Two years ago, Nancy Savage had trouble keeping her house clean. Her back problems made cooking difficult. Her diabetes medications made it hard to concentrate when driving her car.
At the same time, Monica Bryant, a Stockbridge, Georgia, native, was at a crossroads. After she and her husband decided to separate, Bryant, who had been living and working in Gentilly, needed a new place to live while she figured out her next move.
Today, Bryant, 52, and Savage, 74, are roommates, matched through a program run by Shared Housing of New Orleans, a nonprofit that links people who are looking for housing with elderly or disabled residents who are looking for companionship and willing to offer a place to stay.
When Bryant isn't at work, she and Savage shop at the mall, plan and eat dinner together, or watch reruns of the TV game show "Jeopardy!" in the home they share on Giuffrias Avenue in Metairie.
"I knew I was going through a really difficult time," Bryant said. "And I don't have family here, so it seemed like it would be a good fit."
Savage said she "absolutely needed help" and was glad to "find somebody who, in addition to helping with physical things, is good company."
Shared Housing of New Orleans, run largely on a shoestring budget, is playing a critical role for older residents who need caretakers but want to retain a measure of independence, said its founder, Marion Strauss. It also offers options for younger people affected by rising housing costs or financial problems.
Strauss began the nonprofit in the late 1980s after doctors at Charity Hospital, her former employer, began to recommend that depressed patients over 50 be admitted to nursing homes.
That made no sense to Strauss, an occupational therapist in her 50s at the time. Later, her husband, taking note of the city's homeless population, came up with the idea of matching elderly residents with people who were homeless or on the verge of becoming homeless.
The program has matched dozens of pairs in the years since. No money is exchanged, although the tenants do agree to keep the homes tidy, spend time with the homeowners and adhere to other requirements in a contract both parties hash out.
"We do outcomes, where we ask people, 'Do you feel happier, more relaxed, less depressed, than you did when the program started?' " said Strauss, who has kept her therapist's license current. "And they always are. They always feel better about themselves."
Before a match is made, staffers screen applicants to see if they would fit well together. A homeowner might invite a potential tenant over for a trial stay, and both must agree to be matched before anything is final.
No children are allowed in the program, Strauss said. Applicants must be older than 18. They must pass background checks, and they must not abuse drugs or alcohol.
The tenants are not expected to provide personal care to the homeowners, such as bathing and dressing.
An initial match lasts for six months, with the option to extend it if both parties agree. Many of the younger people in need of housing leave the program once they become financially stable, which means the elderly or disabled homeowners might be assigned to more than one match during the years they participate.
Still, other matches have lasted much longer, said Rosie Calvin, one of the program's nurses.
The program is funded by whatever grants it can find, as well as Strauss' personal money. The spry founder, who doubles as an advocate for disabled adults, pays the rent for the maze-like office on Prytania Street where applicants come to be interviewed.
Strauss said she doesn't mind paying the rent, but the program could use a bigger advertising budget so it can get the word about its services out more widely.
One of the few ads Strauss does run, on the nostalgia television channel MeTV, drew Bryant to the program.
Upon meeting Savage, Bryant immediately thought she'd be a "safe" match. "I got the sense that I'm not going to have to worry about any wild parties or whatever," Bryant said.
Savage said the contract gave her assurance about the arrangement. Bryant, she said, "has turned out to be a fantastic cook" and has been great company after Savage's three dogs died in the last year.
"I'm just glad it's not so lonely around here," Savage said.