Friendship is defined as “a person being attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.” Especially during one’s senior years, it is important to appreciate that each one of our friends can mean more to us than ever. As one’s career and family life diminish due to the realities of aging, having close friends can make all the difference between feeling happy and joyful rather than lonely and sad. One need not be in failing physical health to begin to struggle to find a sense of meaning and purpose, because age alone can eventually take its toll on being able to engage with others much of the time.
I remember a poignant scene I observed while traveling in Spain some 30 years ago. At about 4:30 in the afternoon, men from around the town began to venture forth from their homes dressed in fancy sweaters as they drifted toward the nearby parks. They were looking to be joined by other men of their age group to socialize with while presumably their wives remained at home to prepare dinner. It was notable because I could see the expression of loneliness on the faces of those men shift to smiles as they left their homes and began to congregate with their age mates in the park.
It is one thing for us seniors to be meaningfully engaged academically by taking classes or reading books, but it is quite another to be physically and emotionally connected with people based on wanting to experience their friendship as time relentlessly marches on.
The emotionally destructive impact of the coronavirus pandemic left everyone changed emotionally in many ways. More than before, people watched movies at home rather than with others at a theater, listened to music more exclusively on the radio than also going to live concerts, and learned to eat more meals at home than in restaurants, because it was safer health wise.
Currently, people have tried to adjust to this lesser amount of physical human contact, but something in our ego tells us that this is not normal. Physical connectedness between human beings is a major key to what makes life pleasurable and meaningful. We learned in our early childhoods that the most joy was often experienced by being physically together with our friends.
When I was growing up my parents would often encourage me to go out and play with friends in the neighborhood, many of whom were already outside looking for others to play with. Today, parents may “over-parent” by driving their children everywhere and micro-managing their free time, thus creating a lack of spontaneity on the part of a child playing with others. And iPhones and the internet constantly compete with experiencing person-to-person closeness.
Social norms of course do change as time goes by. Some of this may be for the better and some not so. But it might be helpful to reflect on one’s own physical connectedness to friends and colleagues as you grew up as you try to manage a similar level of intimacy during this later stage in life. Reaching out to be with others in person to enhance your connection with them might help nourish you in ways that you yourself desire and as such is something worth acting upon.
Dr. Hugh Winig is a retired psychiatrist and a longtime OLLI @Berkeley member and volunteer.
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