MEMORY LANE: At first they were just roommates, now they're best friends

Anne Baird and Janice Zaharko are enjoying an awfully big adventure.

Roommates first – and now friends – this month they are celebrating two years as housemates.

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“We bonded over butter,” they say. Understandable, if your genes are Dutch, like Anne, or Ukrainian, like Janice. “We enjoy so many of the same things, including butter, and we are opposites in many ways.” 

How Anne and Janice came together from opposite ends of the country to forge a new future for themselves is a story they believe is important to share.

Because her father and then her husband worked in the petroleum industry, Anne lived an international life. Her mother was born in Prince Rupert. When Anne’s parents retired, it had to be to British Columbia, with West Vancouver subbing in for the coastal community just a little too far north.

Their daughter made the same choice.

Anne and her husband, Joe, found an apartment in West Vancouver and set about creating a new life. “I’m used to adapting,” she explains. “The first thing I do in a new city is join the art gallery and a church. It’s important to ground yourself as soon as possible.”

She sings in the choir at St. Francis-in-the-Wood church and exercises at the community centre. An established author and illustrator, Anne branched into writing ebooks for children.

Then Joe became ill and life changed. Anne cared for him for the next two years, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

With the support of family and friends, Anne got through those years and the aftermath of her husband’s death, only to face another challenge.

“I would have to leave here and find something more affordable,” she explains. Anne looks around her light-filled living room, furnished with heirlooms and pieces collected over a lifetime.

Anne’s daughter had other ideas. “You will not search for a new home and leave this home behind, not after what you’ve been through the past two years. You have a three-bedroom apartment. You are going to find a roommate, the perfect roommate.” 

A bedroom was prepared. Advertisements were placed. Enter Janice Zaharko.

Janice is an experienced home sharer. When she became an empty nester she welcomed international students into her home. Like Anne, Janice is interested in exploring other cultures, and taught for a year at a university in northern China after she retired from a career in law and the federal public service. Then the time came to move west, to be near family living in North Vancouver.

The two housemates recall their first meeting. On the advice of friends and family, Anne had prepared a contract. Janice, who brought her own documents to the meeting – resume, references, a police background check – pointed out that the roommate agreement Anne had downloaded was for Alberta. A laugh was shared and the deal sealed with humour and good faith.

Anne and Janice extol the benefits of home sharing. They agree that they have added new dimensions to the other’s life. “Living alone during this phase of life, your world can shrink and you can lose perspective. We are sounding boards for each other’s dreams and ideas; we call it ‘blue skying.’ The best part is about sharing this phase of life,” they say, “is talking over the experiences each day brings. It’s really about connection versus isolation.”

Shared interests and willingness to explore differing points of view, resting on values held in common, is the key to successful relationships, and certainly the key to success in home sharing.

During the past two years, both women have settled into their new lives. Janice is enjoying living near her family. Anne, rested and recovered from the ordeal of caring for her husband, is writing again. In fact, the two are combining their skills and interests in writing a book about seniors sharing a home.

“We encourage our friends, and anyone living on their own in an empty house, to consider a similar arrangement. We hope they will reach out and embrace life by opening their homes.”

Of the significant number of people aging alone in their homes on the North Shore, most are women. A great many are house-rich and cash poor. They believe their only option is to sell and move. But where? Into an apartment? A retirement residence? Will I be able to stay in my own community? Will the money hold out? And what, from a household of goods collected over a lifetime, can be downsized into a one-bedroom apartment?

Seniors living alone risk declining mental and physical health. Home sharing is an option that could address the isolation factor and could partially alleviate the housing crisis on the North Shore.

The Seniors Roommate Registry, which Hollyburn Family Services Society hopes to launch on the North Shore after it secures funding, will facilitate matches, manage administration and finances, and generally make home sharing a viable option.

Until then, Anne and Janice encourage others to consider the home sharing option.

“We call ourselves the Golden Girls. It worked for them and it’s working for us.”

Laura Anderson works with and for seniors on the North Shore. Contact her by phone at 778-279-2275 or email her at lander1@shaw.ca.

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