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Home Sharing, Other Programs Key as Population Ages

After being temporarily homeless, Christine Russell, 51, found a new place to live through Camden County's home-sharing program. She was matched with a man in his late 70s and moved into his two-bedroom apartment in Haddon Heights, near the city of Camden, in December. He’s a “very kind person,” she says. “It’s like having another dad.”
Parikha Mehta

With its ocean views and proximity to New York City, Ocean County, New Jersey, has become a retirement mecca—home to some 90 planned communities designed for people 55-plus. Retirees can stroll along the beaches and boardwalks and socialize in local community centers.

But living in the area’s single-family houses has become a growing concern for older residents, particularly individuals who struggle to afford the rent on one income while also paying for other daily expenses, says Maria LaFace, director of the Ocean County Office of Senior Services.

One solution in the works: The county—which just joined the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities—plans to start a home-sharing program that would help older people find a housemate to defray costs.

“[It’s] kind of like The Golden Girls,” says LaFace, referring to the 1980s sitcom about four older women rooming together.

The initiative is one of the many ways New Jersey is addressing the needs of older adults and making communities more livable for people of all ages. Ocean County is the 23rd New Jersey locality to join the AARP age-friendly network. The state joined in 2021.

“More and more people are considering how their communities can be better places for people of all ages,” says Katie York, AARP New Jersey’s associate state director of advocacy.

Through the network, AARP shares expertise and technical assistance on local initiatives aimed at making neighborhoods more walkable, improving access to public transportation, and advocating for affordable housing. The network, started in 2012, now has 834 communities enrolled, plus 10 states and one territory.

Emily Greenfield, director of the Rutgers Hub for Aging Collaboration, says planning age-friendly communities moves policy out of “crisis mode” toward more proactive steps as the U.S. population ages. The population of Americans 65-plus surpassed 55 million in 2020, a 38.6 percent jump from 2010.

For advice on setting up the home-sharing program, Ocean County officials have turned to nearby Camden County, which used money from the Older Americans Act for its initiative. In Camden, as many as 10 pairs of people—at least one of whom is 60-plus—are matched each year.

Homeless, then housed

The key to the program’s success is an intensive vetting and interviewing process, a trial sleepover and continued monitoring for about six months, says Maureen Bergeron, Camden County’s director of Senior and Disabled Services.

The home-share program has been a lifesaver for Christine Russell, 51, who became homeless after a breakup and was shocked at the $1,800-per-month rents for shoddy apartments. Russell, who receives $890 a month in Social Security disability income and works part-time as a home companion, was living in her car until she heard about the program.

She was matched with a man in his late 70s and moved into his two-bedroom apartment in Haddon Heights, near the city of Camden, in December. He’s a “very kind person,” she says. “It’s like having another dad.”

Bringing such a program to Ocean County will allow older people to stay in their communities and also benefit family caregivers who live nearby, says Barbara Jo Crea, director of the Ocean County Board of Commissioners.

Other age-friendly initiatives in the state include transportation options for older adults in Princeton and a free money management service in Bergen County to help retirees with paying bills.

Robert Applebaum, a senior research scholar at Miami University’s Scripps Gerontology Center in Ohio, says making communities age-friendly is imperative—and not just for older people.

“Having streets that are walkable are also good for parents pushing a stroller or little kids riding their bike,” he notes.


Highlighting Careers in Aging

When high school students in the Bergen County town of Teaneck land an internship with the Careers in Aging program, they don’t just meet a geriatrician or nursing home workers. They also meet an architect who designs housing for older people and a businessperson who makes tech for the aging population.

“It’s really important that [the students] realize that there is a big role for people taking care of older people” outside the medical sphere, says Ellen Rand, a 76-year-old volunteer for Age-Friendly Teaneck, a local initiative that runs the internship program.

The internship reflects Age-Friendly Teaneck’s mission to make it easier for older residents to age in place. Teaneck and Bergen County are part of the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities.

The internship is particularly relevant as communities like Teaneck race to meet the needs of the growing 60-plus population. The four students selected each summer for the four-week paid internship also take field trips to assisted living facilities and experience a hospital simulator that mimics the body’s changes as the years tick by.

By working with older adults who are “active, productive and engaged in the world,” the internship also helps fight ageism, Rand says.

Cristina Rouvalis, a writer based in Pennsylvania, covers business, health care and other issues. She has written for the Bulletin for more than a decade.

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