FifthOutside you do not see loneliness. The lawn is well looked after, and there are flower pots and small plastic windmills in the front yard. A young couple or a family with children can live in a small bungalow in Miami. But the owner is 92 years old, lives alone and can no longer come to the door without outside help.
Gennaro Gomez is sitting in an armchair in the living room: a hoodie, a fleece hat, and an oxygen tube under his nose. It’s cold and dark in the house, the curtains are drawn. “It’s a better way to relax,” Gomez says. Everything he needs in everyday life is around him: a small fridge, a bowl of bananas, and a medicine cabinet. Not only can he control the TV by remote control and mobile phone, but he can also control the surveillance cameras in his garden. “My command center,” the 92-year-old said with a laugh.
He lived in California, worked as an actor and dancer, and there was always something going on. He even played in the western series Bonanza, as he proudly demonstrated in a YouTube video. Today all he wants is peace and quiet: “I am happy that I live alone. At least no one can tell me what to do.”
But then came the epidemic. Gomez’s assistant, who usually shops and cooks for him, fell ill. But the caregivers didn’t have time for anything beyond physical care. Gennaro Gomez, 92, without family or friends, suddenly felt extremely helpless. “I haven’t eaten anything for two days. I didn’t know who to call. No food, no money, no support.”
Online, he came across the company “Join Papa”, which organizes the so-called rental grandchildren: young people who accompany the elderly for a fee. In many cases, this is covered by health insurance, as is the case with Genaro Gomez. Because it has long been clear that loneliness not only affects mood, but also makes you sick. In a study, the AARP Social Association estimates the costs lonely people cause to the American health care system at $6.7 billion annually. In Great Britain there has been a Minister of Unity since 2018.
Every morning at 10 a.m., Ralph Joel is at Gennaro Gomez’s door. At the age of 67, the German immigrant was slightly older than his grandchildren. However, Gennaro Gomez refers to him as a “little boy”. Joel mixes turnip juice, fryes a fried egg, and sits in the living room chatting with his “grandfather”. But before they could talk about philosophy, Gennaro Gomez interrupted him again. “The juice is bitter,” says the old man, returning the plastic cup. Joel replied, “Yes, King Gomez.”
There is not much time for conversations, health insurance pays only one hour a day. Sometimes Joel stays longer – he doesn’t see his grandson’s rented presence as a job, but as a volunteer position. “I’m divorced but I have two kids,” says Joel, who has worked as a TV producer for years. “During the pandemic, I have often asked myself how older people who no longer have any caregivers should do this.” The fact that the rented grandchildren earn between $11 and $14 an hour doesn’t bother him. “For me, this is not work, it is profit. We can learn a lot from our seniors.”