Golden Girls – in Real Life – in a Canadian Town – Life Imitates Art
The 3,400-square-foot home is equipped to facilitate aging in place, with an elevator, wide doorways and a ramped porch. The home also has quarters in the lower level for live-in care should they require it.
The women have talked about what happens if one finds a partner. He could be allowed to move in permanently and asked to contribute to the grocery bill — or it could be a “no” depending on his compatibility with the rest of the group.
Thank you for being a friend . . . I can buy a house with: Meet a new generation of golden girls
Imagine if the four female roommates in the mid-1980s TV show TheGolden Girls had moved to small-town central Ontario in 2016.
Meet Louise Bardswich, Martha Casson, Bev Brown and Sandy McCully, aged 65 to 71, who share ownership of a 3,400-square-foot home in downtown Port Perry, where they all live.
While the women are still active and independent, they didn’t like the housing choices available to them as they thought about growing older.
“My mother was in a retirement home and Martha bought a house with her mother so she could take care of her,” says Bardswich, who, like Casson, is a retired college administrator (Brown and McCully are retired nurses). “But those options didn’t appeal to us.” They didn’t want to impose on their children, they didn’t like the steep cost of retirement-home living, or the idea of living alone in a condo or apartment.
Bardswich and Casson heard about co-ownership, a common concept in the U.K., and felt it could be a fit in Ontario. While there are shared ownerships in Canada, they usually involve family members, but it’s unusual to find four unrelated people who own a home. Their idea piqued the interest of local contractor John Lucyk, who purchased the home in downtown Port Perry within walking distance of stores, pharmacies, banks and restaurants.
Their plan initially met with stiff opposition from local council with fears it was a boarding house or unlicensed nursing home, but eventually approvals were granted. Lucyk modified the house to accommodate four owners, with input from the women and local designer Tammy Irwin of Designing Durham. Toronto Rehabilitation Institute staff reviewed the plans and made recommendations for materials and design features to facilitate aging in place, such as wider doorways and stair treads, a ramped porch and an elevator that can accommodate a wheelchair or scooter. A basement suite will accommodate a live-in caregiver should one or more of them need one in future.
The women paid $275,000 each to cover their quarter ownership and closing costs. Bardswich was the first to buy in, followed by Brown. After Casson’s mother died, she joined them. McCully rounded out the quartet; after her husband died in 2015, she decided to sell her house and rent an apartment. But she couldn’t find a suitable one in town. “I called Bev and said ‘is there still room at the inn?’ ”
In the renovated heritage house with new addition, the women share kitchen, living and dining rooms and laundry room, and take turns cooking. They each have spacious private bed sitting rooms outfitted with gas fireplaces, flat-screen TVs and spalike bathrooms. Each of their bedrooms reflect their personal tastes, while the shared areas feature a sophisticated transitional decor and upscale finishes such as stainless steel appliances, stone countertops and vinyl plank flooring. The house also has a three-car garage, craft room, guest suite, wraparound porch and year-round swim spa.
They moved in in November and they realize there’ll be some adjustments.
“We have to get used to everybody’s idiosyncrasies,” says Brown. “We’ve decided if something bugs you, get it out and keep the lines of communication open. We’ll have a conversation, but do it kindly.”
The house rules are similar to those for a condo or housing co-op, says Bardswich. For example, co-owners cannot enter exclusive areas (bedrooms) without permission; can’t have auction or garage sales without the consent of the others; can’t have pets without the others’ permission; and common expenses such as utilities are to be shared equally. The women have talked about what happens if one finds a partner. He could be allowed to move in permanently and asked to contribute to the grocery bill — or it could be a “no” depending on his compatibility with the rest of the group.
A detailed legal agreement spells out what happens if someone wants to sell, if one of them dies, or becomes incapacitated. In those cases, that person’s one-quarter share would be sold at a price set by the seller. The remaining co-owners have to approve whoever comes to live in the house. If, they don’t approve a buyer, then the remaining owners have 365 days to purchase the house themselves at the terms in the purchase offer or fair market value (determination spelled out in the agreement). Failing that, the entire property would be listed and sold.
“It’s not an idea for everyone,” says Brown. “We got asked questions like ‘if my mother moves in, can she keep her bedroom locked?’ or ‘what happens if someone eats your yogurt?’ That’s not how it works here. Everything in the fridge is fair game and we don’t lock our bedroom doors.”
One of the big advantages of co-ownership is financial. The women sold their previous houses and had money left over after they bought their quarter shares. They are also building equity and Bardswich figures they’ll be able to live for well under $1,500 each a month, including the cost of utilities, food, maintenance, contingency fund and for house cleaning services. (The women agreed that hiring a house cleaner would eliminate a possible source of friction). Casson points out that a retirement home can cost $2,500 to $6,000 a month for a single person and rise with inflation, at about 3 per cent a year.
Shared ownership provides more than financial advantages, Bardswich says: it provides safety, companionship.
“I worked with the elderly and a sense of community is proven to lengthen life span,” says Brown.
“We are going to see a lot more of this type of housing,” says Jamie Shipley, consultant for knowledge transfer and outreach for Canada Mortgage and Housing’s Ontario region. “I’m working with municipalities that are trying to include a strategy in their Official Plans to deal with an aging population.”
Co-housing or shared ownership is one such option, says Shipley. Others include providing second suite rental units in homes that are bigger than empty nesters need; or home sharing where an older adult who is having trouble maintaining their home is matched with a renter who can help with upkeep.
“I’m seeing this type of thing growing and builders are starting to get it,” says Shipley. “The demand is on us now and is only going to grow. We are at a tipping point for this type of innovative housing in many forms.”
Shipley says the biggest concern he’s heard is people’s worry about getting along with roommates. He says municipalities (such as Scugog Township was) may also be reluctant to provide approvals as they often get nervous about an innovative or new concept.
Shipley says he’s working with several municipalities that want to get accredited as Age-Friendly Communities, a certification by the World Health Organization. These communities allow people of all ages to participate in activities, to stay connected, healthy and active, and to help those who can no longer look after themselves to live with dignity and enjoyment. Co-ownership or co-sharing is one way to help attain this, Shipley says.
While the women say that their motivation was to find a home where they could age in peace, the concept can work for many people, including young people who can’t afford a home on their own, or families with disabled children who could benefit from the support of others in similar situations and by sharing of the cost of caregiver services.
“This is a potential model for provincial and federal governments to support,” says Casson, who says that people who can facilitate their own aging or living with disabilities will be a less of a financial burden to the social system.
Beyond the practicalities, the women are enjoying the pride of ownership that comes from living in a beautifully finished, energy-efficient home.
“We all feel fortunate that we own a really cool house,” says Casson.
The Golden Girls is an American sitcom created by Susan Harris that originally aired on NBC from September 14, 1985, to May 9, 1992, with a total of 180 half-hour episodes spanning over seven seasons. The show stars Beatrice Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty, as four older women who share a home in Miami, Florida. It was produced by Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions, in association with Touchstone Television, and Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas, and Harris served as the original executive producers.
The Golden Girls received critical acclaim throughout most of its run and won several awards, including the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series twice. It also won three Golden Globe Awards for Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy.Each of the four stars received an Emmy Award (from multiple nominations during the series’ run), making it one of only three sitcoms in the award’s history to achieve this. The series also ranked among the top ten highest-rated programs for six out of its seven seasons. In 2013, TV Guide ranked The Golden Girls number 54 on its list of the 60 Best Series of All Time. In 2014, the Writers Guild of America placed the sitcom at number 69 in their list of the “101 Best Written TV Series of All Time”.