Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Stories of Aging and Living Alone
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Readers share their experiences and thoughts about living alone as a senior citizen. If you’d like to sound off, please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com.

Show 2 Newer Notes

Not Relying on Your Children in Old Age

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.

One of the most popular videos we featured this summer was a 10-minute documentary by Mantai Chow profiling an 80-year-old woman named King-Sim Ng. Ng’s husband died in 1985 and she has been living alone in Manhattan’s Chinatown for 15 years. Here’s a snapshot of her life, as seen by Mantai:

“This is just so sad and disturbing,” says reader JT. Another one, Ben, also got emotional over Ng’s story:

I think a lot of people can relate to the woman in the video, especially people coming from immigrant families. I almost cried watching this video because Ng, like my mother, also worked in the garment industry and her husband, my father, had also passed away. My mother is in a different living situation, but I can imagine the hardship this woman must have gone through as an immigrant and now alone living in Chinatown.

Do you live alone in your old age and want to share your feelings about it—positive, negative, or somewhere in between? Do you enjoy your independence or wish you still lived with loved ones? Please send us a note at hello@theatlantic.com.

At the end of Mantai’s film, Ng disappears after being hit by a car, leaving the audience in angst. One reader pleaded in the comments section, “Do you have an update on her?? I would like to know whether she lived or not.” Mantai replied:

I got in touch with Ng finally in June after the film is done. She is back in her apartment safe and sound. She seems to be fine but her legs are still a bit weak. [Her friend] Tay visits Ng in her apartment almost every day now to give her food and stuff. Her children also are helping out! I hope things will get better for her.

A few days ago, after I got a hold of Mantai, he went to see Ng at her apartment and filmed a short update for her fans:

Such a sweet lady! Thanks to Mantai for the followup and happy ending.

Back when the documentary first aired, one reader created a commenting account (ChinatownGirl) just to share this remarkable coincidence:

I came across on the street the lady who “disappeared” in the video moments after she was hit by the car. So here’s what really happened:

On a drizzly night, Feb 4 around 10pm, I was walking down Mulberry St. to the subway. I saw a little old lady on the curb, next to her shopping cart. There was a big Italian guy on the phone with 911/ambulance dispatch. Apparently he had swiped her with his car and she had fallen.