Cooperative Catholic Elderly Living Experiments

Many Catholics, such as myself, who are old and living alone think about what our options are for better ways of life. We will often consult our pastors.

Our greatest motivation is probably loneliness, but also the need to be taken care of more than we can do by ourselves.

Some of us who are elderly and living alone have been singles most of our lives. But many are widows or widowers for whom living alone is relatively new with specific forms of loneliness.

Talking to family and friends on the phone, texting, or e-mailing or even zooming, is different than having a spouse every day to converse with in a familiar way.

I am a Catholic speaker. When I see many married couples in the audience I like to say: “Here is advice from a widow to wives and husbands: ‘when your spouse dies you realize that the absence of annoyance is not joy.’” Usually, this quip receives a response of much laughter. Basically, when we are no longer the victim of the faults of the husband or wife, we can realize more clearly the virtues which were so good for us day by day.

The elderly often have a need for more care. Perhaps we cannot drive anymore and so are dependent on the help of busy family and friends. Or we find it makes us nervous to climb on a chair to grab something on a high shelf when there is no one else at home to support us. If we fell, no one might notice for hours or even days.

Facing such challenges, we may think first about living with family. We may try, only to find out that even though we love them, and they love us, we are still incompatible. My own most humorous failure involved an in-law who couldn’t stand the way I slurped spaghetti! On the other side, I decided to leave a wonderful family house because one of the parents allowed a child to make a pact with the devil!

If family doesn’t work, we will usually consider institutional living with options including independent, assisted, convalescent, Alzheimer’s. Each possibility, however, may turn out to be unsuitable.

Beautiful independent living facilities are often very expensive. Assisted living options may include unexpected difficulties. Since my first priority is daily Mass, I chose one that was in the adjoining parking lot of a Catholic Church. However, I didn’t bargain on Country Western music blaring away in the common rooms when I would prefer Mozart. Since it was a non-religious, though mostly non-Catholic Christian, residence, and it was in Texas, I could hardly win a vote to replace Country Western music with Mozart!

We may one day need to be sent to a convalescent home or to an Alzheimer’s facility, but not yet.

Another facet of such experiments is the great difficulty for many of having to leave a house or apartment where we have been living for decades. The residence with all the pictures on the walls and furnishings is full of memories. Paring down to what would fit into a single or even a double room in the home of family members or in a residence means goodbye to all these beloved things.

One option, which I am presently trying, is good friends sharing a house together with a Catholic plan of life. We call it a Cooperative Catholic Elderly Residence. Since this could be good for many other Catholic elderly singles, I thought I would lay out some insights I have gained so far.

My present experiment involves living with a close friend in her large house. We are both very devout Catholics for whom daily Mass is our highest priority. To avoid identification, I am purposely not telling you her name and I am also changing some details about our arrangement. This way I can avoid hurting the feelings of my friend if I mention problems we are having.

Reflecting on our experience, I want to organize my sharing in this article into six areas: financial arrangements and “governance”; acceptance of differences in personality; times together in mutually pleasant occupations; expressing gratitude; conflict management; adjustment of expectations.

Before getting into the main topics of this article, I want to suggest that the Blessed Mother, Mary, and St. John, when they were living together in Ephesus, as tradition has it, might be considered to be the first Catholic Elderly Residents!

Financial Arrangements and “Governance”

In the case of my experiment, the house was that of my friend and I agreed to contribute $1,500 to cover my room, board, and drives to Holy Mass and other needed places.

My helping in different ways with household tasks was left to “playing it by ear.” The biggest help during the first three months of our experiment has been de-cluttering. My friend was taught that one should never throw out any receipts — can you imagine how many accumulated over fifty years of marriage? At first, I met with some resistance, but gradually I found my friend doing more of her own throwing out or giving away things she doesn’t need.

Financial arrangements: I think that leaving this too vague can lead to problems. There could be a big disparity between the incomes of the residents, whether they be only two of them or, say, five in a big house. The “richer” member of the “community” who owns the house might be very generous, but then, over time begin to feel exploited if the others don’t contribute in a monetary way. Residents who are not contributing financially may come to feel insecure, since they could be booted out at any time by the owner of the residence.

There might need to be a plan for residents chipping in to hire a caregiver part or full-time if necessary. Since many elderly considering a cooperative residence are hoping this will be their last move, it is important that plans are made so that one won’t be forced to leave if a caregiver is needed.

Practical questions may need to be decided beforehand, such as whether there could be some chair-lift for the staircase if bedrooms are only upstairs.

Arrangements for pets also need to be agreed upon. One person may love dogs but never cats and vice versa. One resident may tolerate cats but never on the dining table!

Concerning finances, may be the role of each one’s immediate adult family to various aspects of the arrangement. An adult child in his or her 60s may feel responsible for ensuring that Mom or Dad is being well taken care of. Especially they will be upset if they think something in the agreement could lead to loss of the inheritance they may be expecting at the time of the death of the parent!

How about reasons why any person in the house would have to leave. Examples could be developing physical or mental problems beyond the ability of the other members to handle; moral matters such as inviting guests to the facility overnight without a decision of the other residents; or, worst case, unwanted sexual advances . . .

It can be wise to be very clear about a curfew in terms of noise in the evening. Some of us, when we were singles, put on TV in the middle of the night and this could be too loud for others in the experimental residence.

I think it is prudential to have everyone living in the residence have a folder or computer file with emergency information about each other, including family members to call, doctors, medical power of attorney, executors. An elderly woman I know insists that her neighbors call nearest relatives immediately if she is taken to the hospital.

Concerning governance, in our case the unspoken idea was that we were equals who would easily come to a consensus with the help of prayer and prudential wisdom.

Is that realistic? Often, yes. But, it could be unrealistic to think that all problems can be solved by prayer plus prudential wisdom. As in, which one’s prudential wisdom has precedence?

Usually, the final “boss” will be the home-owner, not the new resident(s).

I am not suggesting that every detail about finances or governance can be figured out beforehand, only that awareness of possible problems is important.

Acceptance of Differences in Personality

Both my friend and I are heavily into Myers-Briggs personality typology. For those readers who have studied this grid, I will say that my friend is an introvert, intuitive, feeling, perceptive (INFP). By contrast I am extrovert, intuitive, feeling, judging (ENFJ).

In areas where we are similar we get along wonderfully, such as sharing creative ideas and insights, and telling each other our feelings. But, especially in the question of the last category, explained more simply as playing things by ear vs. planning every detail of life ahead, we are opposites.

Could we accept differences? In our case, my friend being a wonderfully amiable and sacrificial person, she can overlook the annoyance of having me wanting to plan every day of the week, preferably hour by hour! This contrasts with another friend who seemed in the past to be a perfect person to live with for me, but who told me that even though she loved and admired me, she could never live with my compulsive need to plan everything ahead.

Example: each one arranges dishes in the dishwasher in a different manner. If one goes out the door for an hour or more, those dirty dishes will be re-arranged!

One of my favorite books explaining Myers-Briggs personality typology is called Please Understand Me. From years of experience with a husband and children, all of whom were opposite to me about orderly planning about social matters, I came to realize that it is as hard for a play-it-by-ear person to deal with my planning character as it is for me to accept the more flexible non-planning person’s daily ways.

The challenge of accepting difference in personality in a residence with friends is very like acceptance of differences within a marriage. Those that last usually involve compromise . . . achieved sometimes only after years of stress!

An important point is that when we relate to friends in social situations, the differences are not predominant. We have chosen these friends for their similar values and virtues. But living together entails 24/7 acceptance of differences!

A big help to me about differences in my new experimental living situation has been my years in Recovery International for anger, anxiety, and depression. This is not a 12 Step program. It was founded by a psychiatrist, Abraham Low, back in the 1940s and is now practiced all over the world. Like those in the 12 Steps, the groups practicing this program share about their use of tools in dealing with daily problems, either in face to face groups, by telephone, or online. I have been in this program as a participant and a leader for some thirty years. It brought me from five fits of anger a day to five a week.

One of my favorite tools is this: when confronting something annoying in another person’s way of talking or acting, tell yourself, “It’s not a 911.” Here’s an example of the use of this tool in my Elderly Catholic Residence now: My friend often repeats stories about her past. But is it a 911? A deal-breaker for living together?

As it turned out, another Recovery International tool came into play. This one is “expect the average from other people.” If someone talks too loud, don’t think they will talk softly because you asked them to. Maybe sometimes, but hardly usually.

Now with eighty-year-olds it is even harder to change habits. However, in the case of my friend’s repetitive stories, it happens that she has a relative who is constantly chiding her for this trait. As a result, she readily agreed that every time she repeats a story I could just interrupt and say, “I’ve heard that before.” It actually works — she looks slightly disappointed, but stops.

In my case it is average for me to pick my fingers nervously. One mentor tried to insist that I stop, grabbing my hands whenever I did it. I did manage to cut down, but not at all as much as he would have liked.

If this interests you, go to your computer and check out Recovery International Tools, and you will find many that could help in daily interactions.

Something I only realized during our experiment is the role played in daily life years later by the original place in the family of birth. I find that those who were younger sisters more easily cede to the wishes of older sisters now in their 80s or 90s. In contrast, those who were older sisters in their original families will have a need to be in a governing relationship to the others even in the most seemingly trivial decisions. “Dinner should never be before 5 PM,” an older sister insists. “That’s fine,” is the response of the originally younger sisters, but not another “older” sister who may insist, instead, that dinner always be at 4 PM since most elderly residents like to go to bed at 7 PM.

Here is a cute, helpful tool I invented myself that helps in daily life. If a task seems to me to be impossible, such as opening a jar but having not enough strength in my hand to do it, I ask myself: “If someone offered me $500 to try to do it, wouldn’t I figure it out?” Guess what? The old-fashioned method of putting the jar under hot water and grabbing it with a hand towel usually works.

Differences in personality are not always a challenge. Sometimes they can be complementary. In our experiment I have found that because my friend is so sensate, she is much better than I am at remembering anything to do with cooking, such as, be sure to bring the salt to the table. A hilarious example was when my friend looked out the window and noticed that I was standing on the street with a phone in my hand dressed only in a slip! On the other hand, I will always remember when we plan to meet a friend.

Times Together in Mutually Pleasant Occupations

I have found that it is important to enjoy areas where our previous lifestyle choices coincide. We feel so happy being with another person who values daily Holy Mass as much as we do. As I like to put it, “If Jesus wants to leap down from heaven through the hands of the priest to come into my body, shouldn’t I be there?”

My friend is a Third Order Dominican, and I was a Benedictine Oblate for many years. As a result, we love praying parts of the Liturgy of the Hours aloud around the dining table.

I had not known before how much my friend has loved classical music since childhood. Many evenings end with playing videos of the favorite music each of us loves. Sometimes my friend has never even heard one of mine. Other times I haven’t heard hers. A joy for her was being introduced to the famous Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida on YouTube, where you can watch her unique way of emoting expressed in her face and whole body while playing.

My friend has a wonderful swimming pool. How relaxing to swim together, my only sport. No matter what little frustrations and even conflicts we have gone through during the day, that early evening swim counteracts it all.

It happens that both of us love Japanese raw fish sushi dishes. We arranged to buy these every Friday for dinner. We look forward to this treat.

You, the reader, if you try such a cooperative experiment, will discover your own favorite common activities.

Expressing Gratitude

I feel wonderful when my friend thanks me for doing something for her, even if she didn’t want me to do it. In this case it involved major de-cluttering. I feel happy effusively thanking her for driving us to Holy Mass and for cooking wonderful meals for dinner. Breakfast and lunch we make for ourselves whenever.

However, I have noticed that most “empty nest” older women, no longer needed by husbands and children, often feel a compulsion to mother everyone they meet incessantly. In the literature this is called being a smother-mother. Asked-for advice is always helpful and good. Constant suggestions about trifles, with the insistence that this is the better way to do “x” and “y,” becomes annoying. Especially on a 24-hour basis.

But how can this be overcome in daily life together? Not so easy. Advising someone to use this pot vs. another to boil soup is not necessary, but explaining that you put the pot on the wrong burner and failed to turn it on is necessary.

I have found that I need to always express gratitude for good advice, especially when I resisted it at first out of ignorance. It is good in prayer to thank God all the time, each and every day, for the virtues of the other resident(s). Thank you, Jesus, for my dear friend for being so sacrificial just now.

Many years ago I wrote a book called The Way of Love. It includes what I call “A Spiritual Marathon” with twelve weeks of daily challenges about such matters as talking so that others can understand, not speaking too softly, or helping in small ways. One of the exercises is to spend a whole week thanking God for everything good, not only for a beautiful sunrise, but even for toilet paper. Student readers or those who follow this as a parish workshop find that the week of constant thanksgiving is the best one in their whole year!

“You can only love yourself, loving!” is one of the least known truths expressed by St. Thomas Aquinas. What does it mean? I explain it this way. When you are being disgruntled, peevish, or upset, you can’t love yourself. If you happen to look in the mirror when you are struck in such negativity, you will hate the way you look! However, when you are being loving in the form of praising someone, helping someone, thanking someone, or praising and thanking God you can love yourself. If you happened to glance at yourself in the mirror at such times you will be pleased.

A recent example of thankfulness was particularly poignant. A mutual friend came over to tell us that her daughter was in the hospital emergency room, not yet diagnosed. Because of Covid she was not able to stay there with her, only to take turns with her daughter’s husband and adult children. How she needed to express her anxieties. We prayed over her and for her daughter. Suddenly she realized that no one had called a priest. My friend helped search for the nearest one since it appeared that the hospital chaplain was not Catholic, so couldn’t perform an anointing.

Our guest was so grateful for our commiserating love. It felt as if our cooperative Catholic elderly residence was a true “safe-house” for her to run to.

Conflict Management

In the case of my experiment, conflicts are never about important religious or moral issues since we agree totally on these. They usually involve small matters. I think most people experimenting with living a residence with only a small amount of people will only choose to be with those they agree with about major questions.

Let’s take a small matter that can lead to conflict: leftover food from meals. I keep such food for weeks in the fridge to eat whenever I feel like it. My friend’s mother almost died of food poisoning when she was a little girl. It left her with the habit of only letting food stay in the fridge for 2 days at most. Otherwise, the freezer or the trash bin. So, my friend feels frustrated when I try to “make” her eat something that I made that has been in the fridge for a week. I feel upset when she tosses out a dish I love just because it is old.

I came up with a name for this type of conflict: Absolutizing Trivia. The concept is this: on moral questions there are absolutes, such as: killing innocent persons is always wrong. On daily life issues, there can be different opinions. One might be better, but usually there are experts on either side of almost anything we argue about.

Since my friend is so amiable and flexible, she has modeled the solution to everyday conflicts: unless it is something huge for her, she simply gives in to the other person’s ways! Since food being fresh, not contaminated, is huge for her, she won’t eat it just because I want her to. Since being early for appointments is huge for me, she always goes along.

A priest, who was a psychological counselor before becoming a clergyman, liked to put it this way: “Don’t major in the minors!”

I believe Jesus likes to convey wisdom to me through inner “words.” It is dangerous to think that such words, when they are about decisions, is infallible. “Leave our little children and go and evangelize Israel,” is probably not from God. But with wise adages I listen carefully to such words. One was this:

“Ronda, stop scheming to avoid suffering.”

To understand this message, you have to know that I am a total wimp about pain. A dentist once refunded $1,000 I had paid in advance not to come back to his office again since my screams frightened the other patients! Now sufferings could be physical pain but also emotional pain about the slightest trifles. I can obsess for hours over whether it is right for me to insist on arriving on time even when there is no necessity of being on time.

So, it helps me when we get into minor conflicts about trivia to think of those two admonitions: “Don’t absolutize trivia” and “stop scheming to avoid suffering!”

Another way that helps me in conflict is this. I often think of my day, week, or year, as if I was the heroine of the drama with others as secondary characters or just walk-ons. I want everything the others say or do to contribute to the joy of my day by means of admiring words or, at least, by not getting in the way of my perfect day by doing something “selfish” to please themselves! So, when I want to be ten minutes early to a pleasurable occasion they shouldn’t dare to pick me up late.

Now, obviously such a strategy can never work. Why not? Well, not even God can get us to do His will 24/7! Free will means that everyone can try to get the best for themselves out of every day, week, or year, not to mention lifetime.

So, what is the remedy? How about the Christian maxim of loving one’s neighbor as oneself? How about trying to see how to have a minimum amount of self-satisfaction without infringing on the needs of others? Applying such maxims to life in an elderly Catholic residence will surely make everything not only better but even possible.

If you experiment with a group elderly living situation, you will probably find still other ways to handle small conflicts.

I recently wrote a book with a co-author David Dowd entitled Always a New Beginning. It is a dialogue concerning how to be healed from tragedies of the past. It is also about how to avoid fatalism concerning present-day syndromes. If you google the title you can check out our book. Readers tell us they find it extremely helpful.

For this article, I want to relate the concept of a new beginning to the problem of labeling self and others in ways that make it appear as if character is fate.

What do I mean? To use the example of anger, should I excuse all my angry outbursts on the basis that I have a choleric temperament? The famous four temperaments are: choleric vs. phlegmatic and melancholic vs. sanguine. Choleric means angry whereas phlegmatics are more lazy and laid-back. Now, it may be true that I am a choleric but a temperament is not something so compelling that I can never be peaceful, especially with God’s grace. So, when frustrated by a conflict with someone over punctuality or over-eating left-overs, clearly I am not fated to snap, yell or even scream! If I sincerely pray often during the day to accept difference in those I live with, I am less likely to display a quick reaction. I am more likely to stop and find a compromise.

Here is a story of conflict over trifles with a happy, grace-filled ending. A neighbor visited us. We happened to get into the subject of finding old e-mails on the phone. Now, this woman happens to be someone who loves to give advice to others even when they didn’t ask for it.

I told her that I hate tech and that my phone wouldn’t do what she thought it could.

“Yes, it certainly will,” said she.

I screamed, banged the table, and yelled: “You’re wrong. Here’s my phone, you do it.”

She grabbed my phone and couldn’t figure it out.

Ashamed of my outburst, I quickly begged her to forgive me.

In return, she said simply, “I am sorry. I didn’t think it would annoy you so much.”

Before she left, I asked her for a hug. Even though she seldom hugs anyone, except family, she encircled me. A delicious warmth radiated out of her embrace.

I thought, now we will be better friends than before the conflict.

Indeed, forgiveness is one of the most important gestures we can ever make. After all, the Our Father, which many of us pray many times a day, insists that we forgive one another. Seventy-seven times seven times, Jesus taught.

Concerning forgiveness in marriage, I teach that often during the honeymoon period we almost idol-worship our beloved — he or she seeming like a perfect person. Then they can become fallen idols when we discover all their faults on a day-to-day basis living together in marriage. However, if spouses forgive each other from the heart, they begin to laugh at the same flaws they previously hated. They seem to each other not idols but more funny little creatures.

My twin sister, a sacred dancer, has a unique way of trying to overcome conflicts with me. After I cool down, she leads me off center-stage where the dispute was acted out with harsh words, to some quiet spot. Then she challenges us to dance out the feelings toward each other. It always works.

In my book The Way of Love I also present this challenge: Ask people who know you really well, such as family, co-workers, parishioners, what are three wonderful qualities you have. Then ask them what your worst defect is. Most likely they will all agree about the defect and you’ll be surprised.

How could this exercise affect an elderly Catholic residence situation? Well, take the defect of giving too much unwanted advice. A smother-mother woman or a bossy man could try for a week never giving advice without being asked. If those you live with think you must be sick because you are talking so little, you could take notice.

I have found that trying to live together in a house with my friend, I need to go Confession more often that before! Why? It is stressful to try to get along on a 24/7 basis with any other person. Snappishness is the way I describe my reactions to tiny conflicts. After Confession I can get a fresh start.

Adjustment of Expectations

A priest once gave me this advice about living situations: “Don’t ask yourself if it is perfect. See if you can stand it!” Short of heaven, nothing on earth is ever perfect. We know this with our minds, but with our imaginations we love to plan for perfect children, perfect spouses, perfect jobs, perfect friends, and . . . perfect elderly living situations?

Chesterton once wrote that all people are incompatible. It is only by miracle that anyone gets along! Just the same, it could be that there is something about an experiment I try that is really not bearable, at least not for me or you.

However, something might seem unbearable at first that one can gradually adjust to. For example, it might bother a friend that I talk so loudly. But when she is partially deaf, it becomes a plus! So, we need not leap to the conclusion that an experiment has failed. Still, what if my experiment won’t work, after all, in spite of all these ways of trying to make it work?

A favorite incident in my life was this: I tried living with a daughter and her family for a year and it didn’t work out. During a dinner at a restaurant that daughter suddenly said: “Mom, don’t worry. If you become really disabled, we will take care of you.”

“Carla,” I replied, “you can’t say that when your husband hates me!”

Her husband came in with a smile: “Oh, Ronda, but you’ll be much easier to live with when you are old, decrepit and vulnerable!”

I laughed and laughed.

I think that even if this present experiment doesn’t work out, when I am no longer a loud-mouthed, domineering matriarch, but instead in a rocking chair with hardly a breath left in my body, it could actually work out to live in the family or in an institution.

Pray for me!

Ronda Chervin, PhD About Ronda Chervin, PhD

Dr. Ronda Chervin is an Emerita Professor of Philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Previously she has taught at Loyola Marymount University, St. John's Seminary of Los Angeles, and Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is the author of some 77 books in the area of Philosophical Spirituality and presents on EWTN and Catholic Radio. She is a Dedicated Widow.


  1. Avatar Amelia F. Raven says:

    I am there. Great article. I shared with many people that are at this stage of life.


  2. I appreciate the topic is broached. Over the years I have found myself often giving advice to people making this transition as well as the adult children supporting them. Generally, the topic is one of the elderly, set in our ways, experiencing the major paradigm shift of living differently (whether with family or with friends, or even in retirement communities). Regardless of the living situation, it seems a useful Catholic ministry would be to prepare elderly for this paradigm shift. Perhaps our baby boomer generation is more set in their ways and critical of others, or maybe that is my bias (being one of them). But the nit-picking and controlling ways must end. This shift, like all that God permits, is the opportunity for spiritual growth and maturing of the person. Basically, a person needs to truly live their faith. Otherwise, it becomes great hardship as one battles with their own will. Hence, a ministry would assist not only in practical matters such as expressed in this article, but also in the underlying spiritual growth that will lead people to communal peace.

  3. Avatar Kathleen says:

    Really a wonderful reality checker for me. Thank you for helping me see my drama of late is actually a comedy ! God help me to retire as the righteous judge of the household !
    …as the Wisdom Keeper and the know it all …..Darling God , help me to just BE…..loving , kind, thankful and forgiving of myself and grateful for my family for “putting up with my presence in their home.
    Help me laugh more and grumble less. Help me remember this practical suggestion filled article rather than be the victim of my own creative imagination…if you know what I mean!