Paying it forward

IMG_2891There are times when friends and loved ones need more than a get-well bouquet. In this month’s issue of Michigan Prime, I share ways to offer your help and support during an emergency or a serious health crisis. The column appears in the print edition of the magazine (delivered with your Sunday Detroit Free Press) and online here, on page 3

Rebooting the buddy system

Relationship experts weigh in on the art and science of friendship after 50.

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Michigan Prime, a supplement to the Sunday Detroit News and Free Press.

As Lennon and McCartney wrote, we all get by with a little help from our friends. But current medical research also shows that our health literally depends on the company we keep. In fact, having an active social network can significantly lower the risk for depression, enhance our ability to cope with illness, and increase longevity, explains Irene S. Levine, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine and creator of The Friendship Blog.

DSCN1916“One study suggests that friends may be more potent than family in enhancing our physical health and emotional well-being,” Levine says. Furthermore, as reported by AARP last year, women with large social networks reduce their risk of dementia by 26%.

Yet making new friends while keeping the old can be a challenge for empty nesters and retirees. Gone are the days of commiserating with other parents in the school parking lot, or gathering with coworkers by the coffee maker on weekday mornings. Other factors — including divorce, relocation, or becoming a caregiver – also complicate friendship later in life.

Ironically, Americans collect countless friends and followers on social networks, yet many report a lack of depth in their friendships, says Shasta Nelson, author of Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness (Seal Press; $16).

“Between two-thirds and three-fourths of Americans believe there is more loneliness in today’s society than there used to be, and feel they have fewer meaningful relationships than they did five years ago,” Nelson says.

Reach out and meet someone

So, how and where do we begin to rebuild our social circles? Introverts, take note.

“Be open to anything,” advises Annick Hivert-Carthew, 68, a freelance writer in Auburn Hills. “I’ve lived in foreign countries for 40 years. It would have been lonely had I not taken the first step to meet people. I believe it’s easier for seniors to make new friends because we have more leisure time.”

Hivert-Carthew says she smiles a lot, chats with dog walkers and introduces herself to new neighbors. She also joined a senior center, takes classes, and volunteers for organizations.

“My neighborhood has an awesome Bible study group,” she adds. “I’m not religious, but I was curious, so I joined the group and I love it. We go to lunch, help each other during illness, share cultural activities, and knit hats for elementary schools in Detroit.”

Likewise, Mike Atwood, 68, a retired sales manager in Royal Oak, refuses to isolate himself.

Version 2“Making new friends is a matter of staying engaged in life and being interested in other people,” he says. “I make a point of meeting in person – not relying on social media to stay in touch.”

Shasta Nelson agrees.

“Time together is essential. Unless your time together is automatic — meaning you’re both paid to show up at the same job, for instance – there’s no other way to foster a real relationship,” Nelson says. “Growing a friendship requires a lot of initiation. Repeatedly. If you want to start a new friendship or revive an old one, you have to reach out several times.”

Roll with the changes

As we mature, it’s natural to put a premium on loyalty and shared history.

Marie Osborne, 58, host of “In the Mix with Marie and Rochelle” on WJR Radio, learned that true friends prove their mettle at life’s inevitable crisis points.

“Six years ago, when both of my parents died within three weeks of each other, I was in the funeral home and noticed three of my girlhood friends sitting together and chatting,” recalls Osborne, a Royal Oak resident. “At that moment I found the word to describe us. We were ‘lifers.’ These are the friends who understand you to the core – no words necessary.”

After 50, however, we’re also less tolerant of what experts call “imbalanced” relationships. More than 60 Prime readers were polled for this article, and several admitted they’ve dropped “toxic” friends who made them feel used, drained, neglected, manipulated or bullied. As one anonymous reader put it: “With age I have more self-respect, and I seek out friends who treat me well and are fun to be with.” Others admitted that they’d grown tired of “always being the one who reaches out” to initiate time together — and consequently allowed those friendships to expire.

According to sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst, most of us reevaluate or replace about half of our friends every seven years, usually due to a change in residence, career or lifestyle. If we’re trying to curb unhealthy habits, for instance, we might spend less time with pals who smoke or drink too much.

Or, as Marie Osborne found, some friends simply “drift apart” over time. “Those friends, although still loved, didn’t make the return effort of friendship,” Osborne explains.

Build your tribe

From Lucy and Ethel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the “best friend” partnership is often idealized in pop culture. Yet it’s unrealistic to expect one person to meet all of your friendship needs, warns Levine. It’s wiser to build a team of friends, including, say, the empathetic listener, the shopping buddy, the political ally, the fellow film buff, and the pal who loves sports or pets as much as you do.

And while you’re expanding your circle, don’t overlook friends from different age groups. Reaching across generations will sharpen your perspective on life.

But always take it slowly, Levine advises. “Don’t make the mistake of expecting too much too soon. Friendships take time to nurture and develop.”

How to be a good friend

Friendship experts and Prime readers agree that friendships thrive on mutual care and effort. Follow their tips to strengthen your own:

*Initiate. Don’t wait to be contacted. Invite pals to lunch; suggest special activities; host a gathering. Take turns making plans and follow through.

*Engage. Express interest in others; be a good listener. Don’t monopolize conversations with your own issues or problems. Ask questions; remember details about your friends’ lives.

*Communicate. Be responsive. Stay in touch with emails, texts, calls and birthday cards. Don’t let social media become a substitute for real contact with close friends.

*Reciprocate. Return favors, dinner invitations and other gestures of kindness. Show courtesy and respect. Aim for a balance of give-and-take.

*Support. Be there when times get tough — and to applaud your friends’ successes. Refrain from competitive or judgmental comments.

*Respect. Honor boundaries; don’t pressure friends to meet your needs.

*Affirm. Never take friends for granted. Express gratitude and affection often.

Photos by Cindy La Ferle, copyright 2016

The gift of receiving

Is this National Chronic Pain Month? I’ve been battling deep pain in my right hip — 14 years after it was replaced — and several of my friends are recovering from surgery or dealing with other painful health issues. With that in mind, I’m posting an earlier essay I wrote after my last hip replacement surgery. . . .

THE GIFT OF RECEIVING

August 29, 2002
A few years ago, when I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both hips, I read everything I could find about coping with chronic pain and illness. I was amazed at how often I’d stumble on a paragraph that advised patients to “look for the gift in your pain.”

Pain is a gift? Thanks, but no thanks, I’d mutter to myself. I had just turned 44 and hadn’t planned on slowing down so soon. I still had miles to travel with my journalism career — and a family that included a very active teenager. If pain was my gift, well, where was the return policy?

IMG_2790Within a year of my diagnosis, the disease progressed so quickly that total hip replacement surgery was my only option. By that time, I was unable to walk without assistive devices. Even on a good day, it hurt so much to crawl out of bed that I refused to unplug my heating pad and leave the house. Suddenly I was disabled – and even qualified for a “handicapped” parking permit.

Having been fit and active most of my adult life, I was way too proud to let others watch me struggle on a walker. I hated to appear needy. I started canceling lunch dates and appointments, and tried to hide behind a steely mask of self-sufficiency.

But my closest friends and family didn’t buy any of it. And it was through their patience and love that I finally discovered the “gift” in chronic pain: It slowly unravels your pride and opens you to the boundless generosity of other people.

“Surrender is no small feat in a culture that applauds the strong, the independent, and the self-sufficient,” writes Victorian Moran in Creating A Charmed Life: Sensible Spiritual Secrets Every Busy Woman Should Know (HarperSanFrancisco). “That heroic stuff is fine when the problem is something we can handle through our own self-sufficiency. But nobody climbs a mountain alone.”

Of course, stubborn self-reliance isn’t the sole province of the disabled.

Most women I know pride themselves on being nurturers, fixers, problem-solvers, givers. We’ll supply all the brownies for the bake sale at school after we’ve organized the rummage sale at church. We’ll rearrange our schedules to baby-sit other people’s kids. Just ask, and we’ll triple our workload at the office and still make it to the evening PTA meeting. Yet some of us would rather have a wisdom tooth pulled than ask somebody else for a favor when we need it. As a girlfriend told me recently, “It’s my job to be the glue that holds everyone and everything together. I can’t ask for help.”

The truth is, people who care about us really do want to help — if only we’d drop the mask of total self-sufficiency and admit that we’re not all-powerful all the time.

Discussing the aftermath of September 11 and the clean-up at Ground Zero, a talk show host suggested that if anything positive rose from the ashes of the tragedy, it was that America quickly evolved from a “Me” nation into a “We” nation. As she explained it, even the most self-absorbed among us realized that we cannot function as loners or islands. We need each other.

It was a good lesson for me to review immediately after my first hip replacement surgery. Strapped to a hospital bed and hooked up to several intravenous tubes, I was hit with the sobering reality that I wasn’t going anywhere by myself.

And during the early weeks of my recovery, I had no choice but to graciously accept support from my family and friends. When my husband processed mountains of laundry at home, I tried not to feel guilty. When our neighbors sent casseroles or offered to drive my carpool shift to school, I swallowed my pride and allowed their care to work like a healing balm. And it did.

As hard as it was to surrender, I discovered there’s real strength in vulnerability.

Deep down, I still believe it’s more blessed to give than to receive. And I still believe that putting the needs of others first isn’t such a bad precept to live by — unless it renders you incapable of accepting a favor or asking for help when you really need it.

Nobody climbs her mountain alone.

— This essay is excerpted from my book of published columns and essays, Writing Home (Hearth Stone Books; 2005). It was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul (Healthy Living Series) and reprinted in Catholic Digest, April 2007. It was also featured on Sirius Catholic Radio.

Gather your tribe

It takes a long time to grow an old friend.” — John Leonard

DSCN1736True friends occupy the top of my gratitude list this Thanksgiving. I can’t imagine where I’d be without the dear ones who chatted past midnight in college, coached me through my pregnancy, or held my hand at my dad’s funeral. And most of all, I cherish the troopers who still show up for emergencies as well as holiday parties.

As we age, our friendships change. As Irene Levine, PhD points out, finding the time to maintain strong friendships — and knowing where to look for new ones — can be challenging in our middle years. That’s the topic of my November column in Prime, which includes some helpful tips on friendship from Dr. Levine, also known as “The Friendship Doctor.” If you subscribe to the Sunday Detroit News and Free Press, look for a print copy in your November 10 edition.  Click here and flip to page 12 to read it online.

Researching this topic for my column, I ran across lots of good material on friendship, in addition to Dr. Levine’s blog. Here are just a few articles you might enjoy:

On friends you should firehttp://www.forbes.com/sites/erikaandersen/2012/11/17/3-kinds-of-false-friends-you-must-fire-from-your-life/

From Psychology Today: What makes a true friendhttp://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/happiness-in-world/201002/what-makes-true-friend

Why it’s hard to make friends after 30http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/fashion/the-challenge-of-making-friends-as-an-adult.html?_r=1&

Must readOn friendship and paybacks in the Wall Street Journal

 

 

Friendship by the blog

“Wishing to be friends is quick work, but real friendship is a slow-ripening fruit that needs our time and attention.” — Artistotle  

Group2With so much going on in our lives, it’s hard to find time to nurture our longterm friendships, let alone start new ones. Yet countless studies show that social relationships are crucial to our well-being — especially as we age.

Furthermore, the benefits of using social media don’t rank as high as person-to-person contact. “Face time” isn’t a luxury; it’s key to our health.

With that in mind, Dr. Irene Levine (“The Friendship Doctor”) created The Friendship Blog — a terrific resource for anyone who wants to master the art of friendship or resolve sticky relationship issues.

Featured in national media, Levine is a psychologist and author of Best Friends Forever.  As she notes in the introduction to her blog, friendships are both rewarding and complex: “These unique bonds often run deeper than family ties, and sometimes last longer than our relationships with spouses or lovers. Yet there are few agreed-upon ground rules or roadmaps,” she says.

Maybe you need to detoxify your relationship with a difficult coworker, or regain balance in a one-sided friendship? Or maybe you’d like to rebuild your network with new contacts — but worry about appearing too pushy or needy? Does your child need help making friends? Whatever the dilemma, Dr. Levine’s Friendship Blog invites community conversation on any friendship topic you can imagine.