Friend­ships a key to ag­ing well

Study shows mak­ing new friends vi­tal to well-be­ing

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - BOOKS - Bruce Horovitz

Donn Tren­ner, 91, es­ti­mates that two-thirds of his friends are dead.

“That’s a hard one for me,” he said. “I’ve lost a lot of peo­ple.”

As baby boomers age, more and more folks will reach their 80s, 90s — and be­yond. They will not only lose friends but face the daunt­ing task of mak­ing new friends at an ad­vanced age.

Friend­ship in old age plays a crit­i­cal role in health and well-be­ing, ac­cord­ing to re­cent find­ings from the Stan­ford Cen­ter on Longevity’s Sight­lines Project. So­cially iso­lated in­di­vid­u­als face health risks com­pa­ra­ble to those of smokers, and their mor­tal­ity risk is twice that of obese in­di­vid­u­als, the study notes.

Baby boomers are more dis­en­gaged with their neigh­bors and even their loved ones than any other gen­er­a­tion, said Dr. Laura Carstensen, who is di­rec­tor of the Stan­ford Cen­ter on Longevity and her­self a 64-year-old boomer. “If we're dis­en­gaged, it's go­ing to be harder to make new friends,” she said.

Tren­ner knows how that feels. In 2017, right be­fore the New Year, he tried to reach his long­time friend Rose Marie, for­mer ac­tress and co-star on the 1960s sit­com “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Tren­ner trav­eled with Rose Marie as a pi­anist do­ing shows at se­nior cen­ters along the Florida coast more than four decades ago. “When we were per­form­ing, you could hear all the hear­ing aids scream­ing in the au­di­ence,” he joked.

The news that she’d died shook him to the core.

Al­though she was a friend who, he said, can­not be re­placed, nei­ther her pass­ing nor the deaths of dozens of his other friends and as­so­ciates will stop Tren­ner from mak­ing new friends.

That’s one rea­son he still plays, every Mon­day night, with the Hartford Jazz Orches­tra at the Arch Street Tav­ern in Hartford, Conn.

For the past 19 years, he’s been the orches­tra’s pi­anist and mu­si­cal con­duc­tor. Every week, at least one or two mem­bers of the 17-piece orches­tra can’t make it to the gig but must ar­range for some­one to stand in for them. As a re­sult, Tren­ner said, he not only has reg­u­lar con­tact with long­time friends but keeps meet­ing and mak­ing friends with new mu­si­cians — most of whom are un­der 50.

Twice di­vorced, he also re­mains good friends with both of his for­mer wives. And just the other week, Tren­ner flew to San Diego to visit his best friend, also a mu­si­cian, who was cel­e­brat­ing his 90th birthday. They’ve known each other since they met at age 18 in the United States Army Air Corps. They still speak al­most daily. “Friend­ship is not to be taken for granted,” said Tren­ner. “You have to in­vest in friend­ship.”

Even in your 90s, the no­tion of be­ing a sole sur­vivor can seem sur­pris­ing.

Per­haps that’s why 91-year-old Lu­cille Sim­mons of Lake­land, Florida, halts, mid­sen­tence, as she traces the mul­ti­ple losses of friends and fam­ily mem­bers. She has not only lost her two clos­est friends, but a grand­daugh­ter, a daugh­ter and her hus­band of 68 years. Al­though her hus­band came from a large fam­ily of 13 chil­dren, his sib­lings have mostly all van­ished.

“There’s only one liv­ing sib­ling — and I’m hav­ing din­ner with him tonight,” said Sim­mons.

Five years ago, Sim­mons left her na­tive Hamilton, Ohio, to move in with her son and his wife, in a gated, 55-and-over com­mu­nity mid­way between Tampa and Or­lando. She had to learn how to make friends all over again. Raised as an only child, she was up to the task.

Sim­mons takes classes and plays games at her com­mu­nity. She also put­ters around her com­mu­nity on a golf cart (which she won in a raf­fle) invit­ing folks to ride along with her.

For his part, Tren­ner doesn’t need a golf cart. His per­sonal for­mula for mak­ing friends is mu­sic, laugh­ter and stay­ing ac­tive. He makes friends whether he’s per­form­ing or at­tend­ing mu­sic events or teach­ing.

Sim­mons has her own for­mula. It’s a roughly 50-50 split of spend­ing qual­ity time with rel­a­tives (whom she re­gards as friends) and non-fam­ily friends. The odds are with her. This, af­ter all, is a woman who spent 30 years as the of­fi­cial reg­is­trar of vi­tal sta­tis­tics for Hamilton. In that job, she was re­spon­si­ble for record­ing every birth — and every death — in the city.

Ex­perts say they’re both do­ing the right thing by not only re­main­ing open to new friend­ships but con­stantly cre­at­ing new ways to seek them out — even at an ad­vanced age.

Gen­uine friend­ships at any age typ­i­cally require re­peated con­tact, said Dr. An­drea Bo­nior, author of “The Friend­ship Fix: The Com­plete Guide to Choos­ing, Los­ing and Keep­ing Up with Your Friends.” She ad­vises older folks to join group ex­er­cise classes or knit­ting or book clubs. She also sug­gests that se­niors get in­volved in “al­tru­is­tic be­hav­ior” like vol­un­teer­ing in a soup kitchen or an an­i­mal shel­ter or tu­tor­ing English as a sec­ond lan­guage.

Per­haps few un­der­stand the need for friend­ship in older years bet­ter than Carstensen, who, be­sides di­rect­ing the Stan­ford Cen­ter on Longevity, is author of “A Long Bright Fu­ture: Hap­pi­ness, Health and Fi­nan­cial Se­cu­rity in an Age of In­creased Longevity.”

Carstensen said that go­ing back to school can be one of the most suc­cess­ful ways for an older per­son to make a new friend.

Bo­nior rec­om­mends se­niors em­brace so­cial me­dia. These so­cial me­dia con­nec­tions can help older peo­ple strike up new friend­ships with nieces, neph­ews and even grand­chil­dren, said Alan Wolfelt, an author, ed­u­ca­tor and founder of the Cen­ter for Loss and Life Tran­si­tion.

“It’s im­por­tant to cre­ate sup­port sys­tems that don’t iso­late you with your own gen­er­a­tion.”

Many older folks count their chil­dren as their best friends — and Carstensen said this can be a big pos­i­tive on sev­eral lev­els.

“I don’t think it mat­ters who your friends are,” she said. “It’s the qual­ity of the re­la­tion­ship that mat­ters most.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a non­profit news ser­vice cov­er­ing health is­sues. It is an ed­i­to­ri­ally in­de­pen­dent pro­gram of the Kaiser Fam­ily Foun­da­tion that is not af­fil­i­ated with Kaiser Per­ma­nente. KHN’s cov­er­age re­lated to ag­ing and im­prov­ing care of older adults is sup­ported in part by The John A. Hartford Foun­da­tion.

“Friend­ship is not to be taken for granted. You have to in­vest in friend­ship.”

Donn Tren­ner

A 91-year-old who stays ac­tive with mu­sic


As baby boomers live into their 80s and 90s, they will not only lose friends but face the daunt­ing task of mak­ing new friends at an ad­vanced age.

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