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Gray Area: Not the last one standing

Making friends adds new spark late in life

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Today, the Deseret News concludes a 10-part series on aging in Utah. When we think about our futures, most of us skirt the part of the picture that might include dementia, dependency and Depends. And we forget that it might also include newfound meaning, new friendships and second chances to reinvent ourselves. You can catch the entire series — and additional stories and resources — online at deseretnews.com. Click on the icon reading, Not the same old stories.

Not everybody lives to be 96, which is why Priscilla Paul had outlived six siblings and every one of her friends by the time she moved into the Park Lane senior apartments. That's the downside of longevity: You're sometimes the last one standing.

Or sitting. The other day Priscilla sat on her sofa talking about her best friend, Marge, who moved into the senior apartments about the same time Priscilla did. Last month Marge was admitted to the rehab wing of a nursing home, and since then Priscilla has been feeling blue. Priscilla and Marge used to go to the dining room together and watch "Oprah" every afternoon. It was Marge who got Priscilla hooked on Barack Obama.

"I miss Marge terribly," Priscilla says. "I've never had a friend as good as Marge."

That they became best friends when Priscilla was 91 and Marge was 87 speaks to the never-ending need for human connection. "We're social animals, we're primates. ... We're made to interact," says Clara McClane, a geriatric social worker with Jewish Family Services. When babies don't have social interactions, they don't thrive physically, "and at the other side of life, if we find ourselves in situations where it's harder to have relationships, we suffer in other ways."

By the time a person has lived eight or nine decades, she may already have been to the funerals of her spouse, her siblings and her friends, may have moved from her old neighborhood, given up her driver's license and watched her mobility and sight diminish. Sometimes, thinking about all the things and people she has lost, Mabel Gates lies awake in the middle of the night and feels lost herself.

It wasn't that long ago that Mabel, now 89, and her two best friends, Thelma and Lois, were a fun-loving threesome, going out to eat and to the movies. She and Thelma took trips to Oregon and California, and once, in their 70s, they pitched a tent outside Las Vegas because they couldn't get a hotel room. When their vision and health began to fade, the three widows talked on the phone almost every day. Then Thelma died, and last spring, so did Lois.

"As you get older, it's hard to make friends," Mabel says. And besides, "anybody my age would be more infirm than me."

Indeed, aging can sometimes create barriers to new friendships: Hearing loss or the repetition that comes with memory loss can make conversation difficult; not having a driver's license can make it hard to get together; the need to be near a bathroom can keep people isolated in their houses. And to meet someone new at 90 is to realize that you've lived a whole lifetime the other person knows nothing about. Mabel jokes that there's no one to contradict her version of history, but she's also sad there's no friend left who shared the living of it.

Some people are cautious about making new friends precisely because they've already lost so many. When Jetta Hepworth first moved to a senior apartment at age 90, she made three friends. When they died, one after another, she decided she really didn't want to make any more new friends her age. "When you get to liking someone," she concluded, "they die."

Some people are naturally loners, and some have never outgrown the social awkwardness they felt at 6 or 16. But some people realize they can only survive all their other losses if they can share those heartaches, and their joys, with someone else.

Erma Dahlquist is only 76 but has already buried her husband and four of her five children, and two of her best friends died last summer. What has kept her going, she says, is the friends she has made at the Sunday Anderson Senior Center. "I'd be crying all the time," she says, "if I didn't have friends."

When 91-year-old Donna Landes moved into the City Plaza senior apartments four years ago, it dawned on her that she was living on the same block where, 50 years before, she had worked as a nurse on the geriatric floor of the old county hospital. Now she was old and alone herself. "I was praying and fasting I would meet someone," Donna remembers. One day, after Donna had felt lonely for about a month, she was sitting in the lobby of City Plaza when Lydia Richards walked up and introduced herself.

Now Donna and Lydia are best friends. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, along with six other friends known as the Card Gang, they take the elevator down to the basement of the senior apartments, lay out an assortment of chocolates and cookies, put two decks of cards in the automatic shuffler, and settle in for an evening of Phase 10.

They play that game because the colors on the cards are easier to read than a normal deck, and Donna and another member of the Gang are legally blind. On a recent evening, Lydia and Donna giggled as Lydia helped her sort through each new hand.

Most of the women sitting around the table on this frigid evening have cared for and buried ailing husbands, many have outlived some of their own children, and most have endured ailments and heartache. There's a matter-of-factness in their banter, as the conversation shifts from stories about yesteryears to a cautionary tale about a woman in B Building who fell in the shower and wasn't discovered for a day and a half. Still, there's a lightheartedness to the evening. Helen Dickerson is wearing her bright red snowmen socks.

Jane Vega, who comes just for the conversation, says that when she was living alone in her old neighborhood in Magna she realized there was no one left to talk to, so she immediately put her name on the waiting list for the senior high-rise. This is Jane's philosophy: "Each person is a world, and you could go on a big adventure to get to know them."

Sometimes, senior housing is not unlike your average junior high cafeteria. More than one resident of local independent living apartments confided that there are cliques, especially in the dining rooms.

Even Marilyn Modling, a naturally outgoing woman, was told "this seat is taken" when she first moved into Park Lane senior apartments. But senior apartments also provide a steady stream of new people to meet, says 89-year-old Marilyn.

Clinical psychologist Annice Julian of the Center for Human Potential, who counsels residents of Utah assisted living facilities and nursing homes, notes that "a lot of my elderly people don't know how to reach out. They want someone to reach out to them." Learn to engage others, even if you're shy, before you get old, she urges. "My advice is, start doing it when you're young, so you're in practice." And have intergenerational friendships, suggests Salt Lake geriatrician Carole Baraldi, who points to a great aunt, a nun, who has forged friendships with the children of her friends, mastering e-mail in her 80s. Jetta Hepworth, the woman who doesn't want to make any new old friends, has an enduring friendship with her adult grandson James, who says that Jetta stays current and is fun to be around.

But family, while a source of pleasure, can't always be counted on to provide the kind of day-to-day interaction and diversion a close friend can provide. Many parent-child relationships don't lend themselves to intimate revelations; and children might live out of state or be busy with jobs and children of their own.

Ruth Frank was living in Jerusalem when her children persuaded her to move to Utah to be near daughter Judy. Ruth, who spent most of her adult life in Maine, where she founded the state's Guild of Spinners, had to leave her prized loom behind in Jerusalem, arriving with one suitcase and her dog.

A friendly, direct and insightful woman, Ruth made friends with "two very fine women" when she moved into Sunrise independent living in Sandy. But almost immediately, the women died, "and I was suddenly left without anybody again." Last summer, to help provide the intellectual friendship Ruth enjoys, Judy — who works all day — hired a senior companion. Don Harjo, of Caregivers Plus, visits Ruth three afternoons a week. They eat together in the dining room, then go back upstairs to chat about art and politics. Ruth's eyesight is dimming, so Don reads to her from the Jerusalem Post and her favorite magazines.

Ruth says she was wary at first. "I didn't want to be treated like a patient or be patronized. I didn't need a nanny." But over the past five months, she says, they have become friends.

A widow can have 61 progeny and still sometimes be lonely; may still long to feel needed by a spouse, may still find, at 79, that when a certain man leaves a message on her answering machine she can't wait to call him back.

"Do you know what the word 'twitterpated' means?" asks Mary Matheson, who is getting married next month.

"I look forward to taking care of him, to doing his wash and cooking for him," says Mary about Jerry Hayes, who is 80. It's as thrilling as the first time around, she says, but there's the added appreciation, at this stage, that life is finite and that each moment should be enjoyed. "It's a mature love," says Jerry. "It's sweet and tender and spiritual." Mary and Jerry, both widowed, had known each other for decades before falling in love this past year, and both had good marriages, a total of 113 years of happiness, says Jerry. "You take what you've gained from your first marriage," he explains, and bring it to this new union later in life.

You also bring two houses full of furniture. Early one morning not long ago, Jerry got a phone call from Mary, who was sobbing. "I can't leave my home," she said. "This is where my family grew up."

"I thought, 'Love is more important than brick and mortar,"' Jerry recalls. On the other hand, Jerry loves his house, with its brand new deck. So they'll keep both houses, living in Mary's and using Jerry's as a "retreat."

Bernie Myers, 91, and his new wife, Vyrl, 88, are also trying to sort out the his and hers of real estate and belongings as they navigate the first few months of marriage. Vyrl met Bernie last summer at one of the 10 a.m. dances at the Tenth East Senior Center. "She's the right age and the right size," says Bernie, who reports that he used to be 5-foot-4 but has shrunk some.

"As soon as we got together she said, 'I want to take care of you the rest of your life,"' Bernie recalls. So they got married in October, spent their honeymoon dancing around the multipurpose room at Tenth East, and return twice a week to dance some more. They take turns staying at each other's house.

Vyrl says that at first her children told her she was too old to get married. But they've accepted it, she says.

In her book "Love Stories of Later Life," former University of Utah professor Amanda Smith Barusch tells the stories of several older adults who "restricted their romantic involvements out of deference to their children." Sometimes it's a fear about future inheritance. Sometimes, it's what author Robert Butler calls "a primitive childhood need to deny their parents a sex life."

"One of the biggest myths in our society," says geriatrician Baraldi, "is that old people don't have physical desires."

Or don't long to be touched, even platonically. At a book group of widows that Helen Rollins facilitates at the Sandy Senior Center, one woman asked bluntly, "How many of you miss being touched?" For the next 90 minutes, the book was ignored and the women spoke of missing hugs and that moment when someone rests a hand on your shoulder. One woman said the only touch she gets now is a handshake at church.

When you get old, says one 89-year-old man, you still want a relationship. His seven-year-romance with an old friend is challenged by her rheumatoid arthritis and his multiple eye surgeries. She lives two states away, and they've only been together a dozen days in the last three years. But they spend hours each week talking on the phone, and he hopes that some day they'll get married.

People don't like to be alone at night, he says. This is what he has missed since his wife died, and this is what he longs for as he's lying in bed in the middle of the night: He wants to reach over and touch someone and know, in this moment, that he's not alone.

E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com, lois@desnews.com