Aging Together A New Way to Avoid Late-Life Loneliness

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.

By Barbara Hardinghaus

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.


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spon-facebook-573311432 08/29/2013
I love this idea. Reminds me of the Golden Girls. I am in my sixties and I would be open to this a little later on in life. There is no substitute for independence and human companionship.
teresasmullins 08/29/2013
good info
innese 08/29/2013
3. Thank you
What a warm and human story. (BTW, that probably doesn't translate directly. Lol)
aclange 08/29/2013
4. Growing old together
It sounds like a good idea if you find the group that's right for you - and a lot of people (whether they are young or old) are not that flexible. The loneliness experienced by this group before they moved in together may have helped them to compromise. There are lots of elderly people who haven't got family or those whose family lives far away and such a set-up would help them to keep their independence
george orwell 1984 08/30/2013
5. optional
Some stupid young bureaucrats insist that nowadays taking into consideration some good gens human beings livin up to 90 and increasing...Suggest that retirement should be 75 or over...if not retirees will break the Social Security. Think about the people s side. Being in the process of Alzheimer which gives maximum 10 yrs life and needing full time assistance, what will be of our Old People? As time is passing the improving situation of human beings are getting skeptical. Today s Europe s Lost Generations will suffer shortenning their longevity....As already is passing with White Americans , it is getting dark......
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