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Taking cues from ‘Golden Girls,’ more single baby boomers are building a future together

April 16, 2014 at 6:31 PM EST
The ‘80s sitcom ‘The Golden Girls’ popularized the idea that four older women could get along well as housemates. Now, with one in every three baby boomers single and approaching retirement, many women are turning to communal living to ease the burdens of aging. Special correspondent Spencer Michels reports for our Taking Care series.
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GWEN IFILL: It’s not uncommon for young adults to live with roommates in order to offset the high cost of housing. But with one out of every three baby boomers now single and approaching retirement, some of them are returning to the communal living of their youth to ease the burdens of their golden years.

Special correspondent Spencer Michels reports for our Taking Care series.

WOMAN: I thought maybe we would use the plastic ones for them.

SPENCER MICHELS: Karen Bush and Louise Machinist like to plan together, everything from dinner parties to the breakdown of chores at their new condo in Sarasota, Florida, to projects at the shown they share with Jean McQuillin in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

WOMAN: I will be hope April 4. And I will probably be there most of that upcoming week, so if there are things that I need to do…

SPENCER MICHELS: The longtime friends now in their 60s have been coordinating their lives like this for the past 10 years. Before that, like a growing number of female baby boomers, all three were divorced, living alone and unsatisfied with the size of their savings accounts as they neared retirement.

WOMAN: Let’s tell the real story. She cooks. I do the dishes.

SPENCER MICHELS: Combining resources, they decided, would make life cheaper, easier, and more fun. Their relationship was easy to describe from the start.

WOMAN: Fight like cats and dogs, lots of drama every day.

WOMAN: No, no, no. No, that’s “The Golden Girls.”

SPENCER MICHELS: “The Golden Girls,” the Emmy Award-winning sitcom from the ’80s that ran for seven seasons, first popularized the idea that four older women can get along well as roommates, for the most part.

BETTY WHITE, Actress: Dorothy, you’re the smart one. And, Blanche, you’re the sexy one, and, Sophia, you’re the old one.

(LAUGHTER)

BETTY WHITE: And I’m the nice one.

(LAUGHTER)

BETTY WHITE: Everybody always likes me.

ESTELLE GETTY, Actress: The old one isn’t so crazy about you.

SPENCER MICHELS: Nationwide, about 500,000 women offer the age much 50 live with a nonromantic housemate. According to census data analyzed by AARP, that boils down to roughly 130,000 group homes from coast to coast.

Louise, Karen and Jean officially decided to give it a shot in 2004, when they bought a large brick home together in Mount Lebanon neighborhood of Pittsburgh and drafted a legally binding document laying out everything from financial expectations to overnight guests.

It worked so well, they wrote a how-to book about living far better for far less. But they also knew the arrangement wouldn’t last forever.

KAREN BUSH: It’s a great big old colonial built in the 1930s, four stories, three winding sets of stairs. And so it’s a great house for us while we were young, but we know that at some point, that house will become difficult for us to manage.

SPENCER MICHELS: Still, their eventual need to move on doesn’t mean an end to the partnership, which the three say is becoming more valuable with time. They recently purchased this condo together in Florida, with new legal agreements in the works for what they will and will not do when it comes to things like illness, disability, incompetence, and death.

WOMAN: Well, I mean, if one of us goes soon, the other one is young enough and cogent enough hopefully to just go get a mortgage or find another person to buy in.

WOMAN: What are we going to do about some of this stuff?

SPENCER MICHELS: They’re now gutting the place.

MAN: I think we will widen the door.

SPENCER MICHELS: And, with the help of contractor Brian Anderson and independent living strategist Louis Tannenbaum, rebuilding it for a future when the women will be less mobile, which includes everything from selecting floor tiles with enough traction…

WOMAN: Yes, they slip.

SPENCER MICHELS: … to choosing age-friendly countertops and appliances.

KAREN BUSH: The front has some advantages, but having this sweep is really nice to have.

WOMAN: Yes, definitely good.

KAREN BUSH: The whole setup that we have here is going to help me be independent for a long time. And at the point at which I can no longer be independent, I will have additional resources to pay for what I need.

SPENCER MICHELS: But this isn’t just a warm-weather retirement idea.

The golden girls concept actually got started going strong here in Minneapolis, where a few years ago the median income of elderly women was $11,000 less than for retired men. That discrepancy prompted a local woman to start to organize.

Connie Skillingstad runs Golden Girl Homes, Inc., a volunteer-based group that introduces elderly single women in the Twin Cities to the concept of communal living and to each other. At least once a month, she hosts get-togethers on topics ranging from picking a roommate to tax preparation. Many say it’s something they have already considered.

WOMAN: Really, I’m not that keen on living alone. But there I am.

SPENCER MICHELS: But most admit being more than a little nervous about roommate drama or even sharing a bathroom.

WOMAN: Go to bed at night and there would be a half-a-roll of toilet tissue, and then you get up in the morning and then there would be no toilet tissue. And that would be an issue for me.

SPENCER MICHELS: And Skillingstad tells them up front it doesn’t always work, that minor differences can easily ruin everything.

But she also believes the setup, if managed well, can save lives and keep people out of retirement homes longer.

CONNIE SKILLINGSTAD, President, Golden Girl Homes, Inc.: I see both women with money and women with no money who need to do this and who can find a place here for that.

And, for example, there are women who have no money, but they have a house. They have space and they can share it with somebody, and it will help them to survive.

SPENCER MICHELS: It’s why Skillingstad has been spending time lately advising 54-year-old Nancy Schuna on how to make her home more attractive to a potential roommate. The financially strapped hairstylist has far more space than she needs, even after she finishes construction on a beauty salon in the front two rooms of her home. Several hundred dollars a month would go a long way to helping relieve some stress, she says.

NANCY SCHUNA: It would uniform my life, I mean, physically, psychologically, financially. And I could help them, too. It’s just not a one-sided thing for a woman to move in to my home, and she may want to help me with things, too. So, it’s a give and take. It’s helping each other and it’s caring for each other.

SPENCER MICHELS: Schuna’s next step will be finding her own Rose, Blanche, Sophia or Dorothy, and settling into a future where she doesn’t feel so alone.

GWEN IFILL: And if you’re looking for a Dorothy or a Rose to share your home with, we have tips on how to do that on our Health page.