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What Home Means to New York’s Oldest Old


At the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, in the Bronx, Helen Moses, 90, had news.

“There’s not going to be a wedding,” she said.

It was an afternoon in June, just one month since Ms. Moses had announced her plans to marry Howie Zeimer, the man down the hall. She spoke, as always, with absolute finality.

“I’d first like to live together for a while,” she said. “I don’t want to give up this room.”

Ms. Moses is one of six older New Yorkers who agreed to be part of a yearlong project looking at the city’s “oldest old”: people 85 and older, one of the fastest-growing age groups in the city. As summer arrived, their lives moved in directions as diverse as the city itself.

On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, John Sorensen, 91, was devastated: His trusted home attendant was leaving for a new job. In Brooklyn, Frederick Jones, 88, had parts of two toes amputated and was now in a rehabilitation center, wondering how he would ever return to his walk-up apartment. Ping Wong, 90, made a rare trip outside her building, accompanying her daughter for dim sum in Chinatown.

Ruth Willig, 91, said she was starting to make peace with her new assisted living residence, but she was still angry at being displaced from her old one. And Jonas Mekas, 92, the writer and filmmaker, returned home from the Venice Biennale in Italy to a formidable amount of work: book manuscripts to finish, a movie voice-over to record and a museum in Paris that wanted everything he had on the Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick. “I have nothing promised for anybody else except this,” he said. “But it’s a lot of work.”

In the time I’ve spent with them, conversations have returned frequently to questions of home: what it means to live independently or in a residence for old people; how to balance safety and essential care with privacy and autonomy.

Home, for some, is a score sheet of all the things they have given up with age.

For others it is something they cling to. Only 12 percent of New Yorkers 85 and up live in group accommodations like nursing homes, according to census data analyzed by Susan Weber-Stoger of Queens College.

Most live in their own homes or with relatives, cobbling together networks of support: 53 percent say they have trouble living independently; 58 percent say they have trouble walking; 31 percent say they have cognitive difficulties.

“New York is a good place to get old,” said Ms. Wong, who lives in a subsidized apartment and pays nothing for a home attendant who cooks, cleans and shops. Two hip replacements and arthritis in her legs and hands limit her mobility.

“I try my best to be independent,” Ms. Wong said. “And because of that, maybe I live longer. But of course I don’t want to live too long. Not a good thing to live too long.”

FOR FREDERICK JONES, home has become an odyssey.

When we first met, near the beginning of the year, in his walk-up apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, he had recently returned home from 64 days in a hospital and nursing home, after a dangerous plunge in his blood pressure. He had a severely infected big toe, a product of his diabetic neuropathy.

Life was good, he said.

“Usually my day is: Go to bed late, get up late, eat breakfast around 12 o’clock, and if the weather is nice I might go out,” he said at the time. “I like to window-shop. I go to Macy’s or Century 21 or Bloomingdale’s and I’ll spend two hours and not buy a thing.”

By spring the routine had changed. He no longer got out regularly, and the infection had flared up in his other foot. Then he was gone; a recording said his telephone had been disconnected at the customer’s request.

When I found him, in early June, in a Brooklyn hospital and then at Phoenix Rehabilitation and Nursing Center by Fort Greene Park, he was as cheerful as ever.

“I don’t know what I’m wearing,” he said, smiling in an out-of-character Enyce sweatshirt that he had been given because his own clothes were soiled. “This might be a dead man’s outfit. I guess they save clothes. I don’t know where they get them from.”

He was also missing parts of the big toe and second toe in his right foot, which had become gangrenous. Even before the surgery, Mr. Jones struggled climbing the 37 stairs to his apartment. By mid-July, after more than a month in rehab, those stairs were starting to look insurmountable.

“I feel I’m wasting away here,” he said. He was sitting at his assigned table in the dining room, shouting over loud music on the stereo. Before the operation he had walked with a cane; now he used a wheelchair, his leg muscles weakening with disuse. “I think things are getting worse instead of better,” he said. Signals from the doctors were noncommittal. “They don’t talk about leaving,” he said. “When I talk about leaving, they say that depends on your progress in physical therapy and occupational therapy. I don’t see that I’m gaining anything.”

Like many nursing homes, Phoenix is short on staff. Despite a five-star overall rating from Medicare, it receives only two stars (“below average”) for staffing and registered nurse staffing. For Mr. Jones, this means frequent waits to be taken to meals or the bathroom.

The facility’s administrator, Ephie Carni, responding through a spokeswoman, said that in surveys of residents, the center had “not seen a staffing issue to be a concern,” and that the overall satisfaction rating was 8.75 out of 10.

Mr. Jones thought often of his mother and grandmother, who both died in rehabilitation facilities, he said. The other day, someone called to tell him that his pastor of 28 years, Dr. Clarence Norman Sr. of the First Baptist Church of Crown Heights, had died at age 85.

His own prospects remained unclear. “Now my roommate’s saying, ‘You ain’t getting out of here,’ ” he said. “August is the month my mother died in, and man, I think about it all the time during that month. And I know it’s going to be terrible on me if I got to be in this place in August.”

AT THE HEBREW HOME at Riverdale, a part of RiverSpring Health, Helen Moses had her own thoughts about home.

“I never thought I’d be in a nursing home,” she said recently, a refrain she repeated almost every time I visited. “That’s when nobody wants you. You end up in a nursing home.”

Ms. Moses, who moved into the home at age 84 in 2009, after a fractious stay with one of her sons, has in many ways flourished there. She started the second love affair of her life — with Howie Zeimer, 69, who is disabled from a severe car accident after college. She made new friends. And her glee club just finished recording a CD, to be distributed to other residents. Her daughter visits weekly.

Yet there were things she does not like, she said. Being in a nursing home meant you had to adapt to everything; nothing adapted to you: not the neighbors with dementia, not the food, not the staff who entered her room without knocking.

“Sometimes I want to go home,” she said. “But I can’t. There’s no place I can go.”

Lately, though, she had other concerns. She loved Mr. Zeimer, she said, but getting married was such a lot of work — especially since her daughter did not approve.

By June, things were off. “I’ll tell you why,” she said. “Howie’s in a wheelchair and it’s very difficult to do anything with him.”

A month later she was rethinking. Maybe they would get married, as long as they did not move away from her daughter.

“He wants to live in places I don’t like,” Ms. Moses said.

Mr. Zeimer said he was willing to compromise, as long as it meant being with her. “I think it’s proper, since we are devotedly, happily in love,” he said.

Mr. Zeimer wanted to show her the progress he had made in physical therapy. He stood up from his wheelchair and teetered precariously on tent-pole legs.

“Sit down, you’re making me nervous,” she said.

“No,” Mr. Zeimer said.


Ms. Moses backed down.

The banter is part of their routine. At night, she said, she knew Mr. Zeimer would come to her room and lie with her on the narrow bed to watch television. And when he returned to his own room, he would call her to say good night.

“Like last night,” Mr. Zeimer said. “Helen fell asleep during the game, so I excused myself. I kissed her on both cheeks and said, ‘Good night, my darling.’

“Then I called her and said, ‘I’ve never loved anyone the way I love the hell out of you.’ ”

Ms. Moses grew uncharacteristically speechless.

And what did she say in return?

She mouthed the words silently. “I love you, too,” she said.

AMONG THE OLDEST OLD, gerontologists talk about the risks of social isolation — life without daily contact, without human touch, without eyes to see if they fall.

In his Upper West Side apartment, John Sorensen often goes days without seeing another person. Though he has an emergency-alert pendant, he doesn’t wear it if he is not wearing a shirt, a common practice in the warm months.

Yet for him, the apartment provides a connection to his past selves, and to the two men who shaped his adult life.

The first was his high school art teacher, who after graduation called him in for an extraordinary talk. “He told me what I was,” Mr. Sorensen said. “I didn’t know I was gay. He laid out what I should do, the school I should go to, that I should go to New York and become a decorator. I followed everything he said, and it’s been a wonderful life.”

The second was the man who shared that life for 60 years, Walter Caron, whose death in 2009 left a gaping hole.

“Being here, Walter’s still here,” Mr. Sorensen said. “When I look at certain things I think, he picked that out, he found that. He’s always sort of with me.”

“In this kitchen I hung the wallpaper,” he said. “I put the new floor down, which needs to be replaced. I painted this whole apartment. I painted stripes in that room, all hand-painted. I was always doing something. And to sit around and not be able to do anything is really rough.

“I have nothing more to achieve. Nothing more I can do. I always thought that in old age I’d be able to play the piano and read more, and I can’t do either, and that’s a great disappointment.”

Yet to give up the apartment would be to give up the best part of his life, he said, and be left with only old age. “If I have to crawl I don’t want to leave here,” he said. “No matter what. I couldn’t stand it.”

In his Brooklyn loft, Jonas Mekas had his mind on the home he long ago left, in Lithuania. “My ideal,” he said, unprompted, “was this guy who used to visit my family when I was a child, and he used to climb on the roof and stand on his head on the chimney. And my father told me once he was 100 years. So that’s my ideal.”

As a farm boy in Lithuania, Mr. Mekas knew what home was. It was continuity. But years of forced transience — first in Nazi labor camps, then in camps for displaced persons, then in virtual exile during the Soviet era — shattered his sense of permanence. Instead he lives in adaptation — nomadic in his cultural curiosity, quick to put down roots wherever he lands.

“I say my home is in cinema,” he said.

In another sense, home is a 2,000-square-foot loft in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn, with a twin bed off the kitchen and boxes of his work everywhere, and a Royal typewriter opposite the stove. “This is my bedroom, my archives, my kitchen, my recording studio all in one,” Mr. Mekas said. His son, Sebastian, 33, lives with him.

Home, for Mr. Mekas, is not around people his age.

“I need energy,” he said. “I’m maybe a little like a vampire. I feel best when I’m with younger and active people. When I’m with people that there’s no energy, it drags me down, so I try not to be there. I disappear, or I don’t go to such situations.” He added, “I realize that’s life, but it’s not my world. I’m somewhere else.”

RUTH WILLIG HAD to give her home up twice, neither time without some pain. The first time was in 2009, when her children persuaded her to move from her two-story home in New Jersey to an assisted living residence in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

“It changed my life, moving into an institution,” she said. Suddenly her hours were not her own; meals were at fixed times and fixed tables, with the same people each day. Privacy was a thing of the past. “It was an adjustment, but I think I made it,” she said. “I learned to accept life the way it is, realize why I did it sooner than some of the people I knew that were still living alone, on their own.”

Then in the spring of 2014, the owners announced that they were closing; everyone had three months to leave. Her resentment flared and held steady: the callousness of the owner, the separation from friends, the distance from her daughter who lived in Park Slope.

Now, more than a year later, Ms. Willig said she was starting to let the anger go. She signed up for a writing class in her new assisted-living building, Sunrise at Sheepshead Bay. With the warm weather, she has been able to read or walk by the water’s edge.

At the writing class, a woman talked about having a degree in psychiatry, which surprised Ms. Willig.

“I keep saying there’s no one here that’s interesting,” Ms. Willig said, “and my daughter says, ‘You really don’t know them.’ And she’s so right. So many people are in their 90s, and what they are today is not what they were.”

Yet even amid her growing contentment, Ms. Willig sometimes seems to drift back toward an ambient unease. After a life spent caring for others, she said, what she misses is not just her home but the purpose that came from her place in it. “Maybe that’s what I’m missing,” she said.

“I really am not needed by anyone, come to think of it. I’m certainly cared for. I know there’s a lot of love from them, and I feel it,” she said, talking of her four children and her grandchildren. “But outside of providing money for them when I can, I don’t have any ——.” Her voice tailed off. “I guess that’s a problem of living longer.”


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