Close relationships give us energy, both physically and emotionally. So what happens when we lose these loving relationships?

In my work with the elderly, I know one of the hardest issues faced is the loss of a spouse or a close, long-term friend.

We can lose a person we know through dementia and Alzheimer’s. Then, there’s the unsettling permanence when people pass away.

In the aging, a sensation of loss can also result from the evolution of societal values taking place; this creates a feeling of displacement.

How does one survive these losses? I don’t have the answers; I can only muse and learn from the examples of others.

A friend in her mid-70s shared her story with me. She went to a Seattle high school where nine classmates developed close friendships with one another; she is one of those. These women were and are a vibrant group.

Even though separated by distance, the nine have stayed friends and regularly get together. They write and email each other. They’ve shared their lives’ joys and hardships. They have seen each other’s families grow up. They share the excitement of grandchildren and, now, great-grandchildren.

Thirty years ago, they lost one of their troop to a health crisis; otherwise, the group has managed to stay unbroken. That is until the last four years: Two have passed away due to health issues. Their most recent loss was a few weeks ago.

During their schoolmate’s battle with cancer, the women wrote letters, sent cards and emails, made phone calls and visited their friend. In this way, they provided support to both their friend and her husband; they felt like they were supporting each other, as well.

Their friend’s husband has a strong faith community; he also has friends in the senior living community where he resides. Everyone hopes this support system will help him through his loss.

Another friend of mine has a large group of golfing buddies from the Pacific Northwest who, for 30 years, have assembled for an annual two-day tournament. This last year, the tournament’s two founding members passed away. This has been a blow, but it has also brought the remaining members closer together.

They have shared stories in person and posted stories and pictures on Facebook. They have set up a fund to help the surviving spouses defray expenses. At this summer’s tournament, they dedicated the competition to the founders and continued to share stories.

Life’s musings

In my musings, I have stumbled upon one of life’s dilemmas: We are greatly rewarded by the closeness of our friendships; yet, the closer we are, the more painful are the losses. So rather than keep life at arm’s length (and thus avoid the pain of disappointment and loss), my personal choice is to have as many warm and devoted friends as possible.

As we age, yes, we are going to lose our friends, but we are also sustained in life’s journey by the richness and love of friendships shared.

In each of my story examples, a rich community still exists. But for the elderly, as the losses mount, loneliness can set in. Loneliness can lead to depression and poor health.

So my suggestion: Share life’s richness with the aging.

As caregivers (family or professional), we need empathy. Empathy provides understanding and allows us to be responsive in ways that can counter the effects of loneliness in the aging.

Things as simple as being cheerful and respectful buoy a flagging spirit. A fun meal, flowers, a ride in the car, being pushed around the block in a wheelchair on a sunny day, spending time with grandchildren and great-grandchildren, lunch with a friend — any number of simple acts of caring can counter depression and loneliness.

I highly recommend watching the PBS documentary “Tea Time” (part of the “POV” series). This hour-long film expressively illustrates the lives of five aging Chilean women. Through a monthly ritual of meeting for tea, they experience the paradox of friendship: its richness and rewards juxtaposed with losses shared.

MARLA BECK is the founder and president of Andelcare Inc. Submit questions by calling (206) 838-1844 or via e-mail to marla@andelcare.com.
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