Lesson Six: Connect with Peers – Aging Our Way

Barbara Dudley had a rash of dinner parties just before her death.

“There’s no reason to wait until you’re dead to have your funeral,” Dudley told family and friends. “I’m having my funeral every day until I can’t have it anymore.”

Mrs. Dudley had a brain tumor, and was told that she had less than two months to live. The ninety-one-year-old asked her doc, “Can you get me through to the holidays?” She then proceeded to open her home as a perpetual dining hall for friends and family. Topics at the luncheons and dinners flowed from world politics, to art, to literature and music. Guests from far and wide described the scene as “magical.”

This may be an extreme example. But Barbara’s story reminds us that social interaction is crucial for the living, as well as for the dying.

We tend to think about nonagenarians as isolated, vulnerable elders. And this may be true in some cases. However, my research unearthed mostly the opposite. I found many of the oldest old to be vitally connected to social networks. According to sociologist Eric Klinenberg, living alone encourages more social interaction, not less.  And single seniors are no exception; they are more likely to socialize with friends and neighbors than their younger counterparts.

We all know that social ties are crucial in terms of health and well-being. And yet, sometimes we need to be reminded to get out there and be social. And this: how does one make new friends in old age?

“For each year I get older, I make a new friend.”

That’s Ruth H’s survival strategy, and she’s fully connected at age 98. How does she do it? She introduces herself to people in her clubs, discussion groups, doctors’ offices, at the local college (potential walking partners), in the neighborhood (when she is out walking), and even at the farmer’s market. This year she’s ended up with 5 new friends, she says, beaming. She can’t wait to invite them all to her 100th birthday party.

When was the last time you made a new friend, and how did you do it? I’d love to hear about it.

This is the sixth in a 13- post series on living well, adapted from Aging Our Way: Lessons for Living from 85 and Beyond

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Meika Loe

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