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

The retirement home in our village was a black box, at least as I remember it. Individual people lived there in individual rooms. There was little daylight inside. It reminded me of a zoo, where animals live in small cages.

Quiet descends on the shared apartment in Hamburg after 2 p.m. Hella reads, which she has always liked to do. Irene sews for a while, before going to Peter's room and waking him up. Then they drink tea and eat cake. They celebrated Hella's birthday in a restaurant, where the marinated herring was good and the schnitzel too expensive. They saw the musical "Lion King," the organizer had invited them. They took a taxi through the city and wore their best clothes. It was a rare adventure.

In the evenings, they usually sit at their kitchen table and eat together. After that, Heini and Erika watch television, or they remain at the table with the others to play Yahtzee or a card game.

It isn't easy to get them to talk about themselves. It isn't part of their life. They are people who worked and raised children, and they didn't have, and still don't have, the desire for anything out of the ordinary. Maybe winning the lottery, says Heini.

Was there a love of his life?

"I never experienced it," he says.

A family?

"Maybe that's what I have now."

Heini has lost his inhibitions and is back to cracking jokes. Peter has someone who might be able to help him finish his ship. Irene no longer waits for a letter from Hesse every day. Erika is having fun again, and Hella isn't as fearful as she used to be.

Doing Too Well to Be Afraid

I've never asked my mother whether she's afraid of death, although I did ask my father once. He replied that he was afraid when he was a young person, but that he isn't anymore, because everything always repeated itself. The children come and the children leave again -- it's always the same thing, he said.

I think he's still doing too well to be afraid. He is living in a vacuum, a time before the time. Aside from going to Vietnam, my parents want to return to the places they visited as a young couple in love, places like Tuscany and Rimini. They are embarking on a sort of farewell tour.

At some point they won't be doing so well. Something will happen suddenly, or there will be gradual change. They will eventually say goodbye.

Before then, one of them will be alone. If it's my father, he'll no longer have anyone to say: "Oh, Berni!" when he tells a joke for the 25th time. And if it's my mother, she'll no longer have anyone to tell her a joke for the 25th time. I believe that loneliness is a disease, and that it can cause death, just like a diseased internal organ.

"I'm not afraid of death, just of dying," Hella said on one of the first days of spring. She was sitting at the table, looking like a ballerina. She was wearing a new, pink turtleneck sweater. Her clothes no longer fit her since she became ill. They were too big. She had cancer, and she had stopped treatment. She was taking morphine. She wanted to be part of the group just a litte longer. The five residents were waiting for a new shower booth. Now they're waiting for an exercise bike.

They had introduced a ritual for the moment before the lights are turned out in the evening. Peter would go into Irene's room to say goodnight. Irene would visit with Hella for a bit. Heini would take Erika to her room, pause in front of his walker, give her a kiss and say goodnight.

They went through the same ritual on a Wednesday in June. Irene went to Hella's bedside and they talked. It was the last time. Hella fell asleep and didn't wake up again.

I asked my father again whether he could imagine being part of a shared-living community. He said that he would stay in his house for as long as he could still pick cherries from the tree. And then?

He would see, he said.

What about a shared-living community?

"No," he said immediately, but then corrected himself: "Write: probably not."

We talked on the phone for a little while longer. He tried to envision himself in the life I had described. The apartment would have to be in the middle of the city, he said. The other residents would also have to be musicians or singers. He talked and talked, until his "probably not" became a "maybe." Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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