people,” said Kathleen Cagney, an associate professor of sociology and health studies at the University of Chicago.
“Anything that is innovative from a design standpoint would be most welcome.”
After Jackie Kindl’s husband died, her five children worried about her. She had moved in with one of her daughters, but spent much of her time alone. So when a family friend shared information about the home shares, Kindl’s children knew it would be a good fit.
“She was turned off by a lot of places because they were filled with wheelchairs and walkers and she didn’t want to feel old,” said Holly Johnson, Kindl’s daughter.
Today, Kindl, 85, occupies the master bedroom of the Lombard house, where her dresser is lined with framed family photos. At mealtime, fellow resident Mary Duprey instinctively leans over to cut Kindl’s beef ribs before the seniors dig into the meat, corn, peas and cod.
Duprey, 80, reminds her housemates of the time she met Rat Pack members Joey Bishop, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin at The Sands in Las Vegas. She refused Martin’s autograph because she didn’t like his reputation with women.
“I was a young girl at the time. I was stupid,” Duprey says, over her roommates’ laughs.
“You didn’t know any better,” Kindl says.
Jessie Joniak, 98, talks about her favorite soap opera, which she’s been watching for decades: “The Young and the Restless.”
“We’re the old and the restless,” Kelly shoots back, prompting laughs again.
These types of interactions are precisely what Senior Home Sharing founder Mary Eleanor Wall had in mind when she and a board of directors used Community Development Block Grant funds to begin the non-profit organization and purchase the first home, said Wendell Gustafson, the organization’s executive director.
Today, 27 seniors live in the four west suburban home shares. They are among the more than 300 seniors who have lived in housing the program has provided since 1983. Most of them hear of the home shares by word of mouth, or through fliers at local rehabilitation centers.
Some residents are still working. Some are gone all day playing golf. Others stay home and keep mostly to themselves. Residents come and go as they please and can have overnight guests with approval from housemates.
The organization’s managers try to take personalities into account when they interview and place the seniors into the shares. But they note that it’s easier to navigate disagreements as they happen rather than to plan for them in advance.
“We’ve got some night owls that stay up to all hours. At one house, two people sleep until mid-afternoon,” Gustafson said. “There’s the good times and there’s the bumpy times. But overall it’s a great place to get to know new people and have great social interactions.”
Rents in the housing shares range from $1,090 to $1,900 and cover a private bedroom in the house, food, utilities and cleaning. The live-in house manager does all the grocery shopping and makes a resident’s favorite meal on his or her birthday — if the resident isn’t keeping age a secret.
One-third of the organization’s budget is covered by foundation grants, private donors and local government allocations, while the remaining two-thirds is paid for by the residents, about half of whom receive some public aid, Gustafson said.
“As more and more seniors are with us, many of whom are outliving their resources, we will need to find new ways to offer housing choices,” said Gustafson. “We’re trying to fill a niche between your typical independent living place and the assisted living kind of situation.”
Claudia Taylor, who has been the house manager at the Lombard home for 30 years, said outside of scheduling designated days for the washer and dryer, the seniors don’t need many rules to keep the house running smoothly.
Each resident’s room has a TV, but the seniors gather on their own in the living area to watch “All in the Family” reruns together. They set and clear the table after meals and know to pick up their own mess around common areas.
“It’s voluntary, and I have a democracy here,” Taylor said.
Residents live in the housing shares an average of three and a half years. Most of the time, it becomes clear when the senior is in need of more assistance than the unlicensed housing shares are able to provide. When that happens, management works with the resident and family to find a new residence.
About once each year, a resident dies, most often in the hospital, while listing the shared house as home. Managers at the non-profit do their best to help surviving residents through the grief and to attend funerals.
“There’s certainly a loss,” said Gustafson. “You feel it at the dinner table.”
Setbacks aside, Cagney, from the University of Chicago, applauds the senior housing shares for offering the elderly an alternative in suburban areas that may otherwise prove challenging for seniors.
“You’re kind of in this no-person’s land in not having close social connections, people checking in on you, but also not being able to go to the corner and get milk,” Cagney said.
It’s a difference that’s not lost on Kelly, a divorced retiree who moved into the Lombard housing share after his children noticed he was losing substantial weight by attempting to cook for himself.
Not long after moving in, Kelly organized a block party for the entire suburban block. When Kindl slipped in the bathroom earlier this month, he was happy to ride in the ambulance with her to the hospital, holding her hand.
“I can’t imagine anything better than this. It suits me perfectly,” Kelly said. “If this is an experiment, it’s a successful experiment.”