Making a Friend at Any Age

By Stephanie Shapiro
friends at any age - seniors boomers

This is the first post in our series about the potential for rich life transformation for Boomers and Seniors through the natural occurrence of loss and grief.  A loss is a part of life and everyone will inevitably experience it at some point. A big challenge many face understanding the loss, accepting the grief and powering up to move toward a new reality…sometimes maybe even a better one.  So, it is about life transitions, but more than that.  

One of the Friends Life Care Care Coordinators brings this heart-warming story.  It is about the sense of loss associated with moving to a new place and the value of making new friends at any age.

There’s no place like home

I first met Jerry* at an Assisted Living facility on the outskirts of Montgomery County. A life-long Philadelphia city resident, he appeared a little lost, uncomfortable. One of the first things he said to me was: “I can’t stand the quiet”.

Jerry grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, around Cottman and the Boulevard. He lived in the same house he grew up in, which may be unusual today, however, was common for his generation. He knew where to get the best sandwich, have his shoes shined and where to buy his groceries. He had memories on every block around his house. And every turn held a warm thought of times past.  Playing “kick the can” with Johnny and Bud…mom ringing the dinner bell to call him in and “not hearing it” so he could stay out just a little longer.  All the hubbub in the house at the holidays – the laughter, the singing, Uncle Ted’s cigars and always a big chocolate cake on birthdays.  All those years, he’d whistle as he walked down the sidewalk coming back from work, keys jingling, ready to open wide the door.  Coming home was a comfortable and comforting thing.  Truth be told — he had never ever had a single thought about living anywhere else.

As the years moved on, though, he could no longer live independently.  His power of attorney lived in Montgomery County.  Therefore, after a lengthy hospitalization, he came to live at that Assisted Living facility backed by woods and tucked away on a quiet road.

If you don’t have red ruby shoes and clicking your heels isn’t working…

The first time that I visited him, I instantly felt his loss.  As a home health care nurse for 20 years, an important part of my job was assessing my patients for both medical and other than medical issues.  It was no surprise to me what the American Psychological Association reported back in 2005.  “Psychological issues show that your mind and body are strongly linked. As your mental health wears down, your physical health can wear down and if your physical health declines, it can make you feel mentally down.”  This hasn’t changed over the last decade plus.  It was clear to me that Jerry was having feelings of loss and grief for the life he had moved from.

I could relate.  I have moved with my family, left friends and loved ones to live in other parts of the country.  I had to make a new start, find new friends, learn to cope with missing familiar surroundings, carve out a new life for myself.  It’s not always easy especially with the world so tied to virtual this and fast-moving mobile that.  I can say without a doubt – some of my newest friends are some of my best friends.

I asked myself, how could I help him?  How can I make this transition easier for him?  How can I help other people that I am caring for if they experience this?  Many, if not most, seniors will someday face the challenge of moving to a new home…to downsize, live a snowbird lifestyle or, like Jerry, call an assisted living facility “home”.  It is important to do what we can to best assist parents, grandparents, friends, patients to adapt to the newness and all the left behinds.

Building a new life

First I  recommend allowing someone to grieve the loss of their old life.  It’s okay to wish for the past, share memories, have a few sad days. It is a considerable loss.  I recommend taking photos before the move and creating a photo album for them that is easy to look at and reminisce, for when the days become overwhelming.  Jerry, for instance, took weekly or biweekly trips back to the old neighborhood for lunch or dinner or just a drive around the “old” neighborhood.  

Then I would recommend helping someone or helping yourself to build a new life.  This new life should reflects who you are and what is important to you.  It is a good starting point to ask: “What activities do I like”.  “What kind of friend am I looking for?”  

Starting new friendships

Jerry liked reading the paper and discussing politics. Certainly, discussing politics might be a highly controversial activity these days, but together we found a local men’s group at a nearby Library that met weekly to discuss different topics. Attending and participating was a great first step for him in establishing some good relationships.  It was a good step in transitioning to his new home.

We kept looking.  The facility offered a few groups — a Weekly Happy Hour, exercises classes, craft classes — which were attended mostly by women. These were not of interest, so we took them off the list.  And we kept looking.  One morning on my way to see Jerry, I happened to stop to get coffee at a nearby diner.  I noticed a wonderful group of men sitting there debating Philadelphia sports.  I approached them and found that they were very welcoming for a new member. Now, this seemed to be a great match.  

At my next visit, I asked Jerry to walk with me the few hundred feet for “coffee.” I did introductions and they took it from there.  Coffee walks, as it turned out, became a regular nice day activity for Jerry.  He was part of the group.  He was in his element with the banter.

Even though, it is good to consider what a facility offers; I’d recommend also looking around the neighborhood.  That donut shop, hamburger places, library — sometimes you will find hidden gems where people gather and welcome others. As a caregiver, you may have to facilitate these interactions initially; however, this seems like a small thing, if you can make a friend connection!  

Finding what fits YOU

Religious organizations also may have enriching groups that meet regularly.  Often there are good opportunities for making acquaintances or volunteering if that is of interest. I’d argue that there’s nothing better when you feel sad to look beyond yourself to help someone else. With Jerry, it was a successful move to get him to church services.  The church found a family to drive him to and fro every week. For someone who had lived alone a long time, it was an unexpected gift to be “adopted” by a new, caring family.

Rich life transformation

In the end, we had accomplished quite a feat.  And while there was still a sense of loss and a longing for “home”, we had filled many lonely days with new faces and activities.  He had transformed his life to something quite rich.  Now when I would stop by to see him, he was gone, not in the building.  He was out and about, living his life in the best possible way.

Accepting the sadness, identifying it and putting forth a plan to address it is very empowering. Jerry started to feel better as we filled his life with activities; his mood improved; his function improved; his health improved — he felt better!

Starting new friendships is possible at any age. It takes a little effort but is a worthwhile venture especially when moving away to a new home and leaving so much of what you knew behind.

Resources in Greater Philly

There are many organizations in the Philadelphia area for seniors.  Friends in the City is a great example.  Multiple senior centers throughout the Greater Philadelphia area offer a plethora of activities to help seniors continue to be active and make meaningful connections with new friends. As a current friend, loved one or caregiver, you might have to facilitate the initial visits.  It’s hard to go somewhere alone.  Not everything will be a fit, but it’s important to keep trying. Having someone with you that you know makes the process easier. If you don’t have a “wingman” available, it is possible and worth the effort to venture out on your own.  In addition, you may find others just like you and it’s time well spent to have the chance to make a new friend.

Judy Garland and Johnny Mercer knew it. Remember the duet they did for the 1940 Cole Porter song?  Click to hear it “Friendship”.    Lah-die-ah-die-ah die dig, dig dig!!!!

Blog contributor:  

Stephanie Shapiro, RN, is a Friends Life Care Care Coordinator.  Stephanie joined Friends Life Care in 2016 in the role of Care Coordinator. Stephanie has been a registered nurse for 38 years and has worked in a variety of settings and roles including long term care manager, primary care office manager and, for the past 15 years, skilled home care and hospice.  Stephanie is certified in Reiki Massage; loves gardening and cooks whatever she can grow. She also volunteers for a dog rescue group that adopts dogs from shelters and trains them for veterans with a variety of issues.
When you join Friends Life Care, you are partnered with a personal Care Coordinator, a highly credentialed employee of the organization who will design and oversee a wellness and well-being plan focused on prevention to help you stay healthy and remain living in your home, independently, as long as possible.  

*Names changed for reasons of privacy.
Finger friend image by Juliana Coutinho and other images: sourced from Haiku deck)

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