‘Good Fences Make Good Neighbors’

“Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” is a familiar saying that poet Robert Frost made popular. Originally a common sense expression of the need to have clear boundaries between properties so that neighbors remain amicable, today it can apply to a number of situations, including aging in place.

Boundaries in the form of written agreements and other legal documents can help make decisions easier as well as troubleshoot problems before or as they arise. They can give us some control as we age. Other types of fences are perfect for helping housemates live fruitful lives in a home-sharing arrangement. In this week’s blog, I’ll take a look at some of the legal tools that help both kinds of fence building.

Fences Around the Important Stuff

Quality of life and treasured possessions are protected with Wills, Living Wills, and Powers of Attorney (e.g., for health care, for financial decisions, etc.). All are powerful legal documents, and all three are important as we age. In particular, it is imperative that everyone who doesn’t already have such documents get them while still mentally fit, as legal documents can’t be signed by people the state deems as mentally unable to understand what they’re signing. Each state has its own laws and practices regarding these kinds of documents, so it’s a good idea to review them periodically to make sure they are current.

There are many reasons for having these legal documents. But the one overarching reason is simple: to have a voice when you may not have one; to be the one who decides how property is divided, what health care provisions are in place or withdrawn and when, and to have financial decisions made or bills paid when necessary.

The process of building fences that define what happens to possessions also is greatly enhanced by thinning our stuff. Careful downsizing of collections, unused equipment, and clothing lets the things that give joy — and therefore value — stand out. Decluttering can be a critical fencepost as we strategically age in place.

Fences That Make Shared Housing Work

No matter how much potential housemates may think they’ll get along, problems inevitably creep up. Think of the house you grew up in — disagreements over everything from who uses the bathroom first in the morning to who’s being too loud occur on a regular basis. Sharing a house or other living space means compromise and less privacy, plus dealing with another person’s habits.

Often, it is the daily routine of life that causes discord — who does household chores, and how; TV rules; kitchen use, and what is and isn’t communal property; pets; how hot or cool the living space is; noise and guests. These kinds of issues should be dealt with before keys are exchanged and a person moves in. A good rule of thumb for all people who share housing is to have a home-share agreement in writing.  Additionally, it’s important to have an exit strategy for if things don’t work out. Exit strategies can be built into home-share agreements, and are important should the need arise.

AARP has a handy list of things to do before moving in or accepting a housemate, as well as the kinds of things to include in a home-share agreement including, among other items:

  • How common rooms are used and cleaned, which possessions are shared or are off limits, how chores get done.
  • Rules on smoking, guests (overnight and day), how/when to pay bills, pets, and what happens if the home sharing fails (an exit strategy).
  • Terms and rules, including due date, of any monthly rent payment.

Each housemate and homeowner should sign a home-share agreement.

Fences That Contain Housemate Problems

When the inevitable happens — a disagreement between housemates — the reason often is miscommunication. Before ending the home sharing, first try tried and true conflict resolution techniques:

  • De-escalate the conflict by taking a step back and using the time/space for all parties to calm down;
  • Use compromise, formed by balancing what each person needs, to reach an agreeable solution.
  • Agree to collaborate on similar issues in the future.

For additional information, check out homeshare.org’s “A Consumer’s Guide to Homesharing.” Good Fences not only make good neighbors. They make good housemates!

Third Chapter Living celebrates, challenges, informs and promotes conversations about housing issues affecting the Baby Boomer Generation. Check out our website to learn more about our work. Our Facebook Group is a resource center with tips and recommendations on navigating those issues. Share experiences with others who are looking for Housing Downsizing Tools that allow them to successfully age in place. Become a part of the group.

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