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In 1953, James Hodge sat behind Louise in an economics class at Bob Jones University and noticed how beautiful she was. He asked her out, but the only dates he could afford were free campus events. To his delight, “she fell in love with me, even though I was poor as a church mouse,” he said. When Louise graduated from college, they married one Friday in June 1955. Unable to afford a honeymoon, they went back to work the following Monday.
Money remained tight as the couple had three children and James pursued more education, but they were happy, and “we knew God would take care of us,” James said. Later, after James settled into a long career at DuPont, he traveled frequently for work and took Louise along whenever he could: “The greatest thing about marriage is companionship. … We were always together.”
But life changed when Louise was diagnosed with dementia. A couple of years ago, the Hodges moved into a retirement community in Midlothian, Va., after Louise began developing mobility problems. There, James noticed—to his surprise—that Louise was becoming forgetful: She had forgotten how to use a telephone and remote control.
Still, James remembers that even then she wanted to do things with him: After dinner, she would ask him to pick out a good movie for them to watch. But “step by step, dementia was taking hold,” said James. Eventually, she didn’t even want to watch movies, just go back to bed. It was much different from the days when the couple traveled together on work trips and visited their daughter and grandchildren in Colorado.
James managed to care for Louise for a year. But she found it harder and harder to walk: One day she fell three times, despite her walker. The emergency room doctor said she needed to move into the memory care unit immediately.
The day she moved out, James returned alone to their apartment. The reality that his wife was gone hit him. “I just completely broke down,” said James, now 86. “After 60-plus years of being together, making decisions, working our way through hard spots, it’s just difficult.”
Not long after moving into the new facility, Louise told him, “I love you, and I always have.” James looked back at her and wondered, “How in the world did she date me for a year and a half when I could never treat her to anything?”
At this point, Louise, who is 85, has forgotten where James lives, and her memory has deteriorated to the point that they cannot maintain a conversation. He said that sometimes at church he feels overwhelmed by grief that she is no longer sitting beside him. “I have lost the companionship of the love of my life for 65 years and it hurts,” he said.
Still, he sees her for about an hour every day: “What often I do is give her a kiss and tell her I love her, and she always gives me a big smile.”
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When Susan Yim had roommates, she could barely cram her juice into an overcrowded freezer. Her new, roommate-free apartment is smaller, but the freezer has room to spare. Yim, a designer for J.P. Morgan, now pays fees and utilities alone, and groceries can be tricky: Her soy milk once turned chunky before she could drink it, and buying lettuce means eating salad for a week or watching it go bad.
Yim, a 24-year-old resident of New York City who has lived alone for nearly a year, is like an increasing number of Americans. As young people marry later and seniors live longer, the share of single-person households has risen nationwide from 13 percent in 1960 to 28 percent in 2018. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 33 percent of New York City households were single-person in 2017—higher than the national average, but lower than other cities.
Young city dwellers with means might downsize to escape inconsiderate roommates. Older residents might remain in an apartment as family members die or move out. Whatever the reason, living alone in New York comes with specific challenges and benefits.
New York City is expensive, and living alone can be even more so. An analysis by real estate website StreetEasy found that singles who move to New York City often live in Manhattan, in neighborhoods with plentiful one-bedroom apartments and high rents.
Yim pays $1,800 a month plus utilities for her studio apartment, a third-floor walk-up in Lenox Hill, a wealthy neighborhood in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. According to a 2019 report from Apartment List, that’s twice the national average of $827, but just below New York’s average of $1,889 and below Lenox Hill’s median of $2,200 on StreetEasy.
But her apartment, decorated with her original paintings and filled with furniture she chose, provides peace and solitude. She’s been there almost a year, and the clerks at her local grocery store know her well enough to help find her favorite items.
On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Art Muchow also lives alone. Muchow, 87, has lived in the same three-bedroom apartment for more than 50 years. It’s where he raised two sons with his wife, who died in 2004.
Seniors who live alone often become lonely as their peers move in with children or into assisted living. With lower incomes and diminishing community, they may struggle to age in place. But Muchow’s building is part of a middle-class affordable housing program, and he estimates he pays a third of the market rate for his apartment. Many of his neighbors are also longtime residents, and with the help of affordable housing rates, they have been able to stay and keep their small community.
“There is something particularly excellent about growing very old with a large number of people whom you know well,” Muchow said.
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Lauris Shepherd was serving in the Army and stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia when he first discovered the Navigators, an interdenominational Christian discipleship ministry. Later he reconnected with the group after moving to San Diego to teach math at Point Loma Nazarene University. He realized, “Even though I’d grown up in the church and had a great foundation, it was the Navigators that really helped me get on a steady growth.” He decided he wanted to be involved in men’s ministry and began to work as an administrative assistant to the Navigators’ area director to get some training.
Around the same time, Rhonda came to the church Lauris attended. Though they’d met previously, Rhonda started noticing Lauris’ spiritual maturity and “handsome features.” They spent time together through the church’s singles group: “I would come up with suggestions on how to get the group together so I could be around her,” Lauris says. One night in September 1976, Lauris’ car pulled up next to Rhonda’s at a stoplight (“answer to prayer,” Lauris jokes), and he motioned for her to pull into the nearby McDonald’s. The couple dubbed that night their first date.
Lauris was 28 when he and Rhonda began dating. Previously, his parents and friends had expressed concern at his singleness, but he was content focusing on the Navigators ministry he led at the University of California, San Diego. In November, Lauris told Rhonda that she was the one for him—if he was supposed to get married. He asked if she was OK with that, and she replied that she didn’t know but thought she could trust God. Lauris’ decision came quickly: He proposed soon after, and they married in April 1977.
Eight years and four daughters later, the Shepherds moved to Japan with the Navigators to disciple members of the U.S. Navy. Not knowing the language, they faced culture shock and medical scares: They planned to have a baby at home with a Japanese midwife, but complications forced them to rush to a hospital to save the baby’s life. In their marriage, tension arose over money. The Shepherds raised financial support as missionaries but were underfunded when they arrived in Japan. Rhonda worked to stay within their limited income, but sometimes her purchases upset the extremely frugal Lauris. Eventually, they created a budget, and their communication about finances became smoother.
Lauris loved ministry but now admits he did not “know the language of compassion.” The Shepherds had eight kids, and he wondered why their six daughters told him their problems if he couldn’t fix them. Once, Lauris decided their oldest girl should attend an eight-week piano camp. The daughter pleaded not to go, but Lauris did not listen. The night before she left, Rhonda asked him if he was sufficiently sure of the decision to risk his daughter resenting him. Her words made him think. A week into the camp, he spoke with their daughter on the phone to repair their relationship.
Over time, his lack of compassion convicted him, and he thought, “Wow, that’s nothing like Jesus.” He apologized to each of his daughters for ways he might have hurt them. In parenting, he says, he’s relied heavily on Rhonda to understand the girls.
His efforts seem to be paying off: Recently, Lauris took the StrengthsFinder personal assessment test and was surprised to see “empathy” as one of his top strengths. He says, “I just think that’s been learned, because God’s really working on me.”