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Prime: Maintaining your friends list is more important as you age

Don’t let loneliness become your only friend once you hit your mid-60s, Prime writer Hugh Kruzel advises

Lately there has been an avalanche of news stories on how loneliness is a silent killer. 

We are social animals and, yes, once you remove the connections and conversations it has implications. Mental health and physical well-being is very much affected by your social sphere.

We often suffer the loss of the daily collegial links once we retire. Sure they say, “We’ll stay in touch,” and you might get invitations to the staff Christmas party, a company BBQ, or even the annual golf tournament the first year of retirement. 

However, it seems those networks shrink further just as you turn each of the pages of your calendar. Your business email address was your tie to people you often spent more time with than spouse and family. Decades of just those work related dialogues go silent. Who do you talk to now?

The golden handshake and you had to relinquish that email address, and even the company phone. Maybe it felt liberating at first blush. However, soon you may pine. Fortunately, there may be a cohort who also exited the work-world at the same time: peers. Ta-da — a support group that meets for monthly breakfasts, or just a coffee date, is born. 

Real friends know where to find you. You share a beer in the backyard. You pour Pinot as beef ribs finish and the grill timer goes off. They bring a salad or dessert. Life is grand!

You may have more free-time than you imagined, and again you may build a stronger bond with neighbours, hobbies, associations and community volunteerism. You join the choir, take up stained glass, find a walking group, square dance.  All to the good, these are not insignificant nor unimportant pastimes. 

Nevertheless, the years tick by. No longer meetings over bacon and eggs, but now muted remembrances at the funeral home. You start checking the obituaries in print and online. The joke, “I’m just looking to see I’m not there this morning!” starts to get worn. There goes your dentist, the mother of the florist, the guy who you bought furniture from at Eaton’s, and even your graduating classmates are starting to drop off. There is an inevitability. 

It feels like when you arrive at the mid-60s, your Christmas card list really begins to contract. You have arrived at a time of attrition. A recent report said one in five Canadians described themselves as being lonely.

You can combat this by adhering to the philosophy of “to have a friend, you need to be a friend.” Sure you can offer a cup of sugar, lend a hand to the person down the street who is laying a lawn, raking leaves, changing the oil on their snow blower, or struggling to Tetris the garden furniture into the small shed. Don’t you wave and walk by. Ask if you can help. Do it without strings attached.

Don’t be afraid.  New friends are just one hello away. During early and peak COVID, we stopped saying hello. At the gas station, the grocery store, the pharmacy, we might nod as a form of politeness, but gone were the handshakes. Warmer interactions rarely got beyond the fist bump.

Do you start your week calling buddies? One friend started a “Happy Monday” routine. She reaches out by text, phone or email.  Sometimes we are a day (or two) late, but never a week goes by without a message.

She sends me a gentle nudge to reciprocate. That’s the point really … you have to nurture and maintain friendships. It is too easy to let this fall by the wayside. If you don’t, the phone goes silent, the emails are all spam and the TV becomes your constant companion. 

The challenge of living long is that eventually you can be alone. Children, grandchildren, you hope they outlive you, but even they can equally succumb to disease, accidents, illness. Visiting elderly friends they remember those who have gone before. Perhaps they still live in memories?

Recently Dr. Jeremy Nobel on CBC’s “The Current” said to host Matt Galloway, “Just like thirst is a signal that you need hydration, loneliness is signal you need … human connection.” 

He pointed out chronic, and high levels of loneliness can “… exacerbate multiple physical ailments.” Not just dementia, but diabetes, heart attacks and stroke. 

Be indiscriminate with your friends’ list. Gender, age, culture should not be your filters. Learn about those from the larger world.

You can pick up something from the farmers’ market and wonder if the family two houses over would like a harvest apple pie, if they might appreciate a jar of jam, or a loaf of fresh baked sourdough. If they are newcomers, can you warmly welcome them with an invitation to a seasonal dinner, or impromptu lunch?

Smile, extend a hand … be a friend. 

Hugh Kruzel is a writer in Greater Sudbury. Prime features stories about senior living and the issues impacting seniors in our community. It is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.