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How 'Golden Girls' Models the Future Of Senior Housing in Central Texas

From Miami to Austin: As the number of seniors living in Central Texas rises along with the cost of living, "The Golden Girls" is becoming a template for senior housing.

The number of seniors living in Central Texas is soaring – and so is the cost of living.

That’s making “The Golden Girls” far more than a funny '80s TV show. The show's shared-living arrangement could become a template for senior housing in cities like Austin.

Helene Frager says she dreamt she would live like Blanche, Sophia, Dorothy and Rose by now. "I always had this fear of growing old and alone. When I used to watch the program, 'The Golden Girls,' I said, ‘Hey, they’re not too bad! They have companionship, they have each other, they can talk about things," she says. 

The TV show from the 1980s and early '90s made the shared setup look so easy.

"I was never able to find that," Frager says with a laugh. "It was just a television program." 

Frager laughs it off, but the 77 year old lives about 20 miles outside of Austin’s center. She worries about housing a lot.

Considering the numbers, finding a roommate close to her age shouldn’t be so tough. Census data shows the population of people 55 to 64 in all of metropolitan Austin more than doubled between 2000 and 2010. But Frager’s ads on Craigslist haven’t been successful. 

Dr. Amy Moss, a geriatrician at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, commends her for being creative.

"It’s fantastic that she’s tech savvy and is actually looking for roommates," Moss says. "One thing I encourage seniors to remember is that this is a trial and error [situation]. And that you really have to do your homework about whom you’re going to bring into your home as a roommate, or that you’re going to move in with as a roommate. Think of it as a marriage – and when it goes bad, divorce is usually not fun."

The National Shared Housing Resource Center has a list of organizations that match seniors up for what’s called "co-housing." There are no such agencies in Austin right now. But people who do co-housing in other cities say nonprofits that work with seniors already are well-positioned to take up the challenge.

One such organization in Central Texas is Family Eldercare. Joyce Hefner, the group's director of housing and community services, says rent in Austin is driving seniors far outside the city.

"Unfortunately, support services such as transportation and easier access to health care, etcetera, are not out there," Hefner says. "So they’re having to choose … between giving up services and support in order to find affordable housing."

Hefner calls senior co-housing "one option that will allow them to find affordable ways to live."

That’s despite a preliminary vote by the Austin City Council that recently lowered the number of unrelated adults that can live in one house. (It was six, but the council voted to reduce that to four. The item returns to council for final passage this spring.)   

Still – that’s enough for that "Golden Girls" scenario Helen Frager dreams about. And for her part, she wants any potential future roommates to know this about her:

"[I] love to talk with my grandchildren, I’m fairly intelligent, so you can mention the subject and I can talk on the subject," Frager says. "I like challenging things, like I like to play Scrabble and bridge."

The demand for co-housing is only likely to grow. The city demographer expects the share of the Austin area’s population of people 65 and older to grow from eight percent now to about 20 percent by 2040.

A city Commission on Seniors tasked with advising the Austin City Council on issues related to this population – including housing – will begin meeting this month.

This story is part of the MetLife Foundation’s “Journalists in Aging Fellows Program” – organized by The Gerontological Society of America and New America Media.

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