Randi is on a brief leave. This column was originally published March 12-18, 2020.
Last week I had dinner with Jack, an old friend. We’ve known each other for 30 years, and he was my friend by extension, since his wife and I were best buddies for decades. She died about eight years ago. Since then, he and I have met up once or twice a year. Because we both loved her, we have woven together a new fabric of friendship from loose threads.
This time he told me that he was feeling seriously stressed about keeping his friendships going. At age 80, living alone, in a new relationship with a woman he likes a lot, he said he is frightened of being alone. He feels as if it’s a full-time job to keep up with friends, follow their life events, make dinner plans and generally say yes to any invitation, even when it’s something he doesn’t want to do. The planning is burdensome, yet it’s his lifeline.
My dinners with Jack are just OK. He is still the unapologetic, self-centered man he always was. We mostly talk about him and his new toys and his kvetches and his worries. I go because we share memories of Margaret. We both miss her. A tough guy, he surprises me sometimes with a candid revelation. Last week he said, “I know it’s foolish, but I wonder if Margaret knows what I’m doing and if she would approve of my life now.”
“I know she would,” I said, and I sensed that my words mattered. He said he is thinking about whether and how to financially provide for his new partner. He said he isn’t sure if the new relationship will last. I suggested that he not think about how it will end, but how wonderful it has been these past few years. I suggested he be generous. More than generous.
I was glad I joined him for dinner, because we had a real conversation and an emotional connection.
Also, his anxiety about the need to keep his friendships fresh and alive resonated with me big time. It confirmed my sense that friends are the saviors of our senior years. As we get older, if we live geographically distant from family, friends become the most important people in our day-to-day lives.
Much has been written about the connection between loneliness and depression and cognitive loss. The antidote to being lonely is being a friend and having friends, but it doesn’t just happen. Especially as one gets older, friendships require more tolerance and good nature and forgiveness. Good pals sometimes forget a lunch date or don’t call when we’re sick or make a plan that excludes us when we wanted to be included. So, to keep our relationships viable, we have to be forgiving.
This one doesn’t hear so well, that one can’t drive at night, another one clearly is drinking too much. We have to turn the other cheek and turn the other way because we all live in glass houses.
Even more, we have to keep reaching out to people, accepting their bids to get together or share an activity. We have to get out of the house because no one knows we’re inside, feeling alone. We need to make the call, plan the dinner, send the email and be open to social connection.
As young parents it was easy for us to become friendly with our children’s friends. During our working years, it was easy for a business friend to become a personal friend. As older people, we have to work harder to tend the ties that keep us bound to one another, responsible for one another and in touch with one another.
The thing is, not every friend meets all of our standards or fills all of our needs, and neither do we hit the mark every time with the people who call us friends. But everyone can offer something.
When we were young and when we were working and parenting, friends were our distraction, our biking buddies and our carpool partners. Now friends are vital to our health and well-being.
Friendship-building is the new work of the over-70 crowd. Some friends, like Jack, you see twice a year. Some friends are evergreen, and some are seasonal.
No matter. Boomers need to tend that garden.
Copyright 2023 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.