It’s hard to grow old in the city without much money. The urban landscape, with its cracked sidewalks, patchy transit, and the lurking possibility of violence, is a daily challenge. So is the lingering threat of COVID that hovers in congested buses and crowded waiting rooms.
And everything costs so much. Boston is one of the nation’s most expensive cities. More than seven in 10 older people living alone here — and 45 percent of older couples — lack the minimum income required to cover necessary expenses, according to February data from the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Gerontology Institute. For them, life is a daily struggle to maintain dignity and make ends meet.
Their stresses are largely invisible in this busy metropolis, where the tempo is set by much younger Bostonians. The surprises of old age — the wonders of new grandchildren and learning to dance, the cruel realities of bodies breaking down and social circles shrinking — are a blend of personal joy and escalating hardship.
Many have worked all their lives, yet still have to rely on government subsidies for rent, food, and fuel. But the safety net doesn’t cushion every fall into illness or isolation. So they lean on neighbors and loved ones. They draw, too, on deep wells of life experience, and the stores of hope and grit that carried them into their later years.
They are, many of them, the older neighbors we don’t know well enough. So the Globe gathered some of their stories.
‘Miss Annette’ rides two buses to the senior center
Annette Gilbert was missing her yellow rain jacket. She’d left it on the coat rack at the Grove Hall senior center. So she was grateful for a letup in the early morning drizzle as she stepped out of her brown triple-decker and made her way down puddle-streaked streets.
If you happened to be passing through Jamaica Plain on this dreary winter day, you might not have noticed Gilbert, 75, in her bulky parka, wool cap, and backpack. She sat stoically on a bench with peeling red paint, awaiting the first of two MBTA buses to shuttle her around Franklin Park to the senior center. It is a short trip that can take a remarkably long time — an hour or more to go less than 2 miles. But it’s worth it.
Gilbert, who lives by herself, loves to be around people.
“I’m always at the center,” she said. “I go in the snow, in the rain.”
Gilbert, an Alabama native, moved to Boston as a young woman. In the segregated South of her youth, there were no schools a Black girl could attend in her rural area until she was 8. She worked most of her life in factories, assembling parts for modest wages. Separated from her husband years ago, she raised four children, and has eight grandchildren.
Her first great-grandchild, a baby girl, was born just before Christmas, sparking a joyous holiday gathering in Gilbert’s cramped apartment. She fixed turkey with cornbread stuffing, and sides of collard greens and mac and cheese for the whole family. “They love my food,” she said. Afterward, they played spades and gin rummy.
But the kids are busy during the week, and Gilbert’s apartment is too quiet. So she heads out to the senior center, where there are familiar faces and things to do and the staff calls her “Miss Annette.”
She was counting on the 42 bus to arrive before the rain. It’s a good service, but one that can test her patience — and stamina.
“It says five minutes,” she said, glancing warily at an app on her phone. She had already been there for 20. Sometimes she waits an hour.
At last, she spotted the white-and-yellow bus. Gilbert brandished her Senior Charlie Card and slipped on a face mask.
“I’m scared of that COVID-19,” she said. “It’s killed a lot of people.”
On the bus, she pulled off her backpack, with its blue and pink floral pattern, and set it on the floor by her feet. In the evening, she would use it to carry groceries she’d pick up at the store on the way home. Just a few; any more would be too heavy, and cost more than she had in her purse.
“It used to be $2 for a dozen eggs, and then it went to $6,” she said. “We were raised on chicken wings. Now I buy chicken liver or legs. You buy a couple of chicken wings, and it’s $14.”
Her bus rumbled down Washington Street to Forest Hill Station. After another lengthy wait on another bench — “sometimes you have to stand,” she said — her second bus, the 16, deposited her on a corner of Columbia Road in Dorchester. The rest of her journey, a couple of blocks and a shortcut through the Jeremiah Burke High School parking lot, was on foot.
The senior center is across Franklin Park from Gilbert’s apartment. She remembers a time when it would have been easy for her to cut straight through it; when younger, she would walk through the park after work or on the weekend with her fishing rod, stopping at a small pond to catch bluegill and catfish.
But now she rides the buses along the park’s perimeter.
She’s the first one to arrive this morning. A receptionist at the senior center, run by the Boston Centers for Youth & Families, buzzed her in.
“Miss Annette comes every single day,” said Aidee Pomales, the administrative coordinator. “She sews purses and quilts.” One of her quilts was stitched from her grandchildren’s old basketball jerseys.
Gilbert began coming to the senior center in 2018, after retiring from her last job, at a laundromat, but she stayed away for a year and a half when COVID swept in and took its terrible toll. In the senior center’s hallway, a pre-pandemic photo shows a group of regulars Gilbert knew well, some of whom died from the virus in the early waves.
More neighborhood women began to arrive; Annie, then Aleasa and Valerie, then half-a-dozen others greeting one another on this winter morning. Then a lanky, athletic man, decades younger, appeared. This was Joe Gallop, here to lead them in Bagua, a meditation exercise that combines slow, soothing instrumental music with deep breathing and stretching movements.
Morning light filtered into the multipurpose room.
“How are you all doing this morning?” he asked.
As the music rose, Gilbert and the others followed his lead, their hands tracing circles and waves in the air.
“Just relax,” Gallop intoned in a calming voice. “Take some deep breaths. Breathe in . . . now breathe out. Relax your feet . . . relax your back . . . relax your neck . . . relax the muscles in your face.”
Gilbert closed her eyes. She breathed in and out, together with the others. At this moment, she was at peace.
Bowen Robinson returns from a long hospital stay
On New Year’s Day, 85-year-old Bowen Robinson was having trouble breathing. So his daughter Lillian Jones helped him — slowly, slowly — down the 47 steps from his third-floor apartment in Dorchester to the street. He held the railing, and paused to catch his breath. She drove him to the emergency room at Boston Medical Center.
Robinson, a lean and wiry man born in Barbados, once reveled in his long walks. He’d cover 3 to 4 miles a day after he retired from his job as an MIT custodian. As the years passed, his range diminished. Two hip replacements, two knee replacements, prostate cancer surgery — each marked the slow decline of his physical prowess.
He misses the long, easy strolls of his early retirement.
“Those days,” he said softly, “are finished.”
This time, the doctors diagnosed Robinson with an irregular heartbeat, and drained excess fluid from his lungs. They discharged him after 12 days. He returned to his perch at the kitchen table on the top floor of a three-decker overlooking Ronan Park, where he lives with his grandson Leroy, who paints houses, and a pair of hulking pit bulls.
The two dogs barked loudly from a back room as Robinson, wearing a striped shirt, beckoned a visitor into the compact kitchen.
“I’m feeling a lot better,” he said. “But I still can’t eat much. And I have to take my time coming up the steps. I rest some time.”
He put on his glasses and lifted a well-worn Bible from a table strewn with medicine vials, a pill cutter, and an oatmeal cookie package. Muted sounds from a television game show drifted in from another room.
Before the pandemic, Robinson attended church regularly. Now he reads the Bible at home. This morning he opened it to John, chapter 18, which describes the betrayal and arrest of Jesus before his crucifixion.
For company, he phones his brother in Barbados, or a cousin in Texas. Sometimes his daughters drop by. When he feels up to it, he takes The Ride, an MBTA van for residents with disabilities, to visit friends.
From his window, Robinson can look down into Ronan Park, and see children playing on the swings, neighbors walking their dogs. He moved in three years ago, after a divorce, but because of his diminished mobility, he’s only set foot in the park twice.
Not too many years ago, he would have been down there, walking among them. “But I’m not complaining,” he said, looking away from the window.
Luz Torrez navigates cracked sidewalks
The afternoon bingo game had broken up at Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción. And the graying bingo players spilled out of the South End community center they call IBA (pronounced eee-buh) in a slow procession toward their homes.
Luz Torrez, 65, walked gingerly with her cane, on alert for tree roots poking out from the crumbling sidewalks. Last winter, she tripped and fell into the snow. Now, she said, “I look down. When there’s snow, I don’t go out.”
Torrez, small in stature with long black hair, came to Boston from Santo Domingo about 30 years ago. She was a housekeeper at Simmons College until 2018, when a work accident left her partly paralyzed.
Afraid as she is of falling, she didn’t want her older friend to walk home alone. So she accompanied Reinelda Rivera, 82, who was maneuvering her walker, down San Juan Street to her apartment.
They painstakingly negotiated the cracks until they came to a spot where missing chunks of pavement had left a sunken gap near the base of a tree. This they could not cross. So they ventured into the road.
Cars and trucks whizzed by, uncomfortably close. An older man in a motorized wheelchair had also veered off the sidewalk and was slowly rolling along up ahead of them, clinging to the side of the road.
People have complained to Boston officials for years about the warped and torn-up walkways. The issue is a perennial for the staff at IBA, translated in English as Puerto Rican tenants in action. Some sidewalk stretches have been repaved; others haven’t.
Rivera is well known in the neighborhood as a former organizer of the city’s rollicking Puerto Rican festival, a summer spectacle of color and sound. Since she suffered a stroke in 1995, her life has been less exuberant.
After walking Rivera to her door, festooned with Puerto Rican and American flags, Torrez continued on to her own high-rise apartment, facing Plaza Betances.
Torrez recovered from her accident partly by working out at a gym two blocks away. She felt at home there among folks from the neighborhood, and the post-rehab training gave her strength. But the gym was shuttered during the pandemic. Short walks outside are now her main form of exercise — but only in the daylight.
Torrez raised a son in the neighborhood, worrying about the gunfire she occasionally heard outside. The sounds are never far from her memory, and she can point out places where shootings occurred.
On long summer evenings, Torrez still loves sitting in the plaza as neighbors play dominoes and listen to up-tempo Latin music until night falls.
“Everybody leaves when it gets dark,” she said.
‘Lenke’ and ‘Allochka’ share a Valentine’s Day brunch
They have no children and few close relatives. But Leonid Finkelshteyn and Alla Roginskaya still have each other.
Shuffling into the crowded dining hall for the annual Valentine’s Day brunch, the octogenarian couple high-fived with some of their friends at 2Life Communities, a subsidized senior living complex in Brighton, home to many immigrants — Chinese, Vietnamese, and, like them, Russian.
Roginskaya, 81, with her shy smile, whispered “Nadezhda moi kompas zemnoy” to her husband. It was a reference to the title of a Soviet-era song — translated as “the hope is my compass” — they sometimes sing to each other. It evokes younger days in a place they left behind.
Taking their seats at a table, they were soon hoisting plastic cups of cranberry and orange juice with table mates Mikhail Kopelev and Ida Ordyanskaya. Waiters brought plates of chicken sausage and waffles.
Roginskaya is susceptible to falling. Even walking down the hall from their modest apartment has become difficult. After she stumbled recently, her doctors advised her to hold onto her husband’s arm for balance. But Finkelshteyn, 83, bald with a proud bearing, also had a fall last summer, suffering a concussion. Now he uses a cane. He’s had a heart attack and prostate surgery. He has five heart stents and a pacemaker.
Still, when they shop at the in-house convenience store, picking up bread, beetroot, and buttermilk, he insists on carrying the bag home.
Their love story began in Moscow, just before New Year’s Eve in 1974. Finkelshteyn asked if Roginskaya needed help crossing a busy street. She assured him she didn’t, but he walked with her anyway. “I said, ‘Let’s talk,’ ” he recalled with a smile, “and I didn’t move away from her since.”
Now — a half-century later, and half a world away — he draped his arm around her shoulder in the Brighton dining hall.
They use Russian nicknames — she calls him “Lenka,” and he calls her “Allochka.” In their modest apartment, they’re surrounded by reminders of their old life: a book of Pushkin poems, a figurine of Russian dancers. A cabinet is filled with blue and white Gzhel ceramics.
Back in Russia, he worked as a mechanical engineer, and she taught French at a university. Being Jewish hurt their careers, they said. When immigration restrictions lifted in the 1970s, friends set off for America or Israel. They hesitated, loath to leave aging parents. But their lives became more difficult in the decades that followed.
KGB agents searched their apartment after a visit from a friend who wore a button supporting Solidarity, the Polish labor movement. “When Putin came to power, the KGB came to power,” Finkelshteyn said. In 2001, relatives in the Boston area helped them get resettled in America.
But the transition wasn’t easy. He was in his 60s and she in her late 50s when they arrived, and their health was already declining. Yet people were good to them — and still are. When Finkelshteyn stumbled last year, at an MBTA stop, passersby helped him up from the ground and summoned an ambulance.
They’re happy to be here, to be able to relax in their apartment, sitting side by side on their plaid sofa, listening to opera, classical music, and jazz — the sounds of their old world, and a world that still feels new.
Mary Greer calls her fuel company, asking for help
Cranking up the heat is expensive. And the kitchen of Mary Greer’s home in Dorchester’s hilly Mount Bowdoin neighborhood is far from the vents.
So on a chilly morning, Greer, 76, bundled in a comfortable black sweater, set the temperature on her stove to 350 degrees and opened the oven door to keep warm. She spread her bills on the table.
“I have five bills and my mortgage every month,” said Greer, a retired operating room technician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “That’s why my blood pressure’s up.”
For years, the bill she most dreaded came from the oil company. She looked at a yellowing receipt from last year, $568 for 150 gallons.
This winter, she feared it would cost her more than $700 to fill her tank; she didn’t think she could afford it. “If you don’t got but $10 in your pocketbook, you can’t pay $20,” said Greer, a white-haired woman who keeps up a teasing banter. “I got a big old tank in the basement.”
So she picked up the phone and called Brown Oil Co. She wasn’t sure what to expect, but a Brown employee referred her to nonprofit Action for Boston Community Development, which offered fuel subsidies of up to $2,200 this year to low-income city residents. Greer was eligible.
She owns her spotlessly clean house with her family, sharing the downstairs quarters with her youngest son, who works construction, and her black-and-white cat Pepper. Pepper rests near the stove or sits by her feet while she pays her bills and takes her 16 daily meds — half a dozen in the morning — arranged in multicolored pill organizers on her kitchen table.
Greer spent 32 years at Beth Israel, working her way up from the laundry to become a nurse’s aide and instrument technician. In 2016, she went out on disability after being diagnosed with uterine cancer. She underwent surgery, but two years later doctors found kidney cancer, requiring a second operation. Her meds help keep the cancer at bay, but also cause migraine headaches that she treats with other meds.
Putting six pills in her palm, Greer swallowed them all at once, washing them down with a few swigs of an Ensure nutrition shake.
“I ain’t dead yet,” she said.
Her family discourages her from going to the basement, where it’s dark and musty, with plaster chipping from one of the walls. But she sneaks down the stairs during the day sometimes to eyeball the stainless steel oil tank, and figure out when she’ll next need to fill it.
“It’s three-quarters full,” she said, squinting at the gauge and drumming her fingers on the tank. “When it’s down to a quarter, I’ll call them.”
Andres Colon delivers food to his neighbors
Retired handyman Andres Colon sleeps just three hours a night and usually eats one meal a day, in the late afternoon. He tries not to watch too much television. So he often lends a hand at the IBA community center near the basement apartment where he lives by himself.
When a YMCA delivery van pulled up in front of the center in the South End on a recent morning, the 76-year-old Colon helped two younger men unload 50 bags of groceries. The bags arrive every other week from a city-funded food access program.
They piled the bags — stuffed with apples, cabbage, cans of garbanzo beans, packages of macaroni and cheese — onto a table. Then they loaded them into carts they could wheel to nearby affordable housing units where many older people live. Most of these residents speak Spanish, and many are homebound.
Colon, who was born in Puerto Rico, has bushy black sideburns and a mustache. He wore a sweatshirt, baseball cap, and work shoes. As a young man, he bounced around the country, living in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and California before settling in Boston more than 50 years ago. He worked as a carpenter and a truck driver.
Over the years, he said, winters have become tougher to bear. But today was mild; as the trio embarked on their rounds, the sun peeked through the clouds and a dusting of snow from the day before was melting.
“We’re lucky,” Colon said. “We got the right day for this.”
He and the two other IBA “food ambassadors” each wheeled a bright red cart down Shawmut Avenue, past the Blackstone Square park, to a block of brick rowhouses on West Newton Street, holding printouts with names and addresses of residents who signed up for food.
Inside one building, Colon led the way up three flights of stairs, knocking on each door on his list. Most of the residents get food stamps to help pay for their groceries, but those subsidies only go so far.
Some people opened their doors and flashed smiles of recognition. Gracia Infante, an 87-year-old retired housecleaner from the Dominican Republic, greeted Colon and his colleagues in Spanish. “Gracias, gracias,” she said, placing the bag on her counter.
Others didn’t respond at all. Colon and his colleagues wrapped the plastic bags of food around their door handles and moved on.
When he isn’t delivering food, Colon sometimes helps out at the IBA center, restocking the vending machines, or he makes small repairs for acquaintances nearby, putting his old carpentry tools to use.
“I like helping these people,” he said. “It’s good to do something.”
Sau Nguyen wants everyone to dance
Sau Nguyen is 88 years old, but who’s counting? Almost every day, the recent widower teaches someone to dance.
Foxtrot, waltz, tango, rumba, bolero, cha-cha — anyone who visits the VietAID social hall in Fields Corner can learn.
“There are people who are shy, and that holds them back,” he said, sitting with perfect posture at a table and speaking through an interpreter. He was waiting for a Tai Chi class to wind down so he could hit the dance floor. “Dancing brings the mood up and helps you connect.”
Nguyen is widely known in this corner of Dorchester as “the dance instructor.” But he’s really just a volunteer, seeking out partners and freelancing. He’s been offered a paid position, but then he’d have regular hours. He prefers to come and go as he likes.
Teaching people to dance is a labor of love. He’s been dancing since he was a young man in Vietnam.
Nguyen wore a tan cap, tan slacks, and khaki photographer’s vest, with a pin bearing the flag of the former South Vietnam, where he worked for the government before the war. Later he fought for the South Vietnamese military, including a stint as an undercover agent.
When the North Vietnamese took over, he was arrested and imprisoned for eight years. Each morning, he rose early in his cell to exercise. He couldn’t dance, but he did Tai Chi. And he kept track of the days.
After his release in 1983, Nguyen married his girlfriend, Diep Tran, and they applied to immigrate to the United States. They waited nearly a decade but arrived in 1993, living for a year in New Hampshire and then moving to Boston, where they joined the established Vietnamese community in Fields Corner. They have four grown children: two sons and a daughter in Massachusetts, and a son back in Vietnam.
Nguyen worked as a temporary factory worker in the Boston area, helping to make candy, paper products, and compact discs. He also shot photos and videos at weddings. Whenever he could, in between, he would dance, though his wife, who died last October at the age of 84, was shy, and seldom joined him on the dance floor.
Nguyen lives alone now, in a public housing project. He rises at 4 a.m. each morning, just as he did in prison, to practice Tai Chi and lift weights. Then he makes his way to VietAID, and offers dancing lessons to anyone who’d like one.
And there are plenty of takers. On a rainy February morning, a woman named Lien Ong sat at a table behind Nguyen waiting for a lesson.
“Moving around is good,” he assured her. And soon he was twirling her around the floor of the social hall. For a short time, the floor was theirs alone.
Robert Weisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.