Bea and Bob Muller looked at assisted living facilities as they grew older. But after a life in which they traveled, started a business and owned as many as six houses at one time, they didn't want a retirement "organized" for them.
Instead, the New Jersey couple began traveling and took five world cruises, each several months long, on the luxurious Queen Elizabeth 2.
When her husband died in the ship's hospital in 1999, Bea Muller decided to sail on and has made the QE2 her retirement home.
The 86-year-old peppery blonde, who adores ballroom dancing and favors the color red, is the only person living full time on either of the grand Cunard Line ships, the QE2 and Queen Mary 2, the company says.
"I would die of boredom if I had to live on land," said Muller, who arrived in New York last week to visit her son, Allan, 54, in Middlesex Borough. Next month, she sails to Norway on the QE2, the massive ocean liner she calls a "dear little city."
"I am probably the most fortunate person in the universe," she said.
Muller's universe once revolved around Bound Brook. She raised two sons, and did volunteer work with the Girl Scouts, the local Red Cross chapter and her church.
"I ran half the town for about 40 years. They asked me to run for mayor once," she said.
She helped her husband, a top executive at Union Carbide and Cyanamid, start a successful engineering consulting firm. The couple also invested in real estate, refurbishing houses for profit.
But in the years since, neighbors moved or died, her pastor left and few ties remained.
"I've been away from land for a long time," she said.
With few connections to land, Muller has a retirement like no other.
She toured a rain forest in the Seychelles and sat on a camel in Dubai. She sailed the Scandinavian fjords and walked the beach in Ipanema.
She goes ballroom dancing nearly every night. Gentlemen hosts -- single men age 50 and up, who are skilled dancers with good reputations -- are available to dance with single women. (It was her husband, however, who Muller calls the "best dancer I ever knew.")
She takes tea daily; plays bridge; enjoys sunsets, moonrises and walks on deck; and keeps in touch with friends and family via e-mail sent from places such as the South China Sea. All the while, she enjoys service that "spoils me completely."
If she sees something amiss onboard she suggests changes, figuring it's her duty as the QE2's only resident. Muller says one entertainer was not rehired after she reported the singer was singing behind the beat and throwing off the dancers.
"It's my life. It's my ship," she said.
Muller's unusual life also has been chronicled by the BBC, American television, and dozens of newspapers and magazines. Now, she is writing a book.
ALTERNATIVE TO ASSISTED LIVING
Cruise ship living for seniors is not a new idea. A study published last fall in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society recommended it as an alternative to assisted living facilities, in part because ships have a high staff-to-passenger ratio, medical facilities and lots of handrails.
But cruise industry officials, who don't encourage it, could name no other passenger doing so -- although officials at Crystal Cruises said an 82-year-old New Mexico woman has booked 50 weeks on the line next year.
"This is a proposed concept. Cruise ships are really designed for vacationers at this point," said Christine Fischer, spokeswoman for the International Council of Cruise Lines.
Other experts applaud the idea of nontraditional assisted living, but say Muller may be the exception. A spokesman for the Assisted Living Federation of America questioned whether cruise ships can provide the daily help many seniors need with things like bathing, grooming and eating. Some say cruise ship living could be dangerous for seniors in frail health.
Muller said her expenses run about $66,000 a year, which includes insurance, tours in ports, clothing, gifts and occasional visits to her sons. The study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found assisted living costs a national average of $28,689 a year, more in the Northeast and West. High-end centers can run $48,000 or more.
Muller said if her husband were still living, he would join her. The couple loved cruising together.
After Bob Muller's death -- he had emphysema, then suffered viral pneumonia -- his widow scattered his ashes from the QE2's deck, at dawn, in a memorial service led by the captain.
When Muller's sons suggested she live on board, she didn't pause. She sold her three houses and four cars, stashed a few things in son Allan's attic, and moved into Cabin 4068.
Home now is a 10-by-12-foot room, midship, with a double closet (needed for the many evening clothes she needs for formal dinners). She has shelves for books and flowers, and framed photos of friends and family. Soon, she will move to a larger cabin, bringing her costs to about $7,000 per month.
Her itinerary is wherever the ship goes: The roughly 105-day World Cruise each year, which circles the globe; then ports in Europe, Africa, Canada and North and South America. She has a thick collection of photos chronicling her travels.
Muller's sons like the arrangement.
"She really can't keep house any more and she can't drive. But it's much better than assisted living would be," said Allan.
Allan and Geoffrey, 48, who lives near Boston, take cruises to visit her.
Cunard calls her "our fascinating passenger."
Muller owns a vacation house near Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, but sold everything else.
"It is a wonderful life for me. I have no grandchildren, can't see well enough to drive, and my sons and daughter-in-law come to sail with me," she said. "Compared with continued-living establishments I have seen ... this is value for money."
Muller plans to keep sailing. She measures her life in ports of call: After Norway, she's off on the "Jewels of the Baltic" cruise, which includes Hamburg, Germany and Amsterdam.
Beyond that, she has the world to look forward to.
"'Till I'm bored or dead," she said"
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