Not Relying on Your Children in Old Age

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In an earlier note about a short documentary, The Forgotten Ones, featuring an 80-year-old woman living by herself in Chinatown, I asked readers what it’s like to grow old without any family at home. If you’re anything like Maude, it means fun, independence, and a daily sense of discovery (not to mention sex with someone in his early 20s):

A reader remembers his self-reliant grandmother:

She spent all of her life in San Francisco’s Chinatown, living in an apartment like your video’s por-por [a Chinese term for “grandmother”], but her place was smaller and up two flights of stairs. (I never visited Manhattan’s Chinatown, but the feel and vibe seems not too unlike SF.) My grandma was also by herself, after my grandpa passed away in the ‘90s. She chose to live in Chinatown because it was a familiar place and everything she needed was there. She refused to move in with us, away from Chinatown.

Many older people in that neighborhood also do not want to rely on their children. They don’t want to accept that they need to be cared for in their old age. They are sentimental about Chinatown and want access to all of the things they’ve been used to.

My grandma’s friends were her neighbors, as there was a community kitchen and bathrooms with showers that were publicly shared. Each week we would visit her at the apartment, as it was a drop-off point between shopping trips. Her birthdays were the time our families gathered. As a teenager I would still make a trip to see her, but in my 20s those trips lessened.

While my grandma did not do what the por-por in the video did [go through garbage bags on the sidewalk for discarded baked goods], she would sometimes ask shopkeepers for food that cannot be sold anymore—which they would’ve disposed of anyway—and make something out of it. We insisted that she should treat herself by buying things fresh, but she stubbornly argued that they are still good. I thought in her mind she had won something for not having spent a penny.