I was recently asked to speak at a memorial service for my mothers’ life-long friend, Hana. I opened my remarks with a quote from Wikipedia defining friendship:
“Friendship is a relationship of mutual affection between two or more people. Although there are many forms of friendship, certain characteristics include affection, sympathy, empathy, honesty, mutual understanding, compassion, trust and the ability to be oneself, express one’s feelings and make mistakes without fear of judgment……Quality friendships lead an individual to feel more comfortable with his or her personal identity. Higher friendship quality directly contributes to self-esteem and self-confidence.” I continued by saying how the friendship between these women for more than 70 years extended to our families and was cross-generational as I, myself, became close friends with Hana, independent of my mother’s friendship.
These thoughts coincided nicely with the January Round Table. For me, the discussion about friendship had to do with long- term friends and the intimacy of that relationship and the deep sense of loss around that kind of friendship. But others around the table were more interested in discussing the difficulties that a new person faces when entering new settings such as a senior center or an assisted living community and being accepted or welcomed. This was nicely echoed by an essay in the New York Times just this past Sunday about “mean girls.” (New York Times, Sunday, January 17, 2015). The writer’s 97 year old grandmother was spurned by the clique of mean girls who do not invite her to the bridge game.
One social worker told a similar story of a woman who entered a senior center and tried to find a seat at a lunch table but was met by tent cards announcing that places at the table were reserved. Aside from an empty table this woman had no welcoming seat and was reminded of long ago feelings of middle school girls’ behaviors and exclusive cliques. Imagine those same hurt feelings resurfacing from so many years ago. In a group therapy session, the woman was counseled to make her own tent card to read “Mary’s table, all new comer’s welcome!” It was an ingenious and constructive approach that worked.
The journal article, however, was not addressing this sociological dilemma, rather it was describing an aspect of developmental psychology. Defining continuity theory as continuous adult development, including adaptation to changing situations, the authors emphasized the concept that “continuity and change can exist at the same time within an individual self.” While personality patterns may remain stable and consistent, there is room for making new relationships, or re-negotiating old relationships; this may be a means of maintaining control at a time when other aspects of one’s life – health, home, family, jobs – are changing rapidly. This is a dynamic and developmental approach to aging.
Both Wikipedia and the journal article articulate the importance that friendships play in individual lives. Unlike familial relationships that may be obligatory or have high expectations associated with them, friendships are by choice and are mutual. Apparently, age is no barrier to wanting to continue to seek new friendships, and to maintain long-term friends as they “provide a sense of history and emphasize continuity ….that in turn contributes to self-identity and self-worth.”
The Round Table Discussion Group meets monthly for an interdisciplinary conversation with experienced professionals in the field of aging. Each conversation uses one or two journal articles as reference points. The articles read for this discussion were:
Applying Continuity Theory to Older Adult Friendships, Tanya Finchum and Joseph A. Weber, Journal of Aging and Identity, Vol. 5, No3, 2000Applying Continuity Theory to Older Adult Friendships, Tanya Finchum and Joseph A. Weber, Journal of Aging and Identity, Vol. 5, No3, 2000