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

The shared apartment has a large shower, and a woman comes every day, after breakfast, to clean and do laundry for three hours. Another care worker arrives in the evening and spends the night in the apartment. Each resident has an emergency button next to his or her bed. The residents each pay an additional €1,000 ($1,330) a month for the services not covered by long-term care insurance and €200 in household money. They pay their share of the rent in accordance with the size of their rooms, €2,200 a month in total. They also pay the travel costs for Karin, the woman who initially brought them together.

She comes almost every day and takes the seniors to the shopping center, the pharmacy or the doctor. She often has to take Heini to the dentist. A shared-living community consisting of seniors, says Karin, only works with people who have faith in themselves. Not every elderly person is capable of simply moving out and trying something new.

It isn't as if my parents are particularly anxious people. They are mobile, they sleep on my pullout couch when they visit, they sometimes watch my siblings' children for a week at a time, they drive long distances, they go out and they plan vacations. In fact, my mother wants to go to Vietnam (my father is going along with her idea). But this last, big step seems virtually impossible. The question is: How can we bring ourselves to believe that our last few years of life can be a happy time?

Knitting Socks Erika is usually the last one to come into the kitchen for breakfast in the morning. She likes to sleep in, and she has trouble with her legs, and sometimes she's a little confused. She often repeats herself.

When asked to tell a story about herself, she says: "I don't know where to start." Then she starts with her name, Erika Nagel.

"I was married, and my husband spent long hours working in a factory. He met a woman there and they had a child together, so I said to him: You don't need to come home. Thank you very much."

That's all she wants to talk about for now, and it's a story she will repeat again and again. Sometimes she quotes from a letter that the other woman wrote to her husband, which she found in his things: "Sweet Otto, I you love," the letter reads in broken German.

Erika remained single after that. She would knit socks, sing in a choir and visit her old coworkers at Peek & Cloppenburg, a department store chain. But more recently, all she did was sit at home. Then she received the invitation to coffee from the retirement home.

Right after Erika had moved into the shared apartment, she would sometimes stand in front of her bed at night, not knowing where she was, not even able to find the light switch. But now, at 83, she is making a new start. Now she and Heini withdraw to his room every day after lunch, where they take a midday nap together, Heini on the bed and Erika on the sofa.

Inspiring Courage

I'm inspired by the courage of these five elderly people. I used to think that old age and love didn't go together. Or old age and happiness. These five people have shown me that these things are not mutually exclusive. When I was a child, grandmothers and grandfathers were either dead or lonely. I rarely visited my grandfather, because all he had was herbal candy and a dachshund, with which I wasn't allowed to play. The other grandparents -- my mother's parents and my father's mother -- were already dead.

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