August 20, 2017 by Jean
Owning a home can be a source of great pleasure, but maintaining a house can be very stressful. The stress of home maintenance and repairs can be especially great for single homeowners, because they don’t have a partner to share the responsibility. In May, as my friends Sharon and Rhoda sat together in the audience waiting for my choral music concert to begin, they talked about the stresses of single homeownership and especially about the projects they were feeling overwhelmed by. By the end of intermission, they had hatched a plan to tour one another’s projects and provide mutual support. Over an after-concert dinner, they got me involved.
When single homeowners are faced with a problem that they don’t know how to solve or that requires an amount of work daunting for one person, it is all too tempting to retreat into the anxiety-avoidance cycle and focus on something more manageable. But while the homeowner is ignoring the medium-sized home maintenance problem that is creating the anxiety, it turns into a much bigger problem that engenders even more anxiety. Finding a way to get help with these projects is critical to getting out of the anxiety-avoidance cycle; so the idea of providing one another with support was brilliant.
In early June, about two weeks after the concert, the three of us met for lunch at a restaurant near Sharon’s house. She brought her list of homeowner projects and worries, with notes. We discussed them over lunch and then went to her house for a tour of the projects and issues. Two weeks later, in late June, we met at Rhoda’s house. We toured the condo she inherited from her parents, considered her list of projects and concerns, and then toured a nearby property (also inherited from her parents) with a storage building that she dreams of converting into accessible shared housing for 2-3 friends. In July, it was my turn, and we gathered at my house for lunch and a tour of my undone homeowner projects.
As we gathered at each person’s house, we asked questions about the list of projects, helping to clarify the issues involved; and we sometimes offered suggestions. I think we all found that just preparing a list of what needed to be done was helpful. I organized my list by category (house infrastructure/ maintenance, home interior/remodeling, garden/outdoors); and in a spreadsheet format, with columns for describing each project, giving a time frame for completing it, identifying the problems associated with a particular project, and miscellaneous notes. I discovered that in the process of identifying the problems that I was having completing a project, I often thought of some possible solutions (which went in the “notes” column). Trying to give a time frame for each project helped me to realize when I was taking on more than I could possibly chew all at once. And this, in turn, helped me to prioritize projects by urgency (rather than doing the easy ones now and continuing to avoid the complicated, anxiety-producing ones).
Admitting our homeowner stresses and deferred projects to supportive friends left each of us feeling like a weight had been lifted and the projects were more manageable. With that support, we have all made progress on our projects this summer. Sharon has tackled some big anxiety-producing deferred maintenance problems, getting extensive electrical work done and scheduling much-needed roof repairs. I have made more modest progress, getting my failing hot water heater replaced, completing one major garden project, and scheduling septic system maintenance. But I also have a better sense of how to proceed with projects that previously had me stymied.
Many older Americans, especially older women, live alone – sometimes by choice and sometimes as a result of death or divorce. Even for those like me who love living alone, solo aging presents extra challenges. As I have gotten older, so has my house – which means that it needs more repair just as I feel less able to do those repairs on my own. (For example, I am no longer willing to take on any project that requires being up on a ladder outside.) Finding and hiring reliable people to do repairs has been my biggest source of anxiety as a single homeowner, and having suggestions and support from friends is a big help. Thank you, Sharon and Rhoda, for including me in your mutual support scheme!