August 9, 2016

Ronni Bennett: "A Meditation on Making Friends While Old"

My last blog post was based on a recent piece in the Harvard Health Letter about the risks -- especially for seniors -- posed by loneliness and isolation. That article included some suggestions for combating those threats, although I've regularly seen similar tips from other sources. 

Today, I read a post by Ronni Bennett (my favorite blogger) in which she reflects on what many of us long for... not just a friend, but a close friend. A best friend. 

The Washington Post has characterized Ronni's blog Time Goes By as "the quintessential seniors' blog." I couldn't agree more. After checking it out, you may want to do what I did -- click on the "Subscribe" link. Here's Ronni's post, in full.

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Judging by the number of online stories about loneliness and feeling alone many, many people are longing for a close friend. A best friend. Most of all, someone to trust.

These articles are usually written by people much younger than you and I who presumably get out and about to a wider variety of places than old people tend to do and meet more people.

But one particular change in employment – working from home – has made finding friends much harder for them than during my career years.

According to a recent study, 45 percent (!) of U.S. employees work from home and that doesn't count freelancers. So finding a friend may be one area of living where youth and age have a lot in common these days.

Or not. Old people are not as likely to hang out in bars and clubs. Old people's oldest friends die at a greater rate. Our energy and stamina trim the number and duration of sports and other physical activities where we might meet others.

And maybe some of you are like me – I am not good at small talk so that when I am in a situation where I can meet others, especially more than one at a time, I am not adept at conversation.

Having friends is important (and I don't mean that perversion of the word, Facebook "friends"), even crucial to our health and wellbeing. Increasing numbers of studies continue to confirm that isolation and loneliness can lead to early death; may be twice as deadly as obesity; and contribute to depression, anxiety and suicide.

We all need friends – even people like me who need a lot of alone time too.

The internet is rife with suggestions for meeting people and making new friends in old age, especially important they say when you no longer work. You know the list:
• Volunteer
• Join a club that matches your interests
• Travel with strangers (Friendly Planet, Road Scholar)
• Take classes in whatever interests you
• Go to a gym or fitness center regularly
• Attend a lecture series
• See what's at your local senior center
• Get a dog
• Join Stitch which is for friends as well as dates
• Find interest groups on Meetup
They have been giving us these suggestions forever and there is nothing wrong with any of them. They even work for some people and it really is our own responsibility, each of us, to get off our duffs and figure a way to meet new people who might become friends.

But those hundreds of thousands of articles on Google, all with the same advice, lead one to suspect these traditional ideas are not working well enough for enough people.

At one time or another in the past 10 years since I left my New York City home, I've tried most of the suggestions. I have met people I like, people with whom I share interests, people it's nice to spend time now and then. But none who have become the kind of friend I love and trust without question.

In the six years since I moved to Oregon, I have found one of those but by different means than the usual list.

That person came into my life via email over a mutual concern about which we disagreed. I've long forgotten what the issue was but we decided to have lunch to see if we could sort it out and then we kept having lunch.

It has been about five years now that we have been sharing lunches and dinners and hanging out while exchanging email and phone calls in between. Sometime when I wasn't looking it became everything a friendship should be filled with - kindheartedness, generosity, goodwill and honesty.

It's always been that way with me – I didn't know a person had become a friend until we had already been there for a good while. It is such a delight, then, when the realization hits.

Here is one thing about making new friends that I have never read in all those suggestion lists: it takes time. It takes patience. You can't rush it or will it. It takes doing a variety of things together, talking, exchanging ideas, beliefs, backgrounds. At our age we have a lot of history.

What to do if you don't have a friend, a real friend? I think there is an interim space between an acquaintance and a friend for which there is not a word – at least, not one I know.

These are people to spend time with occasionally or see at events or places you attend regularly, maybe have lunch with now and then. There is pleasure in that. And, sometimes, one may become a friend. Maybe that's the path to becoming friends. But even if not, these are worth our time.

I want to be sure to mention that none of this is to discount friends I love and trust and care about who live far away sometimes because one of us moved away, or it is an internet acquaintanceship that grew into more. I treasure each one of them.

But we also need at least one in-person friend to share whatever it is we need to say aloud, with whom we share secrets and know they will stay that way, someone we can touch and hug when we meet.

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