Real estate developers are really missing the boat. If they want to get their boom back, they should start creating communal homes with shared living areas surrounded by several private arthritis-friendly bedroom/bathroom suites for women of, ahem, a certain age. My bosom friend since middle school, Di, and I often speak of eventually sharing a home, perhaps with other women, like college girls in a geriatric version of a dorm pod.
Aficionados of traditional style who have raised families in "homey" homes, Di and I do not want to spend Act 3 in a bland new condo or townhome once maintaining the homes we raised our kids in begins to feel like too much for us. And although we enjoy our independence now in our fifites, we probably won't want to fly solor forever. We envision a future where we live with several women friends, pooling skills and resources and taking care of each other, yet having spaces to retreat to where we can enjoy the solitude that was often missing in our lives as nurturers.
Consider the statistics. In 2006, the Census Bureau reported that someone lives alone in 26 percent of American households, up from 17 percent in 1970. That percentage is probably higher now.
The reasons are many. People are marrying later, divorcing more frequently, living longer. Married couples are now a minority of all American households. Extended family members often don’t live in the same town, much less under the same roof.Gone, baby, gone are the days that my great-great grandmother spent the last years of her life mending and rocking babies in a chair by the kitchen stove.
So loneliness, an oddly taboo subject in American life where we have so few taboos left, becomes a factor. (As the incomparable Lily Tomlin put it, “Remember, we’re all in this alone.”) A study came out recently confirming what the old joke already established (What’s the difference between a girlfriend and a wife? Thirty pounds). That is, married women who live with a mate, even childless, put on more pounds than those living alone. My experience bears that out. Married for 25 years and single eight, I have been slightly but consistently slimmer post-divorce despite the weight gain one would expect from aging and menopause. It’s not that I’m not keeping myself svelte for a future partner but that breaking bread is deeply communal. When it’s just you and Delilah, a bowl of popcorn will do. (The upside is not having someone ask you if dinner is “that soup” again.)
Women are more likely to live alone over the course of their lives because not only do we outlive our mates, we are also more likely to delay remarriage after divorce. I admit that doesn’t explain why the casserole brigade pounces on a newly widowed man! Perhaps because we’ve had more practice, I think maybe women are better at living alone – generally maintaining a closer network of friendships and more likely to stay close to adult children post-divorce.
My married daughter, 31, says female friendships are particularly critical to her single girlfriends who eventually want marriage and kids. She has two friends, raving heterosexuals, who consider each other life partners ala Oprah and Gayle. Although not housemates, they live in the same town, send Christmas cards together, and go to each other’s family milestones like weddings and funerals.
When my mother and sister joined households last year, chiefly for financial and health reasons, I fretted that their years of autonomy due to widowhood and divorce might make the adjustment rocky. Instead I noticed a curious lilt in their voices as “I” turned to “We.” There was a funny moment over the holidays when I spent the night. As my flatulent Boston terrier and I clambered into bed in the attic with my sister -- the same bed we shared as girls forty years and several husbands ago -- she chortled, “I always knew it would come to this.”
If real estate developers would mine this gold by designing beautiful, traditional communal homes, we could get by with a little help from our friends.