One by one the seniors signed in and found a seat in the lounge of the Westview Apartments in Saratoga Springs. There were a few quiet greetings and shy smiles exchanged but generally, the atmosphere was restrained as Margie Ingram and Barbara Glaser began the Saratoga Vital Aging Network (SVAN) program on friendship.
But, by the end of the almost two-hour workshop people were exchanging phone numbers, making dinner dates and promising to keep in touch. The crowd had gone from passive to passionate.
“It was amazing. So many people continued networking long after the program was over. It was clear that significant connections were being made,” Ingram said.
This couldn’t have made the sponsors happier. Ingram and Glaser, two long-time friends, led the program for a group of about 30 seniors. They both cited study after study that shows that people with close bonds live longer, happier lives. And judging from the eagerness of the participants, seniors were keen for the opportunity.
“I had a lot of friends,” an 83-year-old who asked not to be identified said. “We were like the Golden Girls on TV. We laughed, talked every day and had a good time together. But I lost both of my closest friends in the last two years and I miss them terribly.”
She was not alone. Several participants talked about missing the close relationships they had while they were raising children, and expressed interest in creating a new family of friends.
Ingram, a life coach and co-director of The Humor Project and Glaser, president of Linell Lands, became friends in 1975 when they both moved to Saratoga Springs. As their families grew and children arrived, the two families celebrated holidays and vacationed together. Thirty-five years later, they are still close friends and shared their ideas and research on friendship.
And they got their audience involved.
The workshop encouraged interaction between participants on different aspects of finding and fostering friendship through a series of questions on making new friends and on the art of maintaining friendships. Initially the participants partnered with one other person but one conversation led to another and before long seniors were mingling and sharing their experiences on making and keeping friends.
To start, participants were encouraged to ask someone else in the group — preferably someone they didn’t know — about their oldest friend. Soon they were asking about making new friends, and about maintaining valued friendships over long distances, whether with family or friends.
Glaser shared that she made a new friend through her eBay searches for “19th century Swedish stuff.” She was hunting down artifacts and began messaging back and forth with another browser. Now they enjoy an online relationship.
Several seniors said they have met friends through the classes and activities that they enjoy. One woman said she starts every morning with a swim at the Saratoga YMCA. “I’m 88 years old and I swim a mile every morning,” she said, adding that it was through her workout routine and attending Academy of Lifelong Learning classes that she meets friends and socializes.
Many participants talked about the value of old friends and the wonderful ability, even after a gap of a year or longer, to pick up the relationship as though no time had passed at all.
One new Saratoga Springs resident said she missed the friends she left behind when she moved here. “I have my memories, but I can’t go to lunch or share my day-to-day life with them.” She adding that developing new connections takes time.
“Shared experiences are important to building the memory bank,” participant A.C. Riley said. And shared values, said another.
Everyone agreed that deepening existing relationships and strengthening old friendships takes effort.
Joan Whitford said she felt fortunate when a group of eight friends from her school days reconnected at a high school reunion. “Some had stayed in touch. But we really reconnected at the high school reunion 15 years ago when one of the ladies walked up to the table and said ‘Who are all these old people?’” Since then the Lucky 8 has traveled to one another’s homes and made a point of getting together periodically.
“We had all gone in different directions and all of us have different stories to tell,” she said. “I was surprised at how the core of the person had remained unchanged through the years. The one that was bossy then is still bossy today. The one that was the friendliest still is.”
Valuing friendship enough to work on it was key.
Ingram said, “We can be intentional about developing stronger friendships.”
As people grow older, changing circumstances are bound to occur as some friends divorce, die or move away. As part of the privilege of growing older comes the experience of having to say goodbye, and those losses increase our capacity to care, Glaser noted.
The challenges of adding friends and keeping up meaningful long-distance relationships was discussed.
Both Ingram and Glaser stressed the importance of making friends across the generations.
Glaser said that in the case of her grandparents, their world got smaller and smaller with fewer and fewer close friends as they aged. Her parents, however, managed to maintain a circle of intimate relationships through the years and have added new relationships by staying involved in the community and through the game bridge. “They have the skills for the journey and that’s what we need,” she said.
Glaser added that reaching across generations and often across distances is vital as well. “We tend to be social within our age same groups,” she said.
To develop lasting relationships with younger generations, Glaser suggested setting up a Facebook page. She regularly updates her Facebook page and sends text messages to her niece in Minnesota. Glaser’s mother strengthens the bonds of friendship by “sending birthday cards to the world.”
“Even though my grandchildren live nearby, they are so busy. Their schedules are such that I don’t get to see them as much as I would like,” one senior said. Others nodded that they, too, had that experience.
Some members of the group offered their ideas on how to keep in touch with families and friends scattered long distance. Skype was a favorite, texting, vacationing together, reading the books your grandchildren are reading to have a basis for a conversation, having a “surprise” pizza delivered to their home, scrapbooking for grandchildren memories of things done together, planning a group adventure and mailing a CD of music were some of the ideas shared.
Riley said the topic of friendship is something people should think about. “The idea that you can intentionally encourage a friendship and that it is a good investment for your future was key. You can reach out [to others] just as much as you can as wait for others to reach out to you.”