When I pictured old age, I imagined my best friend Madeleine and I sitting on a porch in comfy chairs talking as we always did throughout the day. Perhaps we’d be talking about our children or grandchildren, perhaps our husbands if they too made it to old age, or we’d be reminiscing about events in our lives we had shared over a friendship that lasted 60, 70 or even 80 years. Sadly, we got to have just 40 years together. While I’ve learned to be grateful that we had those 40, I surely would have loved a few more decades on that porch.
Recently my friend Marty sent me a clipping from the Washington Post about four women who will all turn 100 this year who have been friends since childhood. The women grew up together in Southwest Washington. As girls they played jacks and jumped rope. At one point, two of them lived in the same house and three of them had babies in 1933. Through the ups and downs of their lives their friendship endured. As the article notes, “They can still send each other into hysterics. And they share memories of places and people no one else remembers.”
Sharing memories is an important part of long-time friendships. You can’t recreate that with newer relationships. Judith Schmidt talks about her old friend Shirl as her “old country” in her Friendship Dialogues story about her two best friends who died from cancer—Shirley Glickman at 65 and Nina Liebman at 50. Old friends know your past and they know the people you have loved who are no longer alive. This connection gets more important to you as you age when there are fewer people around who knew you when.
You can read more friendship stories at Friendship Dialogues and share a friendship story or photo of your own.
What is it, do you think, that makes for a good life? Riches? Fame? Business success? Actually the answer is none of the above. A long-term Harvard University study of Adult Development has come up with a different conclusion. The study tracked 724 men from the Boston area for 75 years, an unusual amount of time for one study to last. Some of the men became lawyers, bricklayers and doctors and one, John F. Kennedy, even became President of the U.S. The study, which is still going on, has also tracked the wives and more than 2000 children of these men. The 4th study director, Robert Waldinger said in a Ted Talk the clearest message from the reams of data they’ve collected is “good relationships keep us happier and healthier.” Social connection is good for us while “loneliness kills,” he said. The brain function of those in the study who were isolated actually declined sooner than those who were connected with others. And it’s not the number of friends one has that matters, it’s the quality of the close relationships that matter. Good relationships, it turns out, protect our brains and our health. If you have people you can count on you stay sharper longer.
So what does that data mean for us? We need to “lean in” to relationships with family, friends and community,” said Waldinger. That’s a lesson that I’ve learned too from interviewing more than two-dozen women for Friendship Dialogues. The women I talked to were nurtured by the relationships they had with their female best friends. When that friend died they knew they could not replace the treasured friendship, but they also knew they had to make an effort to avoid loneliness. They understood they needed connection with others.
One of the women, Lindsay Kavet, said she had an epiphany after her best friend Polly Mae Tolonen died in a car accident that she had to start “friend dating.” Lindsay was building a community called Expressing Motherhood and was listening to people share their stories, but she had been keeping her distance, not talking to the performers. But after she realized she had to connect more with others, she started to seek some of them out, sharing her points about their readings. That led to her texting some of them and even asking some of the women to go out with her to an event. All of this was out of her comfort zone, but it led to her making some new friends and that has been a comfort to her.
When my best friend Madeleine was in intensive care for four months, another friend invited me to join her book club. I didn’t really feel that I had the time or the desire to do that, but I knew that Madeleine was deathly ill and her time was limited. I knew how lonely I would be without her and so I joined the group knowing that getting out once a month with other women was a positive step to take. It was an affirmation of life. It would foster a connection with others. It was an acknowledgement that I would have to go on without Madeleine and needed social connection with others to serve as a small cushion after she was gone.
So that’s my message: Small steps are necessary when we experience loss. Loneliness is deadly and we need to be proactive in seeking out people and interests in our lives that can make us feel connected again.