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

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.

'Here There Are Always Sounds' The German Family Ministry has a hotline that seniors can call when they have questions on the subjects of nursing care or living arrangements. But sometimes the elderly simply call to talk to someone.

Irene believes that old people should be gathered together, divided into groups and given apartments.

When Irene was still living alone, she sometimes imagined what it would be like if she eventually became bedridden, forced to stare at the ceiling all day, and how quiet it would be, "completely quiet."

"Here there are always sounds. You know? That's one difference," says Irene.

She hears Heini and Peter talking in the kitchen. She hears Erika laughing, and she once heard Hella fall down in the hallway.

Hella was the last one to join the group. She would have preferred living alone, but at some point she just couldn't do it anymore. She was 75 and still dreamed about dancing. She danced the disco fox, the waltz and, her favorite, the tango. She wore blouses and skirts and high-heeled shoes. But her heels became a centimeter shorter with every passing decade.

Until the middle of June, there was a pair of flat slippers and a basket containing bottles of mineral water next to her bed in the shared apartment. She was reading "Madame Hemingway," a book about Ernest Hemingway's first wife Hadley, who had loved her husband too much and then left him.

Emergency Button

Hella had also left her husband, a businessman, after 24 years of marriage. She had moved to a studio apartment with a south-facing balcony, and she was working as a nurse. She was always one of those people who were happy with their lives. But there came a point when she could no longer get up the stairs. She often fell, and on one occasion she spent an hour lying on the bathroom floor.

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