bout a year and a half ago, Brenda Atchison, a lifelong Bostonian, created an online profile. Atchison was retired from a job in the education sector and looking for someone to share her home and life—but she wasn’t looking for a date. She liked the idea of companionship and of generating a little extra income from renting out part of her big old house. “As you grow older, your core of people narrows down a little bit,” she says. So she used an app called Nesterly, a platform that pairs older people who have empty rooms with students looking for affordable places to stay.
Atchison, 67, outlined the space she had available—a private room with a shared bathroom, along with access to a shared kitchen and den with a TV—and then explained a little about herself and her expectations. “I wanted to communicate that my house is quiet, that I enjoy cooking, that I like learning new things, that I’m respectful and expect the same thing,” says Atchison. “I wanted both of us to be comfortable.”
Pheobus, an international student from Greece in his late 20s who was looking for a room where he could live while continuing his studies at MIT, contacted her. They chatted over Skype a few times and he seemed like a “nice person,” so Atchison drew up a contract and he moved in just before the school year started. The duo soon found that they had a lot in common. “From day one, he just became part of the house,” says Atchison. He was studying architecture and she lived in a historic part of Boston, so she took him on a tour of the neighborhood. They both cooked, and would offer each other food, but mostly kept to their own independent but companionable routines.
But Atchison describes a real moment of connection around Christmas 2017. Pheobus made his grandmother’s Christmas cookies and Atchison made soul food. “We talked about what the holidays meant to us and really shared our lives and experiences and heritages,” she says. “That was a very magical moment for me because, as the kitchen began to fill with the smell of his grandmother’s cookies, I flashed back to my mother cooking in the kitchen.” The only thing missing was gospel music, so she put some on. “It was just marvelous,” she says.
Nesterly isn’t the only outlet for student-senior matchmaking. In November 2016, New York University announced a pilot program to both relieve the cost of living for students and take advantage of the city’s empty rooms—many of which are owned by senior citizens. In July, Toronto HomeShare began a similar program amid talk of historically low rental vacancy rates. And the New York Foundation for Senior Citizens, which has aided NYU and others in developing their programs, has operated a home-sharing matching service since 1981.
These projects are billed as a way to address two key social concerns: loneliness and a lack of affordable housing for both older and younger people—two generations that are not always likely to intersect in professional or personal environments, but who share these overlapping challenges.
The plight of the modern millennial—burdensome student loans, high housing costs, and unstable employment—has become familiar. When new congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was mocked online for saying she was unable to afford an apartment in D.C. until her congressional salary kicked in, supporters in their 20s and 30s chimed in to share similar situations. According to the Pew Research Center, more millennial households live in poverty than any other generation.
Many seniors in cities with tight housing markets, on the other hand, end up living alone with spare bedrooms they don’t use. According to one estimate, there are 5 million empty bedrooms in Ontario alone, and about 40 percent of those belong to seniors. Through senior-student matching programs, students pay affordable rents, often hundreds of dollars below market averages, in return for spending roughly five hours a week helping out around the house, whether that’s walking pets, picking up groceries, or shoveling a front walk during one of New York City’s or Toronto’s predictably lousy winters.
“We try not to overprescribe it, and no one’s ticking a box,” says Tonya Salomons, a coordinator for Toronto HomeShare. “Your five hours could be making and sharing a meal together or going to the movies. We want it to be an organic relationship that is fostered out of this intergenerational connection.”
Both young people and senior citizens report higher rates of social alienation and loneliness—a phenomenon frequently referred to as an epidemic. One 2017 study found that the number of Americans who report having no close friends has tripled since 1985, and the millennial cohort reported the steepest declines.
And it’s not just young people who are feeling the need for increased connection. Brandon Sterling, a community organizer who coordinates a new senior-student home-sharing program in St. Louis, Missouri, says that the program was initially inspired by concerns among older residents about property taxes but has since revealed a desire for companionship. “Most of them had in their mind, even before we made a potential match with the student, that they would like to have dinner together at least once a week and do something socially twice a month,” he says.
Before co-founding Nesterly, Noelle Marcus developed an interest in affordable housing while working as a project manager at the New York City Economic Development Corporation, and then completing a master’s degree in urban planning at MIT. “I realized that housing is a human right and that we need a lot more public policy and private sector innovation,” she says.
Marcus started honing in on demographics. She had noticed among her parents’ friends how expensive it could be to age at home—the property taxes, home repairs, and overall cost of living could become punishing. She also noticed that once-simple tasks, like climbing a ladder to change a lightbulb, became challenging for older people. And yet many older people also preferred to age in place and avoid any kind of institutionalization for as long as possible.
Working with MIT’s AgeLab, Marcus conducted a 15,000-person nationwide survey and started refining the idea for Nesterly, which presently operates in the Boston area but has plans to go global. She remains a policy and numbers person, easily citing statistics that point to the urgency of home sharing from both a fiscal and a social perspective.
The numbers are persuasive. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, America’s population is rapidly aging. The JCHS estimates that between 2015 and 2035, the number of people over the age of 75 who are living alone will nearly double, from 6.9 million to 13.4 million. “Pair [those numbers] with the fact that 90 percent of people over 45 say they want to age in their homes and communities,” says Marcus. “It’s a question of how we’re going to take care of our parents and grandparents as they age and make sure they have options and can choose to live independently if they want to.”
Young people need better options, too. According to a recent PEW study, over 70 percent of Americans ages 20 to 34 rent their homes, and close to 40 percent of those renters are rent burdened or severely rent burdened. “In the cities it’s getting harder and harder, and as a young person you want to be able to access jobs and schools and opportunities,” says Marcus.
Anirban Karak, a student from India pursuing his Ph.D. in history at NYU, was initially drawn to NYU’s pilot program because of both affordability and the opportunity to avoid setting up a whole apartment from scratch. After exchanging a few emails and meeting over Skype, he moved in with David, 79, in Rego Park, Queens.
Karak and his host keep different schedules. David goes to sleep at 8:30 p.m. and wakes at 5 a.m., while Karak is often up studying until close to midnight. While maintaining a high degree of independence, they’re also mindful of each other and help when they can. They live on the fourth floor, but the laundry is in the basement, so they go together. Karak also helps David with groceries—“especially when he buys toilet paper in bulk.”
Karak says he’s found more in common with David than expected. David, who also studied history, loves classical music, and Karak plays the violin. They’re most likely to cross paths in the early evening, when Karak makes dinner while David watches the news. “We’re very friendly and we usually talk about whatever is on the news—which isn’t generally very happy these days,” says Karak. “He was pretty charged up by the midterm elections and it was the only time I’ve seen him stay up until midnight.”
The process of matching two candidates is more of an art than a science. In the case of Toronto HomeShare’s pilot program, both host and guest fill out a nine-page matching form that details the space they’re renting or seeking, plus lifestyle questions that aim to steer broader compatibility. “We haven’t yet come up with an algorithm for it,” says Salomons, who makes matches in conjunction with social workers. “Right now, it’s a very human connection.”
Once a match is made, and both parties agree to the match in principle, a matching interview takes place—typically in the home of the host and facilitated by a social worker. “You can tell when it’s not going to be a good match,” says Salomons. “It’s sort of like a bad date.” But if the match is successful, the participants are encouraged to draw up a contract with as many clearly articulated details as possible. “We encourage people to understand that the other person isn’t a mind reader,” says Salomons.
Toronto HomeShare has made 20 matches, and 10 have moved in together. All participants complete a vulnerable sector screening—essentially a police background check that determines suitability for work with vulnerable populations, in this case the elderly. In cases of conflict, when the participants can’t resolve something on their own, mediation services are provided. “The issues tend to be around personal space and time,” says Salomons. “Students often have different timetables than older adults, and you don’t have to be together every moment of the day. You have to be allowed to retreat to your own corner.” But conflicts have been few and far between, she adds. “Everyone so far seems truly invested in the process, and they understand that they’re part of something that is pretty darn cool. They’re willing to work hard to make it successful for themselves and the program.”
One thing everyone agrees on is the importance of establishing clear and deliverable expectations for both parties. “It’s really about mutual respect,” says Atchison. In fact, as she drew up a contract, she realized that she might be the one who would need to tweak her habits to make a guest more comfortable. “I’m very old school and, to me, you only eat in the kitchen,” she says. But she realized that students might want to occasionally retreat to their rooms with a meal or snack over their studies, so she decided to relax the rules.
The individual benefits of coliving are clear, but Ernest Gonzales, an assistant professor of social work who oversees NYU’s pilot program, makes the case that intergenerational living promotes a social connectedness that’s good for everybody. “Ageism is alive and well in our society, and we’re drawing from the contact hypothesis to overcome those stereotypes,” he says. One 2013 study found that age segregation in America is as entrenched as racial segregation, especially when it comes to people 20 to 34 and over 60—exactly the two age groups these home-sharing programs are hoping to unify. “We really hope the program fosters social capital where there’s a sense of reciprocity and trust that forms and they can rely on each other,” he says.
Home-sharing programs—now spreading across the country—might not resolve the underlying problems of social alienation and unaffordability, but they have the potential to provide some targeted relief.
Atchison’s first experience with that student from Greece went so well that she’s now hosting two students, one from China and one from Pennsylvania. She continues to seek out points of both generosity and connection. She recently cooked a full Thanksgiving dinner for her roommate from China, a first for him. And since she guides healthy-cooking workshops in her community, she’s found a common interest with her other roommate, who’s studying public health at Boston University.
While Atchison says she wasn’t exactly lonely before she took in student roommates, she was starting to sense a small void. But hosting students has relieved that void and given her a sense of community under her own roof. Just recently, she was walking home after dark and felt a thrill when she saw lights on in her house. “That felt good,” she says. “It was like coming home when I was a kid and the whole family was there.”
Sarah Treleaven is a writer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.