New York can be a wonderful place to be a senior citizen. It can also be a terribly lonely one.
First, some of the wonderful. It helps to have money. Ideally, a lot of it. Second best is a rent controlled or rent-stabilized apartment. I am lucky enough to have the second. I’ve lived in my Upper West Side neighborhood long, long before it was considered upscale. In fact, it was considered dicey when I first brought my young children to live there. I myself had lived in various places on the Upper West Side since college. When my younger daughter was two, we moved into a brand new Mitchell-Lama building on West 90th Street. In those years, lots of buildings were built under the Mitchell-Lama program to help lower and middle-income people live in affordable housing. Obviously, those days are over. For me, living in a neighborhood that is suddenly fashionable has been a bit dizzying. I like some of it, but I do miss the old Woolworth’s and coffee shop, and the Red Apple on 100th Street and Columbus Avenue. Now we have TJMaxx and Whole Foods, and I am surrounded by apartment buildings I could never afford.
In any case, I am lucky to be able to remain in my apartment and my neighborhood. Other seniors are not so lucky. Market rents are not manageable on a fixed income, and the seniors we all see on the streets of Broadway are either long-time residents in stabilized apartments, owners of co-ops bought long ago, or people of wealth. But for those of us who are here, New York can be a senior’s paradise. We have handicapped-access buses, elevators on major subway lines, senior discounts to museums and various events, and enough culture to satisfy anyone’s taste.
New York can also be a not so wonderful place for an older person to live. Loneliness is a problem for people without families or friends. One can become homebound with one fall, one stroke, one heart attack. Even if a person can afford to stay in his or her apartment, if no one visits, it can be spirit-destroying. Without the ability to go to the senior center, the movies, the activities, a single senior can end up spending long, lonely days alone. It’s true that there are social services agencies, and organizations such as Dorot on the Upper West Side, that are specifically designed to help the needy elderly. But New York is a busy, energetic city, and the elderly can become invisible.
Our invisibility is a recurring topic in my senior women’s group. With the city, and our own Upper West Side, teeming with single young people and families, the elderly aren’t often noticed. But if we are healthy, most of us have learned to occupy our days fruitfully. And if we are lucky enough to have a partner, and families, we will have help and companionship if a disaster happens. That isn’t true for those of us who are alone. One catastrophe, and the known life is gone. Many New Yorkers don’t know their neighbors except to say hello. Without the activities that sustain us, New York can be the loneliest place in world to be a senior citizen.
So far, I am among the lucky ones. I am healthy and active. I have a family. If something happens to me, I will have loving people in my life. But I know people who live in fear of ending up sick and alone. They have had falls or illnesses and recovered enough to resume their lives. But they wonder and worry about the day when they won’t recover. Who will help them? Who will care? While some are lucky enough to have compassionate neighbors, many know no one in their building beyond friendly greetings.
New York is two retirement cities; one wonderful, one not so wonderful. Nowhere else has so much to offer the elderly, if they’re healthy and active, have enough money, and know how to utilize what the city has to offer them. For the others, the sick and lonely, New York can be a sad and isolating place.