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

Getting old often means getting lonely.

ByABC News
September 1, 2013, 12:36 PM
Some older people have found that living together with other older people can decrease loneliness.
Some older people have found that living together with other older people can decrease loneliness.
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Sept. 1, 2013— -- 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.

Erika is Heini's new love, or perhaps even his first love. Heini, 75, is sitting next to her in the kitchen of the fourth-floor apartment on Königstraße in Hamburg that they now share, along with three other elderly people. They had the courage to start something new.

There was a time, not too long ago, when Heini didn't know what to do with himself. He lived alone and would do his own household chores. Or he would go outside and join other elderly people, where he was one of those who push their walkers along the sidewalk, and who had to switch on the timed lights in the stairwell twice because it took them so long to walk up the stairs.

When I see old people on the street, I often wonder where they might be going. It makes me think of my parents. My mother, who is 68, still goes running and joined a women's health club last year. She was never a fitness fanatic, but she knows she will keep feeling well longer if she exercises.

My father is different. He never exercised. He only does things he enjoys or that he believes are absolutely necessary. My parents are typical in this respect, in the sense that the wife exercises while the husband does not. After a lengthy negotiation with my mother, my father now rides his bike to the bakery, which is one-and-a-half kilometers (about a mile) away, instead of taking the car.

My father is 71, and I can see how his movements are changing. He comes down the stairs more slowly in the morning, his breathing is louder than it used to be, he no longer takes long walks and he has pain in his right knee. The last time I booked a hotel room for my parents, it turned out I had picked the wrong one. It was on a hill, and my father wasn't willing to walk up the hill after having dinner in the town below. I hadn't thought about that.

My parents' lives are changing. They will become old people at some point, and I wonder what their lives will be like then. What happens if one of them dies? Will my parents be lonely? I'm taking a look at Heini's shared-living community, because I want to know if it could also be a model for my parents.

Heini's real name is Heinrich, but everyone calls him Heini. He was born in Hamburg and was a factory worker for 45 years. He was married twice, but neither marriage lasted long. After that he lived alone, like two million other Germans over the age of 80.

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 care 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.