October 6th, 2011 at 9:18 am
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Why elderly friendships fade away

by Judy Kirkwood

Mom was lucky to have several friends who lived as long as she did. So, it was frustrating that my mother didn’t make an effort to see or talk to them when she seemed to be capable of doing so. Even before her stroke, we would suggest mom make a date to meet an old friend from church, or a woman whom we had called “Aunt” whom mom met way back when Dad was in the service.

We had a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) coming to look after dad so mom could have some spare time, but mom often preferred to sit and talk with the CNA. It was hard to understand what was stopping her from spending precious time with those who had known her and dad practically their whole married lives.

Then an odd thing happened. Mom began enjoying new friends. I had never witnessed her make a new friend but everyone at the nursing home and Circle of Friends daycare seemed to “get” her humor and appreciate her personality. They talked about things in the moment mostly, but occasionally she reminisced, looking at dad’s picture.

Factors affecting elderly friendships

There’s not much research on friendships among seniors. A number of studies are based on samples of people over 55 but that’s not what we call elderly these days. I believe these were the factors affecting mom’s friendships.

  1. She became isolated when Dad was alive because he was so dependent on her and he would get upset if she wasn’t there. Plus, perhaps she was protecting dad from others knowing how much he had changed. He was frail and would not have remembered a friend if one came to the house.
  2. After her stroke, making connections with old friends was a bit treacherous. “Many seniors are painfully aware, on some level, and embarrassed by their inability to keep up a conversation or remember certain details,” says says Dr. Irene Levine, a professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine and author of the book Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend.

As adult children, we need to accept that our parents change in so many ways that new norms are established. Perhaps feeling detached from old friends is one of them. People come into our lives to provide companionship, teach us valuable lessons, listen to and support us, and we do the same for them. But sometimes the last connections we make with those who take care of our physical needs are just as important as our oldest friends. In the end, a friend is someone who cares.

We should all be so lucky to have the kind companions my mother had in her last years.

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One Response to “Why elderly friendships fade away”

  1. Helen

    My parents were married for 69 years before Mom died and kept up friendships at their independent living facility until both were too sick to be sociable. They also maintained phone friendships with their Air Force crowd.

    I think having friends (and of course family near by), kept them in touch with the world. After Mom died, Dad slipped into dementia and the friends (also in the same boat), slipped away too.

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