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

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

They share two bathrooms, and there is a utility room with a wall-mounted phone. The modern kitchen, which faces the courtyard, has a large balcony that gets sun all day when the weather is nice. The kitchen has a corner bench and a large dining table, where the five residents learned how to converse again. Like Heini, they had all been alone.

He had been leading a bleak existence, say the others. He hardly spoke anymore, because the TV and the radio make noise but are incapable of listening. In the evenings, he would drink his beer, go to bed alone, wait for morning to come, get up and wait for the evening.

Then, three years ago, he received an invitation to coffee at a retirement home. That was when Heini met the others.

At the time, he thought long and hard over whether he should go in the first place. When he finally did go, he sat at a table without saying a word. The others didn't say much either, except a woman in her mid-50s named Karin, a social worker at the retirement home. She had an idea, she said. She wanted to establish a shared-living community for old people.

As a student, she had studied a subject called "Forms of Accommodation for Seniors," although her main focus was on dementia. She had learned that when the elderly lived in shared-living communities, they were more satisfied and less aggressive. Nevertheless, according to the results of a new study only 12 percent of the elderly can imagine moving into a shared-living community. And those who do take the plunge usually have an above-average education and are affluent.

This doesn't apply to the five residents of the Hamburg shared-living community. But if they can do it, anyone should be able to do it, including my father.

At the meeting three years ago, Karin asked the seven seniors at the table whether they could imagine moving into a shared-living community. The idea was too daunting for two of them, Emmi and Gerda.

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