One never knows when life will give you a gift. Mine arrived at work one day in a chance encounter while doing a blood pressure check. This gift came in the form of a new friend. She is 83 and we became instant family.
I visit her three to four times a week. And the best part? We talk. Or I listen. I listen to stories of her youth, adventures, family, relationships and kids. There have been stories of happiness and stories of loss. We have laughed and we have cried, and we have hugged. We hug all the time. They are real hugs, hugs that come from the heart. You can feel her spunk, tenacity, humor and her love of life in them. She calls me her angel. What she doesn’t realize is that she is mine.
According to a new study, as we get older our friends begin to have a bigger impact on our health and well-being, even more so than family.
Researchers led by William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, reviewed two surveys of approximately 280,000 people who answered questions about relationships, happiness and health.
In the first study of 271,053 adults, valuing friendships was related to better functioning, particularly among older adults, whereas valuing familial relationships “exerted a static influence on health and well-being across the lifespan.” In the second study of 7,481 older adults, only strain from friendships predicted more chronic illnesses over a six year period.
Chopik said the power of friendship on physical and mental health is often ignored when researching older people, because familial relationships are frequently deemed more important for this age group. But family members typically become caregivers for the elderly, and that role can create a sense of obligation. While those relationships are still vital, Chopik says, they may not provide as much joy in an elderly person’s life as long-term friends.
Another factor that we must consider as we grow older is the passing of our significant others, families and peers. In their absence there is a void that can be filled only by loving human relationships. When there is love, we experience fulfillment. This fulfillment is reciprocal, and is not bounded by age.
There are life lessons to be learned from older friends. By the same token, there is an elixir released by those who are younger. Life has no limits. Living vicariously does have its place and it too has no boundaries. Friendships with older and younger people broaden perspective, which in turn invites compassion and empathy. Age should not be a predictor of friendship quality.
I have benefited from my dear friend’s life experience. She is not afraid of the opinions of others and says exactly what she thinks. Her view often throws something unexpected into the mix. Most often it is a gentle reminder to appreciate “the moments” and the chance encounters that life throws at you. Appreciation of people, different experiences, and enjoying the lost art of chatting and storytelling. It’s a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.
As we pursue our interests over a lifetime, the people who share them become increasingly important. Interest-based groups, like clubs and teams often become the source of our social outlets. What if our interest based group was humanity? We want our elder communities to be able to age gracefully in place. Well, what then? We have many who are aging gracefully in place who are forgotten.
The same can be said of younger generations working hard, paying bills and raising families. The pleasure of conversation has been reduced to a quick text message. I suggest you take a step into a generation when people rather than technology was the focus. Reconnect with what makes humans special — our ability to connect and to love. There is so much life in my friend. Her eyes are alive with it. Perhaps this is my reminder that life must be embraced each day.
Anne Nesbit is the prevention and public information officer and a volunteer battalion chief for the Key Peninsula Fire Department. She lives in Lakebay.
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