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New and Old Friendships Alike Help Us Age Successfully
Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Tue, Oct 9th 2012
Do you remember your first friend? I do. I met her in kindergarten, where we giggled our way through recess and relished in sleepovers on the weekends. Over the years, we studied together, cried together, got into trouble together, and stood by each other. And last fall, almost 40 years after we first met, she was my matron of honor at my wedding.
I know we will be friends for life. And apparently, this is a really good thing when it comes to multidimensional well-being. I recently read an article in the Chicago Tribune featuring a group of five women - currently in their 70s - who have been friends since childhood. When Barry Greenwald, a clinical psychologist and adjunct lecturer of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was asked about such long-term friendships, he commented that although it's good to make friendships throughout life, nothing really compares to the quality of old friendships.
This makes sense to me. Friendships take work and time to really solidify. When you've spent years in a friendship with someone, the depth of caring is already there. The historical knowledge is present with few, if any, gaps. You don't have to explain yourself or adjust your behavior to new interaction patterns. In other words, you can truly be yourself and know you are accepted and understood. You can see how a life-long friendship can enrich your social and spiritual well-being. Apparently it can also enhance your physical well-being, because old friends tend to encourage each other to be healthy and aren't afraid to tell it to you straight if they are concerned about you.
This is not to say that new friendships are not worthwhile; on the contrary, it's important as we age to continue to forge new relationships and have new experiences. And sometimes, new friendships are all we have. Perhaps we lost touch with old friends or they have passed away. If we move to a new neighborhood, city, or region, we can feel isolated if we don't reach out and meet some new people. And if we're older and have moved to a retirement community, connecting with others in the community is often crucial to staving off loneliness and, for some, depression.
In fact, Dr. Diana Kerwin, assistant professor of medicine and geriatrics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, reports that research has shown that levels of depression are lower among older adults who maintain social connections and who stay socially engaged. Maintaining social well-being can also improve intellectual well-being; for instance, if you enjoy the theater, your experience will be enhanced if you go with a friend and then discuss the play together afterwards.
So take stock of your friends, both new and old. Do you invest the energy necessary to keep these friendships alive and well? If not, what can you do to deepen these relationships? For your own well-being and theirs, your friendship is a worthwhile investment that can pay royal dividends.