October 27, 2013

Home sharing becomes an option for seniors

A nonprofit organization helps bring roommates together in suburban neighborhoods.

By Vikki Ortiz Healy
McClatchy Newspapers

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.

click image to enlarge

Bill Kelly, 64, gives roommate Jackie Kindl, 81, a hug at lunch in the house they share with three other seniors in Lombard, Ill.

Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune

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., nonprofit 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 in typical residential neighborhoods. What began as a one-house experiment has grown to include three other houses 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, 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, 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.

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 nonprofit organization and buy the first home, said Wendell Gustafson, the organization’s executive director.

(Continued on page 2)

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