Aging Together: A New Way to Avoid Late-Life Loneliness, Part 1

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Barbara Hardinghaus, August 29, 2013 (Photo Gallerysee also our new blog: politics for the 99%).

Getting old often means getting lonely. Five pensioners from Hamburg tried to improve their lives by moving into a shared apartment. SPIEGEL journalist Barbara Hardinghaus, seeking options for her own parents, explored how they fared. She found that old age and happiness can go together … //

… Moving Into An Unknown World:

One could tell two million stories about lonely old people. But this story is different. It’s about five old people, three women and two men between the ages of 70 and 84, who left their homes and moved into an unknown world, a shared-living community not organized by any provider and without carer workers. They arrived with nothing but a few boxes — and they had to leave many things behind, including some of their habits.

They didn’t want a retirement home, with its long hallways. They couldn’t afford an assisted living facility or in-home care. They are experiencing a new model, and the question is whether it can become a model for larger numbers of people.

I try to imagine what it would be like if one of my parents lived in this shared apartment. I envision my mother in one of the rooms. She would have brought along her cherry pit pillow and her books. But I don’t see her in the other rooms of the apartment, not in the bathroom, which has no natural light, and not in the hallway, because it’s too narrow. I also don’t see her having breakfast with the others. My mother likes to drink her tea alone in the morning. Not being alone ought to be more important to her than being able to follow her moods. My parents live in a big house and they don’t get in each other’s way.

If my father lived in the shared-living community, he would miss his garden and his keyboard, although he would bring along his accordion. Still, it’s no use, because I can’t see him in this apartment. He was an architect, and he always worked for himself. He was never part of a club or an association, never a joiner. In the picture I have in my head, my father, as an old man, is sitting on a chair under an apple tree. He would be satisfied, but not happy.

I would say that the people in this shared apartment are happy. Heini, Peter, Irene, Hella and Erika are demonstrating how it could work.

Each resident has his or her own room, ranging in size from 14 to 40 square meters (150 to 430 square feet). Each of the residents has a television set and photos of the people who were once in their lives hanging on the wall. The mail goes into a small, gray felt bag next to each door with the resident’s name on it.

Learning to Talk Again: … //

… Life’s Belongings in Three Plastic Bags: … //

… How Would My Parents Get On?

I’ve spent the last few months looking for an apartment for my parents in Hamburg. So far, they’ve come up with objections to everything I’ve found. I think it has something to do with fear, and with the fact that it would be the apartment in which the spouse who had survived the other spouse would be living.

Sometimes, when I observe the five residents of the Hamburg shared-living community, I imagine that it would also be a good solution for the children of elderly parents. It removes some of the pressure, and it takes away some of our frightening visions of our parents sitting alone in a corner somewhere, in a bathrobe and with unkempt hair.

In a shared-living community, my father could help Peter finish building his model ship. He has a workshop at home, and he likes doing that sort of thing. In a shared-living community, my mother would have someone with whom she could talk about books or her favorite TV shows. She also likes cooking for large numbers of people. She is more flexible than my father.

The next person who comes into the kitchen in the morning is Irene. She is 81. But sitting down at a set table is something new for her.

Irene is a slim, energetic woman with short hair, the kind of person who says: “I’m a housewife, and I always had something to do.” She did everything for her family. Irene spent her Sundays on the football pitch with her son. She was 54 when her husband died.

It took three years before she was ready to see other people again. Her son is now 58 and lives in the western state of Hesse. She has two grandchildren and one great-grandchild, whom she has never seen. Photocopies of color photos of the boy are taped to her wardrobe. Irene sent him an FC St. Pauli football jersey a few weeks ago. She hasn’t received a response yet.
One reason a shared-living community would be difficult for my father is that he is stubborn and not very adaptable. He does what he pleases. In other words, I would also be worried about the other residents. He speaks loudly on the phone, he talks and sings in his sleep, and at night he plays music or wanders around the house. He’s recently started getting up at 2:30 a.m. to watch boxing or other sports, and then he spends the next hour eating chocolate. A shared-living community would be okay for my father, as long as the other residents liked to do what he likes to do — if the others adapted to him, and not the other way around. The only problem is that that sort of a community won’t exist, because it goes against the fundamental concept of shared living.

When I told my mother about my research, she thought it was interesting at first. She said that she could imagine living in a shared-living community, but only with people she knows well and has known for a long time, like the women in her bowling club. Some of the women have already lost their husbands, and they all have comfortable pensions. They would just have to apply the same logic they’ve always applied in their lives, namely to do what’s best for them. I wonder why this seems to be more difficult in old age.
(full text).

Part 2: Here There Are Always Sounds.

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