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Horrified, I looked again at the plumber’s estimate: £520 to sort out a blockage and realigning a pipe in the upstairs bathroom. It seemed exorbitant.
Later, over a cup of morning coffee, I mentioned it, tactfully, to the latest man in my life, Roger.
There was no eye-rolling or sighing martyrdom. No ‘I’ll see if I can get round to it later’ avoidance techniques. No deploying of feminine wiles or emotional blackmail on my behalf.
No, he was onto it straight away.
Roger Morton, 32, tall, dark, hunky, is not my husband, lover, son, or kindly neighbour. He’s not even my lodger, not in the conventional sense anyway. I already have one of those, living on the top floor in my five-bedroom house in Shepherd’s Bush and very nice he is too. But he pays full rent, while Roger, who lives below him, pays just half. And that’s because Roger plays quite a different role: he’s my Helpful Housemate.
Roger Morton (left with Virginia Ironside right), 32, tall, dark, hunky, is not my husband, lover, son, or kindly neighbour
Roger plays quite a different role: he’s my Helpful Housemate. The idea is that, in return for you letting out a room in your home for about half the normal market rent, whoever comes to live with you agrees to give you five hours of help or companionship a week
What’s that you might wonder? The idea is that, in return for you letting out a room in your home for about half the normal market rent, whoever comes to live with you agrees to give you five hours of help or companionship a week. The scheme was devised to tackle two of society’s most pressing problems in one go: isolation and loss of independence among the elderly, and the lack of affordable rent among the not-so-elderly. Genius.
Just over a year ago, my son, visiting from his house in South London, tactfully broached the subject of ‘getting someone in’ for me.
‘It’s not that you’re old and frail,’ he said, picking his words carefully. ‘But you are on your own and I do worry about you falling . . .’
I’d had one very unpleasant fall three years ago and recently I’d fainted on getting out of the bath and been quite badly concussed. The accident had slowed me down and knocked my confidence no end. However much I gave myself pep talks, I had recently become quite jittery even at the thought of crossing a busy main road.
But, despite this, I balked at my son’s suggestion. ‘If you mean a carer, darling, I don’t need one!’ I replied rather snappily. ‘I’m only 78!’
A carer to me implies a person who changes your incontinence pads, helps you on and off the commode, cooks you mushy meals, wipes you down in your shower, checks what are horribly called your ‘meds’ and makes you a mug of Horlicks before tucking you up in bed at 6.30pm.
‘No,’ he explained. ‘This is different.’
An organisation called Share And Care has just started the Helpful Housemates scheme
A ‘Helpful Housemate’ could be just what I needed, and could keep me safely, and comfortably, living in my own home for many years to come
He’d read about an organisation called Share And Care which had just started the Helpful Housemates scheme. At first, I didn’t think it was for me. With a wide circle of friends, the last thing I need is companionship. And as I love cooking and shopping, I didn’t want any meals provided.
But suddenly I thought of that flickering lightbulb on the kitchen ceiling . . . the lawn that I was considering turning into a fashionable wildflower meadow (because secretly the mower was getting a bit heavy for me) . . . the superhuman effort of lifting my slightly fat cat into the car to take her to the vet . . . not to mention the promise I’d made to my son that I’d never climb a ladder again.
In the past, I’ve been a doer. I’ve made my own picture frames, redecorated the whole house myself, including hanging wallpaper and painting ceilings. I’ve dried out spark plugs (those were the days), rewired lights, changed my own tyres and power-hosed the brickwork in the garden. I’ve even constructed our own ping-pong table — and really enjoyed it.
But, these days, everything’s getting a bit too much. With arthritis in every joint, an ankle that’s about to be replaced and any number of ailments, my body’s more like the ruins of Notre-Dame than the Shard, but, like most people my age, my independence and dignity are precious to me, and there to be fiercely guarded.
So once I calmed down, I realised that my son’s idea was actually a no-brainer. A ‘Helpful Housemate’ could be just what I needed, and could keep me safely, and comfortably, living in my own home for many years to come.
Helpful Housemates was set up a couple of years ago by Caroline Cooke and Amanda Clarke. They discovered there was a demand from home-owners wanting only a little bit of help now and again from a lodger.
No doubt many of these people are lonely, too. So many people these days suffer from isolation as they get older. Partners die and children move away. Apparently half a million older people go at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all and well over half of those aged 85 and over, and 38 per cent of those aged 75-84, live alone. Two fifths of all older people (about 3.9 million) say the television is their main company.
The days of the extended family all living either in the same house or at least in the same village, are coming to an end, and a Helpful Housemate can either be welcome company — an hour every evening chatting, watching telly together or doing jigsaws — or, in my case, practical help.
The agency interviews every potential Housemate. They also do a DBS check on them to see that they aren’t rapists or master criminals — or even just petty burglars come to that — so you feel pretty secure before you even interview any of them.
I haven’t lived with a partner for more than ten years, but as I’ve always had a lodger or two wherever I’ve lived, by now I’ve got the hang of sharing my home with someone else. And since installing a kitchen and bathroom on the top floor of my home, my lodgers don’t even share my space at all. There are no squabbles over cornflakes or whose turn it is to buy milk and — even better — no girl soaking in the bath on the phone when you’re dying to get going in the morning.
Roger seemed ideal. He had a degree in engineering, he was like-minded — I’m quite young in my views and he’s quite mature, I’d say
Roger is not a husband, son or lover. But he’s become more than just a Helpful Housemate. When he leaves, as he surely will, I know I’ll never find someone quite like him to take his place. But I hope that we’ll still remain good friends
Before picking Roger as a lodger, I’d only read one other potential Housemate’s CV. She sounded delightful — a nurse — but perhaps slightly too needy, as she wanted to be part of a family. I have my own family — one son and two grandchildren — thank you, but as they live the other side of London they’re too far away to expect them to jump when a computer goes wrong or a giant mirror falls off the wall.
So Roger, the next person I interviewed, seemed ideal. He had a degree in engineering, he was like-minded — I’m quite young in my views and he’s quite mature, I’d say. He seemed pretty reasonable, with no extreme hang-ups and had spent the years up till now variously farming, working as an engineer with Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in Sudan, and wrote on his CV that he was ‘good at coping in a crisis’. (Phew!)
He was also nice-looking (many of my female friends swoon on bumping into him on the stairs. ‘Talk about “fit”!’ they say).
Even better, he’d recently taken up a boxing course so I knew that in the event of a marauder Roger would be able to knock him flat. What could be better? From his point of view, I seemed ideal, too. He was on a course in London, involving working partly at home and partly with the Felix Project, a charity that tries to bring unwanted food to those who need it. Renting somewhere anywhere near central London was proving impossible.
Here was I in a big house, near his work in Acton, a reasonably relaxed landlady: happy to have girlfriends over or let his friends stay in my spare room, and always ready, as an old agony aunt, with a glass of wine in case of disaster.
Roger has now been here nearly a year and this week all three of us in the house celebrated his birthday, over supper made by the lodger at the top, and with drink provided by me. It was a happy evening.
When I was young and living with my parents, if anything went wrong in the house, there was always a ‘little man’, as they were known, who could be got in to fix it.
These days, with the labour shortage, such ‘little men’ are in short supply. And they can charge what they want. Witness the plumber’s bill which, I could see, really horrified Roger.
He’d already sorted out a dreadful damp patch in the kitchen after my own ‘little man’ had failed dismally. Roger worked out that the problem was something to do with the guttering outside, and after cleaning it out and stabilising it with a bit of wire, the wall quickly dried out. But the blockage upstairs really fascinated him.
After a while of deep thinking, he inquired: ‘Have you got a drain spiral?’ Errr, no I didn’t.
A drain spiral, I now know, is a sort of long flexible metal coil, with an attachment at the top to clear out potential clogs in drains.
One trip to the local hardware shop, and, 20 minutes later, he’d cleared the drain — discovering years of female lodgers’ hair knitted into a disgusting giant ball. Now all he needed was a chock of wood to tilt the pipe at a slightly different angle to stop it ever happening again.
‘I love these sorts of problems!’ he said, happily. It’s like having a 1950s husband around — one who can never complain about being nagged.
So far he’s fixed a dangerous bit of carpet waiting to trip me up, repainted the banisters, mended a metal garden chair, helped me take the cat to the vet, driven me to Maidenhead to see a dermatologist, done endless gardening, repointed a bit of wall, squashed up huge cardboard boxes and taken rubbish to the skip, got rid of spiders, changed the cartridges on my computer, rescued a terrified blue tit that got into the house — and, though normally he would keep his phone off at night, he keeps the line open just for me in case I have a heart attack.
Recently, as I was nearly fainting with the heat, he advised me to lie down in a darkened room, found a fan to blow into my face, brought me a jug of iced water and popped in regularly to see I was still alive.
‘Dehydration,’ he diagnosed authoritatively. ‘A lot people suffered from it in the Sudan.’
The truth is that, whatever I say about not needing company, Roger gives me more than solving practical problems.
It reassures me to hear the front door shutting at night as he double-locks, listening for his step on the stair. Or even just to have to him there to chat to about the weather. To chew over the mundane things you rarely mention to friends.
Roger is not a husband, son or lover. But he’s become more than just a Helpful Housemate. When he leaves, as he surely will, I know I’ll never find someone quite like him to take his place.
But I hope that we’ll still remain good friends.
Helpful Housemates operate around the country, and in all cities and larger towns. (helpfulhousemates.co.uk). A shorter version of this piece also appears in the September issue of Saga Magazine.