New York, just like the rest of the world, grows increasingly grayer. 65-and-overs now account for one million of New York’s 8.6 million residents, a number which will increase by 400,000 in the coming two decades.
Old age brings a new set of challenges to individuals: no one grows old in the same way. In this project, senior New Yorkers talk about how they adjust to their changing social lives as they age.
82-year-old William Suda was saved from falling into depression and isolation after his wife’s passing when he moved to a Salvation Army-owned building; 93-year-old Beatrice “Bea” Gottlieb was never married and saw middle age as a rebirth.
They might have lost a partner, or are worried they will; some see one social circle shrink while another one grows; some are increasingly isolated in their apartments; some see old age as an opportunity to be more social than they’ve ever been.
Morningside Health and Retirement Services tries to alleviate isolation and loneliness among seniors. “Loneliness is something we see on a pretty regular basis,” explains Ron Bruno, its director.
Mr. Bruno has decades of experience working with seniors and thinks that that New York is better than many other cities to grow old in. At nearby Riverside Church, Lynn Harper, minister of older adults, agrees. “It’s an awesome place to age,” she says.
She does however also think that “we don’t make it easy for elders in society” and she wonders when it comes to isolated elders whether the problem is actually society rather than the seniors themselves: “Are they actually shut in or are they shut out?”
Beatrice Gottlieb, 93, is happy. She has just held her first poetry class for a number of other residents in Morningside Gardens, New York. Bi-weekly activities such as those classes are what gets her out of the house – apart from obligatory doctor’s visits. Her social life outside of that consists of a home nurse that comes three times a week: “Nobody’s around anymore!” she complains.
Like many other seniors she does not eat as much as she used to, and her nurse cooks her food that lasts her through the week. She still cooks herself on occasion.
Gottlieb never got married, but was engaged two times. Neither of the times worked out. This sometimes stressed her until she reached middle-age. “Middle age was very liberating,” she says, explaining how that was a point in her life when she stopped caring about social pressures about finding a partner and focused more on her own pursuit of happiness.
“It saved me,” says William “Will” Suda, 82, about moving into the Salvation Army-owned building The Williams on the Upper West Side after stumbling into immense loneliness and isolation after his wife died in 2009. “I went from a beautiful life to an empty life,” he says.
His life is being completely upended after a developer bought the building, forcing all of its 350 residents to relocate. The Salvation Army has offered 240 residents apartments in a newly built building in East Harlem.
William is upset that his social context – the micro-community of The Williams – has been torn apart, it’s residents scattered across New York. Only 70 of the original residents will relocate to the new East Harlem location.
He spend most of his days gathering and sorting his belongings before the imminent move. When he goes down to the common dining room these days, he usually does not stay very long. In a pile of papers in his small apartment, William has an article clipping: “An Anatomy of Bereavement: Breaking down the loss of a spouse.”
William lost his wife to ovarian cancer in 2009. “We had a very high-quality relationship,” he says. They met – and often danced – at the legendary Roseland ballroom on West 52nd Street. “It was a very strong bond… that all evaporated.” He was an avid ballroom dancer but never took it up after his wife passed. “I realized no one could take her place.”
Margaret Greene is about to turn 94. She moved to New York City from Trenton, North Carolina with her husband Tucker in the 1940s. They had known each other all their life, growing up in the same small North Carolina town. “He was the one and the only one,” she says.
She still lives on his meagre social security benefits as she stopped working in the 1960s – her knees started to hurt too much to work, and she has since undergone surgery for both knees. Today she gets around with either a walker or a cane. “I am lonely since my husband passed. It was just the two of us – we never had any kids.”
The couple moved into the NYCHA-owned Dyckman Houses in 1972. She still lives in the same apartment they moved to then, 48 years ago. During the winters Margaret grows increasingly isolated and barely leaves the house, but when summer comes along she often goes down to sit in the yard of the housing complex. There, she can meet and socialize with her peers.
She has seen almost her entire family passing. “Two brothers… they gone. Quite a few sisters… they gone.” She sighs and says: “I was the last one born and I'll be the last one to die.” Any remaining family, like nephews and nieces – are all down south. While it is still where her heart is, she could not afford moving. “All my family… I was the last one.”
Eileen Canty, 85, has three things important to her in life: “Family, Friends and Faith.” The native New York Catholic once saw it as “gross” when people ‘attended church’ via the TV on Sundays, but her deteriorating health has made it very hard for her to go to church.
Every Sunday an eucharist minister comes by with wine and communion wafers for her weekly communion. She explains that she herself educated herself to be an Eucharist minister. “I thought that I was going to be the one delivering communion in the community,” she says and sighs because of the irony.
She takes great comfort in her faith and has collected nativity scenes for many years. Her current collection is far smaller than the over 1,000 pieces she once had.
“I’m blessed with friends,” she explains when she talks about her still active social life: one circle of friends contracts and get smaller, while another one expands, she says.
She has turned increasingly immobile and it is hard for her to leave her home, unless it is for a doctor’s appointment, but many people stop by her apartment in Morningside Heights, New York. “Barely a day doesn’t go by when a friend doesn’t stop by.”
“My life is one of loneliness,” says Donald Johnson, 87. His wife died two years ago and he has struggled to maintain a social life ever since. He met his wife, Gene, when he was teaching at a high school in Parsippany, New Jersey; she was a student teacher there. They lived together for more than 50 years and she died from complications from Alzheimer’s in 2017.
Since then, he thinks himself very lonely and spend most of his days in his apartment with the TV on or reading books – he’s currently reading a 900-page biography on Frederick Douglass. He cooks some basic meals himself and sometimes his daughter and son bring food. Their weekly visits are what punctuates his otherwise very quiet days spent doing not much else and also keeps his isolation at bay. “I am so grateful for them,” he says.
His voice breaks when he talks about his wife’s passing and how she still occupies a major part of his mind. “It was hard. Coming to terms with being lonely. Coming to terms with the reality.” He spent the most part of 2018 in a hospital after his health deteriorated, a very hard time for him. “I thought: ‘What am I doing here?’ They should just have let me go.”
Frances Molinari, 89, came to the US from France in 1968 after getting married to an American man. Not long after the move the marriage ended but Frances stayed in the US. The marriage, which she does not want to discuss in detail, left deep scars with her. She resides in a tiny studio apartment in the Salvation Army-owned building The Williams on the Upper West Side.
Her age is starting to get to her it has forced her to take each day as their come. “Some days I have no energy at all,” she says, and spend most of her time in her apartment, often reading a book.
“Books are my friends,” Molinari says and shows her large pile of books she’s currently reading, including an old geography textbook and a book by Noah Chomsky. The book that has caught her curiosity right now is called “More Human,” by Silicon Valley CEO Steve Hilton on how to make society more focused on people rather than institutions.
She says she is in her heart very French and speaks with a heavy French accent. She has always been skeptical of many aspects of American society, such as how, according to her, capitalism permeates it. Down in the dining room, which she goes to two times per day, she often vocally debates American ideals with her neighbors at The Williams.
On her door is a sign with instructions – “In case of death” – on the inside of her front door says that anyone that finds her after her death should contact the French Consulate in New York for her body to be returned to her home country.
Jackie Roberts has just turned 90 and has survived two strokes. She lives in Dyckman Houses, a NYCHA complex of six high-rises in Inwood, where she has lived for most of her adult life.
Her condition – she had her second stroke when she was 78 – has her sitting in a wheelchair for most of the day, but she has a walker that she sometimes uses. Being increasingly immobile makes it hard to leave the building, but Jackie has found friends in her own building – including a man she used to babysit when she was younger, him a senior as well now.
A nurse comes by every day to not only help her with daily meals but also keep her company; her doctor even makes home visits after her social worker enrolled Jackie in a visiting doctor-program. Her TV is often on, tuned to Judge Judy.
Her sofa table is enamored with magazines and books; Jackie has always been a very avid reader. An Amazon Fire tablet is also there – old age hasn’t stopped Jackie from getting around on the internet.
Jackie says she doesn’t think that she can feel being lonely - it is, and always has, been a completely foreign feeling to her, and she is very happy to be alone. “I don’t know if I can feel lonely.”
Timothy Bissell is 69. He got his Parkinson’s diagnosis seven years ago. Being gay in a small New Hampshire town, he was extremely lonely. He is worried he might be there again, as two of his friends that are both quite much older than him. “It’s part of being human, anticipating loss.”
His Parkinson’s have not yet made his health deteriorate greatly, but his hands shake constantly. After Timothy received his diagnosis he retired from a long career as a printmaker, often for LGBT groups. He thought his illness was going to progress quickly and wanted to spend time with his friends and family and sold his company after his diagnosis in 2012.
Him and his partner, Curtis, has been together for 20 years, but he still lives with the scars of some previous relationships that ended after many years of partnership and is worried about becoming lonely, just as he once was growing up. As he’s grown older he’s reached out to old friends on Facebook and he has two close friends who are both old and he worries about them. “You can’t replace people! They’re unique!”