Globe and Mail|June 20, 2023|by Rob Carrick

It’s a hell of a thing to be retired from a meaningful career and realize you can’t afford your rent any longer.

Pat Dunn, a 73-year-old retired public-health nurse, was in that position four years ago. After her husband died in 2014, she found she could not afford rent on her income. “I was going into debt every month, trying to keep a roof over my head,” she recalled in an interview. “A very modest roof.”

Ms. Dunn ended up creating a network for senior women in Ontario that helps them find roommates to share housing costs. But while her story is one of resourcefulness and hope, it also documents the alarming extent of our rental crisis. It’s a plague on all ages, from young adults through to retirees.

The group set up by Ms. Dunn to link solo senior women is called Senior Women Living Together (SWLT). She estimates that so far 47 women – in Peterborough, Guelph, Ottawa, North York and Manitoulin Island – have found an affordable place to live through SWLT, with another five in the pipeline.

“We invite people aged 55 and up, but most of our membership is clustered around 60 to 75,” Ms. Dunn said. “Most are fairly low income, but we’re starting to get a lot more interest from moderate income women because of how horrible rents have gotten and how they’re struggling.”

Average rents across the country are up about 20 per cent from pandemic lows and still rising at levels way above the overall year-over-year inflation rate. Solo seniors, notably women because of their longer lifespans, were already a financially challenged demographic before rents soared. Now, the renters among them are worse off.

There’s an old personal finance guideline that rental costs should account for no more than 30 per cent of your gross pay. Ms. Dunn said people in the SWLT community were spending about 40 per cent of their income on rent a few years ago and are now around 50 per cent or higher in some cases.

Ms. Dunn’s own story shows how retired women can find themselves in a position where they need roommates to make rental housing affordable. She was married, divorced and then remarried a man who died suddenly. Ms. Dunn and her first husband owned a home, but sold it and split the proceeds. She and her second husband bought a boat, where they lived until she was widowed and realized she couldn’t afford costs like marina fees any longer.

Ms. Dunn considers herself lucky because she has a pension to top up her Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security benefits. But even so, the rising cost of rent in Peterborough eventually drove her to look around for roommates.

She started her search by setting up a Facebook group that ultimately turned into SWLT. “I thought I might get 10 people and there was a total of 50 by the end of the first week and 200 by the end of the first month,” she said. “I thought it was my problem I was trying to fix, but then I realized I couldn’t have all these people come along and not help them, too.”

The house Ms. Dunn and her two roommates share is located in a residential Peterborough neighbourhood with bus links and a nearby Costco. Ms. Dunn’s roommates are of a similar age to her, one of them a lifelong single and the other divorced.

Utility costs are shared and rents in the home are geared to the amount of space each resident has: One roommate pays $550, another pays $1,100 and Ms. Dunn herself pays $700, which is about 35 per cent her income.

Ms. Dunn spends about 10 to 12 hours a week (*error – it’s actually 10 to 12 hours a day) on SWLT and considers it more of a mission than a hobby because of the affordability issues that she and her peers face. To start with, solo seniors are discriminated against by a tax system that considers retired couples more deserving of tax relief.

Because they often outlive their husbands, women must also absorb the loss of spousal Old Age Security and, to a large extent, Canada Pension Plan retirement benefits as well. There’s a CPP survivor’s benefit, but it’s small (stay tuned for an upcoming column on this topic).

Rising rents add to the financial burden on solo seniors, but Ms. Dunn said there’s an additional aspect to SWLT that helps explain its success. It’s the sense of community that having roommates offers.

At the house where Ms. Dunn lives, the three roommates have dinner together nightly. “We’ve had our ups and downs with personality things and so on, but overall things have worked out quite well.”



Twitter article by Haydn Watters, CBC Radio roving reporter | December 2019

A few months ago, I met a trio of single senior ladies who couldn’t afford to live alone. So they decided to live together.  Skip forward 6 months and they just moved into their house in Peterborough.

They all met on a Facebook group Pat started called Senior Ladies Living Together. She was living in a trailer 5 months a year and needed steady accommodation. Her hope was to find a few ladies in the same situation around Ontario. There’s now more than 1,600 in the group.

The search for a house took a while. Deb tells me they “saw a lot of scary properties beforehand.” They were able to get connected with an investor from Ottawa, Monica Siegenthaler, who bought a house and now rents it out to them.

It’s since been a month of boxes. There’s an empty 4th bedroom in the house that’s full of them (they are still looking for a 4th roommate). “It’s really tiring,” Pat told me. “When we all go to bed at night, all my muscles say ‘thank you thank you, you’re lying down again.”  Chores and house duties are still being sorted but Pat’s the cook, while Deb puts out the trash and Faye will do the dusting.

“Finding Faye and Deb just gave me hope not only that the idea I had would work, but it could work for me and lots of other people,” said Pat.

It’s only been a few weeks but so far things are going smoothly. “We haven’t had any door slamming or bad words,” said Deb. “We’re sure to have our ups and downs. We’d be crazy to think we’re not going to. But I think things are going very, very well,” said Faye.

It all happened just in time for the holidays. “Loneliness isn’t something people want to admit to. It feels sometimes like a failure,” Pat told me. “If you’re old and lonely, that’s something you must have caused … in fact, there’s lots and lots of reasons for loneliness.”

She doesn’t feel lonely anymore. “Going from despair to joy is quite extraordinary.” Theirs is the 5th success story from the group. Pat wants more. She just started a not-for-profit corporation. She hopes to get a website and connect seniors as housemates around Canada.

Yes, there’s been comparisons to the Golden Girls, but they’ve decided they are more like Lucy and Ethel – plus one.


A widow helps senior women find housing

 580 CFRA | August 9, 2020
With Dahlia Kurtz on The Goods

(This is a follow-up story related to the original broadcast with Dahlia on October 14, 2019)

When Pat Dunn lost her husband, she also lost her ability to afford housing. She took to Facebook to see if she could find a roommate. What she found were countless senior women in the same position as her. And what she created was a movement that now has almost 1,800 senior women in Ontario – and it’s growing. And what started as a movement by one woman, has now grown INTO A NATIONAL MOVEMENT. Pat Dunn, the founder of Senior Ladies Living Together, and Ottawa group member Kathryn Carruthers, join Dahlia Kurtz on The Goods with their story.

Listen Now…..


Roommates in their 60s and 70s

The Record: Waterloo Region | August 18, 2020
by Catherine Thompson

It was always Anna Weber’s plan to work until she was at least 65.  But life sometimes throws you curve balls, and increasing pain and fatigue from fibromyalgia forced her to go on disability at age 59, after decades of working a variety of jobs in manufacturing, as a waitress and in long-term care.

Weber finds herself at age 63, living in a one-bedroom apartment in Cambridge, where the rent eats up a good chunk of her monthly disability cheque. So she was intrigued when she stumbled across a Facebook site called Senior Ladies Living Together a few months ago.

The Ontario group aims to match up older women as roommates, in an innovative attempt to provide another option for older single women, beyond owning your own home or living alone in a rented place.  The group aims to match up roommates to give women more financial freedom, but also to reduce the social isolation that is a risk for many seniors.

“Living alone is not healthy, Weber says.  Living with others requires work, but has many benefits. She believes living with others “tweaks your intelligence. You coach each other, encourage each other to do things.  When you share with others, the load is never as heavy.”

Jan Reynolds is almost 70 and lives alone in Guelph. Although she relishes her independence after having been on her own for 20 years and running her own business, she would enjoy the companionship of a like-minded roommate. “Just having someone to talk to, to share your day. It’s nice to have a meal with someone once in a while.”

Living with others also provides some security, which can be important as you get older.  A health scare a couple of years ago made Reynolds begin to think twice about whether she should continue living alone.  “I thought I was having a heart attack, and there was nobody around,” she recalls. “That is scary.”

Both women say steep rents are a real challenge on a fixed income. With almost one in three women over 65 living in poverty in Canada, high rents are a burden for many older women.  “I’m paying 70 per cent of my monthly income on rent right now,” Reynolds said. “That does not leave a lot of money for other things.”

It’s an option that makes sense, says Pat Dunn, the Peterborough-area woman who started up the group. Clearly others think so too — since she started the group in February 2019, more than 1,750 women have signed on from all over Ontario, including Hamilton, Ottawa, Windsor and Toronto.

Dunn admits it has been tougher to match people up than she expected, as members live all over and are reluctant to move for fear of losing their family doctor, and because the group focuses on making a good match rather than on just helping people find a place to rent. But she firmly believes society needs a variety of housing choices to suit the myriad circumstances people find themselves in, and that Senior Ladies is one viable option.  

It’s an arrangement that benefits the larger community too, Dunn says. Research on home-sharing seniors in Australia found an average economic benefit of about $34,000, mostly from lower costs of living and from the social and other supports roommates provide.  It also found yearly savings of about $5,600 in hospital and residential care services, since older roommates were less likely to go into residential care and left hospital earlier because they had support at home.

And what landlord wouldn’t want to rent to a couple of older women, asks Reynolds. “I think we’d be fabulous tenants. We’re respectful. We clean things. We take care of things. We’re quiet. We’re not the ones who throw parties all the time.”