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By Ellen Pearlman

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A Tough Baby Boomer Conversation

When I was in my twenties, my friend Ken and I would sometimes talk about the wisdom of living in a shared community when we were older. While it was fine for us to live with our mates in our own homes now, we thought that later, when we were seniors, a different arrangement might work better. We envisioned that a group of us could buy land together, build small cottages for each couple and also have a communal living space where meals were prepared and eaten and where we could find companionship with old friends. Medical and maintenance expenses could be shared. It would be the best of all worlds: privacy plus community, independence plus assistance.

Now that I’m a senior – which I have a really hard time believing – I still think that communal model has merits, but I realize I’m no longer the one to make it happen. My friend Ken, who was widowed 12 years ago, recently sold his long-time home and is looking for another place to live with a lovely woman he’s been seeing. He’s been looking at planned communities, so I guess our long-ago dreams aren’t so far from his mind.

My husband and I have spent some gut wrenching conversations thinking about our future too. We now have our own home that requires a fair amount of upkeep. The house was built somewhere around 1890 and something always needs fixing. Over the years we’ve planted elaborate gardens that we’ve lovingly tended, but I know that the time will come when turning over the soil, planting, watering, fertilizing and weeding will not be doable for arthritic hands and knees or aching backs. We already have someone else cut the grass in the summer, pick up the leaves in the fall and plow when the snowstorms hit.

We are part of the baby boom generation that has a hard time accepting we won’t be young forever. And, therefore, trying to have a conversation about what we should do when the time comes for us to not do what we’ve been doing for so long is really hard. We still feel good and don’t really want to dwell on the tougher times that could be ahead when we may have to move from our cherished home.

A relative recently told me he planned to put a deposit down on an assisted living place. For $1000 he reasoned, he could get on the waiting list. If he got called and didn’t want it, he could refuse and put his name back on the list. “It’s an insurance policy,” he said, adding that he hoped he never had to use it.

I like that idea. At least it’s a plan and makes me feel as if I’m not being irresponsible by not doing anything about the future. Although I must admit, the plan that Ken and I tossed around so many years ago appeals to me more. It would have enabled us to be with our friends in our old, old age and not strangers. Of course, that’s only if the friends I’d want to live with were still around. Something you just can’t count on.

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What Makes a Friend a Friend?

August 7 is Friendship Day – to be distinguished from Best Friends Day that was celebrated on June 8 – so it’s not a surprise to find an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Do Your Friends Actually Like You?” A catchy headline, I admit, that I immediately clicked on.

After reading in the first paragraph that “Recent research indicates that only about half of perceived friendships are mutual,” I found myself shaking my head in dismay. What kind of friendships were these researchers studying? The article agrees that this was a startling finding and might be prompted by a misunderstanding of what friendship means in the age of social media.

I found myself feeling sorry for anyone that thinks someone is her friend only to discover that this is not a mutual feeling. True friendship is as recognizable as a baby emperor penguin is to its caring mother as she returns from feeding in the sea to her babe. How do you know friendship is reciprocal? Well you just do — especially for women. When a friendship is being formed you spend endless hours talking, discovering your views on any number of subjects and finding out how in sync you both are. Over time you know that this is the person you absolutely need to talk to when you are happy, sad or just plain old confused. She helps you figure out your feelings. She is a mirror to your soul. This only works, of course, if it’s reciprocal. You know that by the nature of what you both share, and without question, all disclosures are confidential.

That’s very different from a casual relationship – a Facebook “friend” for example, who you may barely know. That type of link doesn’t take a commitment. That type of “friend” doesn’t offer undying support or unconditional love. It’s a friendship as committed as the wind blowing this way and that.

That can be true of work friends too. The friendship may be cordial and even go beyond that for teammates, but until you bare your soul to each other, the word “friendship” just doesn’t quite apply. If you want to read real stories of friendship, read the friendship stories we’ve posted at Friendship Dialogues. They will touch you deeply. These are all tales of love and loss – best friends who have died and are dearly missed.

I don’t believe we are at risk of losing friendships that are deep and true, but I do think we have to recognize the difference between bonds that are at most one layer deep and cherish instead those that are buried deep in our pores. When you are lucky enough to find someone who is your soul sister cherish her. And if you have to wonder if your “friend” really likes you then you can be sure this person is not a candidate for true friendship.


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What Can We Learn From Female Olympians?

The Rio Olympic games start this Friday. While there has been much press coverage about how ready Brazil is for these games, there are no such questions about the Olympians themselves. This past weekend The New York Times Magazine devoted the July 31 issue of the magazine to the Olympics.

A story written by Michael Sokolove about Katie Ledecky, the 19-year-old swimming phenomenon, caught my attention. It wasn’t the fact that she sounds like a great person, or that she is such a determined athlete, or that she is happy in her pursuit of gold again that caught my eye. It was the statement by Carol Capitani in the article that I noticed.

Carol has coached both male and female swimmers and currently coaches a women’s swim team in Texas. She says that women training together have “a different community” and see one another as friends first rather than competitors. And she added, “Women need to get permission from each other that it’s all right to lay it on the line every day.” Carol at times actually has to coach women swimmers to understand they have to “try to beat that person next to you every time.”

Women seem to be hard wired for collaboration and teamwork, which can make it harder for them to compete all out to win. And when they are able to throw aside the need to be fair or liked and fight as hard as they can to outshine others, they can be criticized for not being likeable.

Hmmm…sound familiar? I’m not going down the political path right now, so I’ll leave it at that. But I do believe there is a bond that women often form with each other that makes them want to root for all women. For many women in everyday life, not necessarily in competitive sports, winning alone is just not as good as winning together. Seeing a friend win can feel as good as your own win. That makes me wonder what a world with more females in charge would look like? Just asking.

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What Do Two Friends Laughing Sound Like?

One of the happiest sounds I know is the laughter of two friends – the full-bellied, all-out, uncontrollable variety that brings tears of joy to your eyes. Have you had moments like this? I sure have. I can recall gasping for air when my best friend Madeleine and I were well into a full-blown laughing fit. When she laughed her whole face got into the act. Her eyes crinkled up and her mouth opened wide while her head tilted slightly back. While I don’t have a photo of her with me in full laugh mode I do have one that captured her laughing broadly at something her husband Scott said to her at my wedding to Jonathan.

She’s been gone for 13 years now, but I can still conjure up the sound and sight of her laughing. So when I read about a study on laughter that demonstrated relationship status I was intrigued. The research was conducted by UCLA professor Greg Bryant and 32 global collaborators, including Daniel Fessler, a UCLA professor and Riccardo Fusaroli, an assistant professor in Denmark. The study aimed to find out if listeners to audio clips of two people laughing could distinguish whether they were friends or strangers.

The results showed that 61% of the time listeners could identify the relationship correctly. But the scenario that they were best able to judge was when two women friends were laughing together. They got this right more than 80% of the time. Regardless of the listener’s cultural background, said Bryant, they presumed that co-laughter between women meant they were friends. “People from around the world assume that when two females are laughing together that they are friends,” he added.

The study suggests that laughter between friends is more spontaneous and has greater irregularities in pitch and loudness, and also has faster bursts of sound. That sounds right to me. If you want to check it out for yourself, you can at UCLA’s Newsroom where you can hear two clips of females laughing (one between friends and the other strangers).

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Friendship: What Works Best, a Twosome or Threesome?

It was a slow Saturday night and my husband and I were watching one of life’s guilty pleasures – Naked and Afraid XL. The premise of the reality TV show is that a dozen survivalists are dropped into the Columbian jungle without food, water or clothes and they have to find a way to survive 40 days and nights. The show we were watching was one of the last in the 2015 series and there was much squabbling going on. Two of the men had moved away from the group, figuring they’d do better as a duo. The seven remaining starving and dirty men and women had ganged up on one of the women who they felt wasn’t a team player.

It was interesting to watch the dynamics even though I don’t trust any reality show to be about reality. What I zeroed in on were the two men who had teamed up. There was no squabbling between them and they were able to divvy up their survival responsibilities based on their individual skills. I couldn’t help but wonder if three of them had partitioned off instead of two, would the camaraderie have been as strong?

In my own experiences – with food, shelter and clothes – I’ve found that among female friends a twosome generally works a lot better than a threesome. With three friends there is always the likelihood that one will feel left out when two agree about something or laugh together or get together when the third member of the group isn’t there. When two women are best friends there is trust and support. I think it’s a lot harder for three women to be best friends. I’m not sure what happens if the friends in question are men. What about two women and a man or two men and a woman, can friendships like that be as close as two peas in a pod.

What do you think? What has been your experience?

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Spreading the Power of Sisterhood

A male friend recently asked me why I didn’t include men’s stories at Friendship Dialogues. When I decided to launch a website about the value of friendship and how to cope when those relationships ended I knew that I wanted the site to be for women and about women. I understood that there were women whose best friend was a man, but the stories I was interested in were those told by women about their closest female friends. I could have included stories from men about their men friends too. But I knew that women’s friendships were based on connection and a need to communicate, to be heard and to listen. To hear your feelings echoed back to you. And that was what I wanted to focus on.

I read books on the subject to see what the experts had to say about women’s relationships. In The Healing Connection: How Women Form Relationships in Therapy and in Life, psychiatric professor Jean Baker Miller and Harvard Medical School psychiatric lecturer Irene Pierce Stiver, both seen as pioneers in the psychology of women, said, “An inner sense of connection to others is the central organizing feature of women’s development…Women’s sense of self and of worth is most often grounded in the ability to make and maintain relationships.”

The give and take that occurs when women discuss their feelings leads them to something called “mutual empathy” and helps women express their feelings more fully. Miller and Stiver said, “Mutual empathy is the great unsung human gift. Out of it flows mutual empowerment.” As women connect they help each other act and change, which is essential for psychological development. Women come to know themselves, each other, and the world around them through the exchanges they have with each other.

Women are big talkers. For many of us it’s our sport. And we are often likely to open our hearts to our best girlfriends, revealing our deepest thoughts and feelings that we share with no one else. Men talk too, but it’s generally about what they are doing – often sports – and less about how they feel. According to Shelly E. Taylor in The Tending Instinct: Women, Men, and the Biology of Our Relationships, for women to form vital bonds with each other they need some “glue.” Conversation, she explained, is that glue for human beings and while talking is not unique to women it may play an especially important role for women in building and maintaining relationships. Women are more “collectively oriented,” she said, while men are more “individualistic.”

From my own experiences I understood that men were less likely to talk about their feelings with women and with other men. Jane E. Brody, in an article in The New York Times entitled “The Challenges of Male Friendships,” said, “Consciously or otherwise, many men believe that talking about personal matters with other men is not manly.” And I have found that when women talk to men about their problems, men are more likely to try and fix the problem rather than just listening and letting the woman vent. Perhaps that is changing and millennial males are more likely to be emotional with their male friends than baby boomer males are. I hope so.

I would certainly like to see men be more communicative with other men since that could provide them with all the powerful emotional and health benefits women get from sisterhood. A change like that could also spread into men’s relationships with women, which would strengthen those connections. Then, instead of trying to fix a woman’s problem, a man might be content to listen, sympathize, ask questions and encourage her to do what’s in her heart.



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Love Endures, Despite Alzheimer’s

Friendship Dialogues Founder, Ellen Pearlman
Founder, Ellen Pearlman

Love and loss go hand-in-hand. You can’t avoid that. Loss comes in many different ways. There’s the loss of someone you love that comes suddenly without warning (as it did when my father died of a heart attack while at his office when he was 50 and I was 13). There’s the loss of someone you love that comes gradually as they succumb to a devastating illness (as it did when my best friend Madeleine died when she was 58 after suffering for over six years with a rare form of cancer combined with Myasthenia Gravis, a neuromuscular disease). Then there’s the loss of someone you love that is long-term as they slowly lose their mental capacity due to Alzheimer’s disease (as it happened to my brilliant sister-in-law, a former math teacher, who died after more than a decade of decline).

Regardless of the time frame in which loss occurs it is devastating to all those connected to the person whose life is ending. But having experienced loss many times in my life and for many different reasons, I believe the hardest loss to witness is the slow decline of someone with Alzheimer’s. With Alzheimer’s you lose the person when they are still alive. You lose the ability to have meaningful conversations, you lose the ability to reminisce about the good old days, and you lose the ability to have shared experiences. But recently I was reminded of what you don’t lose – love.

My cousin Michael was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about six years ago. For several years his cognitive impairment was mild, but after a grueling year when his wife Gloria was in and out of the hospital and spent months in rehab after being treated for colon cancer, his decline has hastened. She wrote to me this week about the recent changes she has observed, providing a glimpse through dialogue of how their life is changing and his disease is progressing. But through it all, love endures.

An update…..

I can’t find the flashlight. I need a flashlight.

I’ll get it, What do you need it for?

The flashlight in the bathroom went out, I have to change it.

I need a wet thing.

A sponge?

A wet thing for my hands. I need to dry them.

The candleholder you stained should be dry. Bring it up and we can put it on the screen porch.

What candleholder?

The one you made from the piece of wood.

I made a candleholder?


Neighbor: How are your grandchildren?

                 Sometimes I watch them on television.

                 Do you mean the computer?

                 (Laughing) I think I mean the phone. It’s fun. I miss them.


Why can’t I stay by myself?

Because if there was an emergency you don’t remember your address or phone number or who to call.

What would be an emergency?

If there was a fire or you got hurt.

I’d go outside.

Who would you call?

Sarah or Zach.

You have to call 911

Why? What’s 911?

Are you in the den?

I’m working on a picture. It’s hard.

Do you want to take a break?

No. I want to do this. I used to be able to do this without thinking.

I need to do this.

1/2 hr later…….This is hard.

How ’bout a short break?


1hr later……Look at my picture!

                   It’s  beautiful! (Achingly, amazingly, wonderfully beautiful)

Where are we going?

To see Stella.

5min. later

Where are we going?

To see Stella.

5min. later

Where are we going?

To see Stella

30 minutes later exiting onto Riverside Dr.

This is like coming home. I used to walk those other dogs over there. (He did and it was.)

The grass needs to be less. I have to vacuum the grass.

After the center we have to go to my appointment with the surgeon.


He has to check the incisions.

Why did you get those incisions?

Looking at the diner menu.

What do I like to eat?

Why did you give me fewer pills (vitamins)

Oh! I gave you mine by mistake.

You’re getting like me!

Me: Are you depressed?

       No, I’m still me. Just not the same.

       And I have you. I love you.

Me (crying): I love you too

        Why are you crying?

         I don’t want to lose you.

         You’ll never lose me. I’ll always know you in my heart.

Language is lost, memories fade, things that should be easy aren’t, things that seemingly should be complicated sometimes aren’t, some days are hard, some filled with joy, life is often minute by minute, always sadness and worry….. love endures.

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Why I’m Celebrating Best Friends Day

Friendship Dialogues Founder, Ellen Pearlman

I’ve never been a fan of Mothers Day and Fathers Day. I always felt that singling out one day of the year to honor them was kind of cheesy. “Here’s a bouquet of roses, Mom.” “Here’s a tie, Dad.” See what I mean? I always thought it was better to show your love and appreciation consistently and sincerely and not with a Hallmark card. So I’m a bit surprised that I feel a connection to Best Friends Day, perhaps it’s because it doesn’t come with a corny greeting card or expectation of a hastily purchased gift.

But the real reason I feel a need to celebrate this day is because the loss of my best friend Madeleine has taught me how critically important best friends are. Who do you call when you get a new job? Who do you call when your test results are benign? Who do you call when you daughter gives birth? Who do you call when you are feeling blue? Who do you call when you are angry with your mate? The answer, obviously, is your best friend. Who else can share your joys and help you deal with your disappointments? But whom do you call when your best friend dies? That’s the tough one. When your best friend dies the person you most want to speak to is no longer there for you.

So my message today is don’t take your best friend for granted. Don’t assume she’ll be there to grow old with you. And don’t assume she knows how much you love her. Be sure to tell her.

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Shocking News About Friendship

This week the Today show is running a series on “The New Middle Age” with journalist Joan Lunden doing the segments. One of the segments was on the importance of friendship in middle age. To demonstrate the value of friendship, Joan and her friend of 15 years, Louise, took part in a neuroscience experiment.

Louise was put in an MRI machine where she would be given cues that would indicate whether or not she might get an electric shock to her ankle. The test was designed to create anxiety. The experiment was conducted three ways: Louise alone in the scanner; with a stranger holding her hand; and with her friend Joan holding her hand. The purpose of the experiment was to evaluate how people regulate anxiety in these three different circumstances.

Not surprisingly, the brain scans showed blood activity to the brain when Louise was alone or when a stranger held her hand, but when Joan was with Louise, those areas of her brain were quiet. Said Louise of the experience, when Joan walked in, “I felt she had my back.”

Many of us are familiar with the experience of relaxing when you hear your friend’s voice, feel her touch or look into her eyes. Close friends soothe. They comfort. They let you know you are not alone.

In fact, research shows that people with a large network of friends live longer and are healthier. But U.S. census bureau data from 2013 shows a disturbing trend: people ages 45 to 64 were 29% more likely to live alone than they were 10 years ago. So more than ever before it is important that we make time for friends and cherish the ones we have.

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Friend Dating

Two months ago I wrote about the power of connection with others and its value in living a good life. But what happens when you lose close friends later in life when it’s harder to meet new people? Friend dating, as Lindsay Kavet, one of the Friendship Dialogues storytellers, realized, can be essential to moving on after the loss of a lifelong best friend. In Lindsay’s case, her best friend of 11 years Polly Mae Tolonen died in a car accident in 2008.

Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an article called “The Science of Making Friends.” The author, Elizabeth Bernstein, noted that she’d been going on friend dates recently and offered some words of advice that I think are worth repeating.

First of all you can’t be casual about this, you need to go about finding new friends with intention. Bernstein says, “Just as you would when looking for a mate, you need to look for someone who has something in common with you, and who is emotionally available.”

Bernstein offers a number of nuggets of wisdom about finding a friend:

  • Don’t expect too much too soon
  • Look broadly
  • Share something of yourself emotionally
  • Follow your interests
  • Be consistent
  • Consider rekindling an old friendship

It’s been awhile since I’ve intentionally gone out to make new friends. It’s not easy to do this. Your circle of opportunity narrows as you get older and you are less likely to meet new people. So it may mean joining new groups with which you have shared interests. Sometimes it means working harder on relationships you already have, to deepen the ties.

Have you made new friends recently? What’s worked for you?