What it was like to have elderly roommates during my year of intergenerational living
During my time at university, I had several roommates from all around the world. They spoke various languages and practiced different religions, but there was one constant: They were all my age.
When I landed my first job, I was eager to finally live on my own. I fancied a studio decorated to my liking where I could have friends over for drinks whenever I wanted. But thanks to the housing crisis (and the student loan I had to repay), it quickly seemed beyond my reach. Instead I stayed in my brother’s flat for a couple of months, crashed on friends’ couches, and shared a tiny one–bedroom apartment with a female colleague (where I slept in the living room). I know that, for an entire generation this is a common struggle. Students and young workers are increasingly finding that accommodation, especially in big cities, is either unaffordable, substandard, or both.
At that time, a friend of mine told me about intergenerational living. The idea is simple: senior homeowners open up their spare bedrooms to millennials willing to help out a bit in exchange for cheaper rents. Projects are springing up in the U.S. (especially Chicago and New York) as well as in European countries.
Saying I was reluctant to share a house with an elderly person was an understatement. I was very hesitant and many people—including my parents—tried talking me out of it. But after a few weeks of consideration, I decided to give it a go.
I ended up staying with a senior couple for a year and a half. Intergenerational living is not easy and definitely not for everyone. But it turned out to be a life-changing experience.
A major demographic shift is well and truly underway. Historically, five to ten percent of the U.S. population has been 65 and older. But by 2050, the number of seniors will more than double. Cities and communities will have to adjust and deal with the needs of this aging population.
"The idea is simple: senior homeowners open up their spare bedrooms to millennials willing to help out a bit in exchange for cheaper rents."
I first met Iris and John, both 71 years old, in February 2016. They seemed nice and quite open-minded, and I immediately liked John’s dry sense of humor. When I moved in with them a few days later, I realized I had never really been around elderly people. My paternal grandparents died when I was very young and my maternal ones lived so far away that we only got to see them twice a year. I didn’t know what to expect.
And this leads to my main advice: if you want to try an intergenerational living arrangement, ask as many questions as you can—especially the ones you may not be comfortable with: What kind of help do they need? Are friends allowed to visit? Can I have a partner over for the night? You get the picture.
In exchange for cheaper rent, I had to help out around the house. Tasks such as food shopping, a bit of gardening, computer lessons, or… simply changing the bulb in the bathroom. But for the most part, Iris and John mainly wanted to talk. They had dozens of questions about Snapchat (their teenage grandchildren seemed to use it A LOT), AI, or tech in general. In return, Iris gave me sewing lessons, a few recipes, and some wisdom about life and marriage. While there can be a generational communication gap between seniors and twenty-somethings, I’m proud to say that we managed to bridge it quite easily. We have way more in common than we think and, throughout the months, we learned valuable lessons from each other. Without realizing it, you become a family unit. It happens in a sort of organic way. By sharing a house with a senior couple, I was also confronted daily with decline in health and aging. That can be emotionally draining.
"Without realizing it, you become a family unit. It happens in a sort of organic way. By sharing a house with a senior couple, I was also confronted daily with decline in health and aging. That can be emotionally draining."
After a year and a half of living with John and Iris, I started searching for new accommodation—it sometimes felt like I had moved back in with my parents, and the lack of privacy could make me really miserable. It was the right time to live alone again and regain my independence. I don’t know if anyone is ever really prepared to face the reality of aging parents, but this experience made me reflect on family, the passing of time, and life in general. I’ve grown in many ways. I’ve also learned a lot about myself in the process.