In terms of longer life, not having them is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, being an alcoholic, and not exercising – and is twice as harmful as being obese.
Who says so? The Mayo Clinic, Harvard University, Illinois University, Brigham Young University, and many other research institutions. So, if you want to live longer and better, friends are essential – for everyone, but particularly for senior adults.
On my recent 80th birthday, my oldest daughter informed me, “You know, Mom, today’s 80 is actually yesterday’s 60.”
Sure, I thought to myself. Easy for you to say. Say that when you have the same aches and pains I do.
But then I had another thought: She’s right. I may be 80, but I don’t feel 80. I don’t act 80, either. Am I bragging? Maybe. But it’s the truth.
And then I began thinking, If that’s the case, what am I doing right?
And as I pondered that question, I realized that, consciously or not, I really was doing at least some things that made me much “younger” than many of my friends and acquaintances.
For starters, I keep interested and I keep active. Big deal, you might say. Who needs to hear that bromide again?
Lots of people, actually. I’m amazed at how many friends have given up on life and are lonesome, sitting quietly, watching life go by. Their old friends have died or moved away, and it never occurs to them that an unlimited supply of new friends is out there just waiting to be met.
And then it hit me. That’s what I’ve been doing right. I’ve been making new friends, and new friends open amazing new vistas.
A lack of friends in the senior years can sap the life out of anyone – and old friends inevitably dwindle in number. Some seniors find themselves housebound from illness. Some get divorced. Some move to new communities to be near our children and grandchildren or to find a better climate. Some are bereft of a spouse, or so tied down as a caregiver that they find themselves cut off from social contact.
But too often, the circles we try to enter are set in concrete and rarely welcoming. Knowing this is one thing. Knowing what to do about it is another thing entirely. But I’ve found that there’s plenty to do about it. I’m not saying it’s easy to make new friends. But it’s doable – and if you want a more vital life, it’s mandatory.
Some things we need to do are internal, some external. We need to project a sunny image. We need to avoid complaining. We need to be proactive. (New people are not going to come looking for us. We have to look for them.)
Here’s one of the most aggressive tactics I’ve ever heard of. A friend had a T-shirt made that said “I’m New Here – Displaced from Ohio. Please Talk to Me.” She wore it when she went grocery shopping or to the mall. This simple but flamboyant approach actually worked. But some of us are not extroverts, and reaching out is hard.
How to make new friends:
- When you meet new people, remember their names, write down how to contact them, and be mindful of their interests. People are delighted when you remember things about them.
- Chances are you have a computer, so use it! Social networking isn’t just for teens. It’s incredible how many seniors are out there on YouTube and Facebook and LinkedIn.
- Strike up a conversation with the person next to you in the doctor’s waiting room.
- Find a gardening or bridge or book group to join.
- Call a new acquaintance and say that you have an extra ticket to a play, concert, or movie. (When she says yes, go buy the tickets.)
- Send heartfelt thank-you notes to people who are welcoming to you.
- Locate the senior centers and churches, temples, or synagogues near you and try what they have to offer.
- Reach out as a volunteer. Volunteering has health benefits!
- Scour community newsletters. They tell you what’s going on, and where.
- Go where people who share your interests might congregate, and introduce yourself.
- Invite new neighbors over for meals. (Few pass up the chance for a home-cooked meal, particularly when they’re not the one who has to do the cooking.)
- Take classes; be a lifelong learner.
- Cultivate becoming a good listener and a good question-asker.
It’s true. Today’s 80 can be yesterday’s 60. Want to live longer? I won’t bore you with statistics, but it’s a fact that making new friends does, on balance, cause people to live longer. So join the fun. Your life may depend on it!
Sunie Levin is a graduate of the University of Missouri and holds degrees in Psychology and Education as well as a Master’s degree in remedial reading. She founded the Midwest Reading and Dyslexia Clinic in Kansas City Missouri for children and adults with learning problems. A popular lecturer, Levin taught University classes and has conducted workshops and seminars throughout the country. She has appeared on local and national T.V. and was a syndicated columnist for many newspapers.
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