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

Getting old often means getting lonely.

ByBarbara Hardinghaus, SPIEGEL
September 1, 2013, 12:36 PM
PHOTO: elderly loneliness.
Some older people have found that living together with other older people can decrease loneliness.
Getty Images

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.

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.

Life's Belongings in Three Plastic Bags

The other five began to get together after that. They went on a trip to the Priwall Peninsula, on the Baltic Sea, where they sat on the beach together. Heini said a few sentences to Erika. He became bolder. At Christmas, the five seniors went on another trip. After that, they began looking for an apartment, finally settling on the third apartment they had seen. They moved in a year ago. When they picked up Heini, his possessions fit into three plastic bags. The moths had destroyed most of his clothes.

Heini makes coffee in the kitchen every morning. When he worked, he was always the first person to show up in the morning. The next person to appear is usually Peter, a lanky 73-year-old with gray hair parted on the side. When he retired, Peter started building model ships, which are now on a shelf in his room. He never finished one of them. Peter had a stroke and has been paralyzed on one side of his body ever since. He has recently been thinking about finishing the last ship.

Of course my parents think about getting older. Actually, it's my mother who thinks about it, while my father just goes along with what she says. They have prepared a living will and issued the necessary account authorizations, and they are thinking about what their lives would look like if one of them died.

My mother's brother now lives with his wife in a retirement home. There are no flowers, and residents are not allowed to put up their own pictures. My mother thinks it's intolerable. She says that as long as there are two of them, they'll stay in the house with a live-in care worker. And if one of them dies, the other one will move into a nice retirement home in the city, where each resident has his or her own apartment. My uncle wouldn't be able to afford that, and neither would the five people in the shared-living community. Money plays an important role in aging comfortably, but aging happily has nothing to do with money.

How Would My Parents Get On?

I've spent the last few months looking for an apartment for my parents in Hamburg. So far, they've come up with objections to everything I've found. I think it has something to do with fear, and with the fact that it would be the apartment in which the spouse who had survived the other spouse would be living.

Sometimes, when I observe the five residents of the Hamburg shared-living community, I imagine that it would also be a good solution for the children of elderly parents. It removes some of the pressure, and it takes away some of our frightening visions of our parents sitting alone in a corner somewhere, in a bathrobe and with unkempt hair.

In a shared-living community, my father could help Peter finish building his model ship. He has a workshop at home, and he likes doing that sort of thing. In a shared-living community, my mother would have someone with whom she could talk about books or her favorite TV shows. She also likes cooking for large numbers of people. She is more flexible than my father.

The next person who comes into the kitchen in the morning is Irene. She is 81. But sitting down at a set table is something new for her.

Irene is a slim, energetic woman with short hair, the kind of person who says: "I'm a housewife, and I always had something to do." She did everything for her family. Irene spent her Sundays on the football pitch with her son. She was 54 when her husband died.

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.

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 SocksErika 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.

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