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

As I turn 60

-4I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that several of my friends turned 60 last year. 

At birthday parties large and small, they raised their glasses to six eventful decades. Some recalled pivotal moments and milestones of our youth: Kennedy’s assassination … the Beatles’ American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show… Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon. Others joked about wrinkles and hair loss, yet also expressed sincere gratitude for the hard-won gifts of maturity.

Even harder to digest is the fact that I will turn 60 next month. For starters, I don’t feel much different than I did when I turned 30. Aside from the lower back pain that underscores a long day of gardening, I’d have to say I’m in better shape — physically and emotionally — than I was 12 years ago following bilateral hip replacement surgery.

Regardless, like Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings and endings, I’m reflecting on what I’ve learned from past mistakes while mapping a nebulous future. I’m reconsidering what it means to grow up and grow old. Ready or not, I’ve arrived at the doorstep of seniority.

Wearing it well

Along the way it occurs to me that ageism isn’t going away without a fight. At 60, we’re more likely to see our peers represented in Viagra commercials than cast as romantic leads in a TV series. Fashion editors overlook us. Teenagers dismiss us. And even if we manage to keep pace with technological changes, we still work twice as hard to stay visible in our professions. Sixty is the new old.

Yet we’ve earned some real advantages too. We’ve achieved goals and survived crises we couldn’t have imagined in our twenties. Our bank of experience is so much richer now.

“One of the useful things about age is realizing that conventional wisdom is often inertia with a candy coating of conformity,” writes Anna Quindlen in her midlife memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Random House).

My 60-year-old friends would agree. Conducting an informal poll, I asked a dozen older folks I admire to list the biggest perks or benefits of maturing. Not surprisingly, I got several versions of the phrase: “I’ve stopped caring what other people think of me.”

For instance, a woman who’d been fretting over dressing appropriately for her age said she finally decided to ignore the fashion police and wear what she loves. Her purple nail polish and cowboy boots wouldn’t work on just anyone — regardless of age — but isn’t that the charm of authentic, original style? I admire how my friend’s wardrobe matches her damn-the-torpedoes attitude. She isn’t wearing her age the way my grandmother did.

Likewise, I was impressed at how many 60-year-olds said they don’t lie about their age. They own it. After all, fibbing about something as fundamental as your birth year only makes you appear vain or deceitful, not younger. The absolute-coolest human beings I know have stopped trying to hide who they are.

Taking no prisoners

Age seems to have blurred our stubborn edges, too. Or maybe it’s just that we’re tired of playing small. By the time we hit 60, we’ve endured enough heartache and buried enough loved ones to know that nursing crusty old grudges (or regrets) is a waste of precious time.

Maturity enables us to accept apologies and admit when we’ve been wrong or controlling or foolish. Maturity is expansive. It teaches us that forgiving others — and ourselves — clears the path to inner peace. We can’t be right all the time, just as surely as we can’t please everyone.

That said, we’ve earned enough self-respect to realize we don’t have to endure abuse, neglect, duplicity, rudeness, and other “less than” treatment from friends, family, or business associates. We’ve discovered, as Ann Landers once pointed out, that nobody can take advantage of us without our permission.

We’ve learned that every strong relationship is a gift and a privilege — and should be treated as such. We know that real grown-ups look for opportunities to reciprocate a favor or pay it forward. We know that good fortune — in our careers and in our relationships — doesn’t go half as far as sheer effort, and that taking anything wonderful for granted is the first step toward losing it.

Watching my fifties vanish in the rear-view mirror, I’m still struggling with what it means to age “gracefully.” One pal tells me it’s a matter of knowing when to quit, but that sounds like another euphemism for giving up. It’s too passive. Then again, unless you’re Mick Jagger or Tina Turner, it’s probably wise to have at least one alternative career plan. The way I see it, as long as you’re sincerely committed to the passion that fires you up in the morning, whether you’re talking animal rights or landscape design, well, it’s all up for grabs.

My 60-year-old pals and I are just gearing up for the next part of this crazy ride. So far, it looks like we’re seizing the next decade with moxie — and grace has taken a back seat. I’m actually looking forward to this.

This is a revised version of a shorter essay originally published in the January 2014 issue of Michigan Prime. The top photo of Doug and me (at a Boys & Girls Club fundraiser last year) was taken by our old buddy, John Schultz.  

Just the two of us

DSCN1946Retirement? One of my friends calls it “the R word,” claiming she can’t imagine what she and her husband will do when they’re “stuck at home together.” Doug and I are semi-retired, but we’re both busier than ever and enjoying this stage of life. Still, it took a while to adjust to the changes in our routines. That’s the topic of my newest column in Michigan Prime magazine, delivered with your Sunday Detroit Free Press this weekend. If you don’t get the paper, check out the online edition here, and flip to page five.

P.S. Doug is celebrating a landmark birthday on Valentine’s Day — we’re starting the month-long celebration this week!

New ground

Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning.” — John O’Donohue

It started off as a horrific week. My Web site was attacked by a malicious virus, requiring several days of tedious repairs (and I’m still not finished with the archives yet).  Later that same day, my dermatologist removed five pre-cancerous patches from my skin. It got a little worse than that, but I won’t go there. It’s enough to say that everything seemed to be eating away at me all at once, or was trying to shed itself.

Regardless, I was making plans for my garden this morning when I was struck with an overwhelming sense of grace and peace. Which shouldn’t surprise me.

My worry list always seems less significant when I breathe deeply in a garden. Working the soil, I forget about midlife health issues, household chores, film bookings, aging parents, unfinished projects, and what I should try to publish next. I forget about blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. I forget about all those outdated magazines piling up next to the bed, unread. I turn off the endless loop of chatter from the outside world.

Weeding the Zen garden, I am fully engaged in the moment. Clearing space around the stepping stones, I consider summer’s possibilities. I feel the green stirring of something new, though I cannot name it yet. This Celtic blessing says it all. — CL

For a New Beginning
by John O’Donohue

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

–Reprinted from To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings by John O’Donohue, Doubleday Religion, 2008.  Special thanks to Sharon of One Woman’s Life in Maine for sharing this beautiful poem with me.