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

Girl groups

There was a definite process by which one made people into friends, and it involved talking to them and listening to them for hours at a time.” – Dame Rebecca West

Nothing tops the power of a girl group. Whether you’re swamped with a crisis at work, unruly kids, or too much estrogen, you can always count on the harmony of other women’s voices to lift you higher.

Girl groups rock. And I don’t mean the musical variety, although I’m a fan of those too. But right now I’m applauding the whole idea of women banding together to form their own circles and support groups. Never in the history of womankind have we been so overbooked, so stressed, and so starved for emotional connection as we are today.

Blogging is, of course, a fine way to discover new friends with common interests. But blogging can’t be compared to forging three-dimensional connections in one’s own community. Like the quilting circles of my grandmother’s era, female support groups provide the personal contact that can keep a gal from unraveling at the seams.

But first, some definitions are in order. A support group should never be confused with a clique, which still has the hollow ring of adolescence. Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines a clique as “a small, exclusive circle of people; a snobbish or narrow coterie.” A support group, on the other hand, has a large collective heart. It is typically formed around a positive agenda – to explore complex issues like new motherhood or breast cancer, for example. Individuality is welcomed and encouraged; sage advice is exchanged to aid the group as a whole. And the conversation is always therapeutic.

Over the years I’ve belonged to several women’s clubs, but the “Second Sundays” circle I helped form at my church is the first to spring to mind. Though the group eventually came to its natural end and has since disbanded, I’ll never forget how that incredible family of women coached me through some difficult challenges, from major surgery to my son’s graduation party. Meeting monthly for several years, we rehashed a variety of topics, including healing and forgiveness, letting go of our kids, rebuilding friendships, caring for aging parents, and caring for our stressed-out souls.

It was an uncommon grab bag of gals. Our ages ranged from 44 to 84, and we represented a wide variety of professions from social work to finance. The generational differences enriched the group. The older women offered their wisdom and experience, while the younger members helped the elders view life with fresh perspective.

If you’re inspired to form your own official girl group, here’s what to do.

Decide on a focus for your meetings. Keep the circle small, preferably under twelve women. If it’s much larger, there won’t be time for everyone to get a word in edgewise. Always commit to a regular meeting time at the same location, unless you prefer to rotate your gatherings at various homes. And for everyone’s sanity, keep the refreshments light, as in coffee or tea and store-bought cookies.

Above all, your support group should be about nourishing friendships and feeding the soul. So, forget the gourmet brownies but be sure to bring an open heart. — Cindy La Ferle

— Part of this essay appeared in slightly different form in The Daily Tribune of Royal Oak. The complete original version is reprinted in my book, Writing Home

Top photo: My beloved soul sisters: Debbie, Norma, and Shirley

Soul sisters

Is solace anywhere more comforting than in the arms of a sister?”  ~Alice Walker

A dear friend of mine is undergoing cancer surgery this week. It’s the kind of surgery I can’t imagine having to face, and while my friend is handling it with grace and courage, my heart is breaking for her.

She’s part of a small group of friends I call my “soul sisters.” The four of us met 16 years ago when I started a women’s spirituality circle at our church. We soon discovered that the difference in our ages only enriched the connection, and our friendship deepened even more after we started organizing our own retreats. We’d book rooms at a nearby Jesuit retreat center, where we’d stay up all night and rehash our doubts and toughest questions as well as our belief in something greater. I like to remember those nights as soul-filling pajama parties.

Over the years we’ve rallied our collective strength to grieve and repair our wounds and losses. I was a certified basket case the week before my first hip replacement surgery, for instance. So the soul sisters booked an overnight retreat to get me out of the house and to ease my anxiety. We’ve also celebrated birthdays, holidays, and our kids’ graduations together. But the thread that really binds us is the unshakable knowledge that our love is unconditional.

Since I am an only child, having “sisters” like these is one of the greatest gifts in my life.

Earlier this week the four of us gathered for lunch at an upscale seafood restaurant. We wanted to see our friend one more time before her surgery, and to give her a safe place to talk about the days ahead. We wanted to renew our vow of solidarity, and to remind her that we’re here to do anything she needs.  It was a humid afternoon, and despite the fact that a storm was brewing, we chose to dine outdoors on the restaurant’s patio.

An hour passed quickly, as it always does when we’re together. Meanwhile, the sky turned charcoal, thunder rumbled, and the rain came down. It drummed like a mad percussionist on the canvas patio cover, threatening to dampen our table — but it didn’t. So we stayed outside under the canopy, just the four of us, talking and laughing nonstop.

And we enjoyed the rain. We all agreed there was something cozy and romantic about it — sort of like being little kids and feeling safe in bed under the covers while a storm roars overhead.

And that’s what pure friendship is all about, really. It’s about feeling safe with each other when the storms roll in, sometimes one after another. Our friend told us as we left the restaurant that she believed her surgery would be successful, no matter what the outcome, because she had so many loved ones lifting her up.  She reminded us that love is more powerful than anything and is impervious to things like cancer and surgery. Love rides out the storm. — Cindy La Ferle

— The oil painting above, “Four Women and Music,” is by Marilene Sawaf, and is used with her kind permission. Please visit Marilene’s beautiful blog to learn more about her art.  —

Enchanted April

Every spring is the only spring — a perpetual astonishment.” — Ellis Peters

Who doesn’t love an early spring? This year, at least in Michigan, April has been unseasonably kind and beautiful. Our daffs and tulips are blooming, and best of all, moods are lifting as we spend more time outdoors.

But I can’t let the month slip away without recommending a favorite indoor ritual. Even if you’ve already seen it, go rent Enchanted April.  I’ve enjoyed this little gem of a film so much over the years that I’ve shared it with my women’s group, and even organized a “girlfriends’ movie night” around it.

Adapted from Elizabeth von Arnim’s 1922 novel of the same title, the award-winning film revolves around four British women — unlikely friends, all — who meet in Italy to spend an April holiday in a secluded castle-like villa with a lush garden and a view of the Portofino coast. Each character has a back story, of course, and as the film progresses, we discover how retreating to a special place can help us rekindle relationships, heal old wounds, and see things anew. And in this gorgeous film, the location competes with the characters for attention.

On an anniversary trip five years ago, my husband and I were lucky enough to tour Castello Brown, the small castle and surrounding property where Enchanted April was filmed. It was every bit as magical as the film itself, and I enjoyed exploring the gardens while recalling my favorite scenes.

Arranging a bouquet of flowers I’d purchased from the grocery this week, I remembered a key moment from the beginning of the film.

It’s the scene in which the emotionally bankrupt Mellersh Wilkins (played by Alfred Molina) scolds his depressed wife Lottie (Josie Lawrence) for buying a bouquet of fresh flowers for the dining table, declaring it “an extravagance of the most blatant kind.” At that moment, Lottie starts to realize it’s time to claim a little joy for herself. As the story unfolds, we’re all reminded that a few indulgences are essential to our well-being and can be downright transforming. — Cindy La Ferle

Got secrets?

As a culture, I see us presently deprived of subtleties. The music is loud, the anger is elevated, and sex seems lacking in sweetness and privacy.” — Shelley Berman

Last week I told 325 friends on Facebook that our bedroom in this old house is torn apart for remodeling and looks like a mess. Later that same day, I announced that I was making pea soup for dinner. (Earlier in the month, as part of a dubious “campaign” for breast cancer awareness, I also posted the color of my bra in my status update.)

I haven’t even met some of these Facebook buddies — so I’m asking myself why I’m compelled to do this.

Touching on a Facebook issue in Newsweek earlier this month, a journalist confessed that she tries to avoid “over-sharing” on social networks. Likewise, a friend of mine recently asked: “Is there such a thing as ‘personal’ anymore? Is any topic sacred?”

My friend was referring to her co-worker’s latest blog post — a post in which the co-worker over-shared intimate details of her love life.  As my friend put it, “Blogs and social media are sucking the mystery, romance, and privacy out of everything. Everyone’s a publicity whore.” I had to smile at her use of the words mystery, romance, and privacy — words that seem to have gone the way of the manual typewriter. But she has a point.

As a writing coach who specializes in memoir and personal essays, I’ll be the first to defend the importance of sharing our stories. Sharing stories is how we connect with our fellow humans — and crafting those stories beautifully makes us artists. We glean invaluable lessons when we read memoirs, autobiographies, blogs, and essays by gifted writers. When handled with care, the personal can be universal.

But I wonder if we (as a culture) need to rethink what’s fair game for public consumption? How far “out there” do we need to be? How much do other people need to know about us — and why?  If we wouldn’t dare include a personal detail or episode in an essay or a memoir, is it really appropriate for a blog? For Twitter or Facebook? Exactly what are the dangers of over-sharing?

Writing a weekly newspaper column early on, I learned the hard way when I’d crossed the line and violated the tender privacy of loved ones. My son, who was often mentioned in my columns when he was much younger, taught me to think carefully before exploiting a person — or a topic — for the sake of entertaining or amusing my readers.

I’m quick to add here that I seriously enjoy connecting (and reconnecting) with friends on Facebook. And keeping a blog is almost as much fun as writing a weekly newspaper column. Still, I’m intrigued that so many of us today are driven to share our deepest yearnings and secrets with virtual strangers.  At the same time, we complain that it’s hard to forge true emotional intimacy with others — in person. As a writer who covers lifestyle issues for magazines and newspapers, I can’t overlook the paradox. Women’s magazines thrive on this very topic.

So what is it that compels so many to unload information that was — in the past — considered rude (or just plain foolish) to parade in public? I open this topic for discussion here. Please share your thoughts in the “Comments” section below. — Cindy La Ferle

— Photo above: Detail of “Box of Secrets,” altered art piece by Cindy La Ferle —