By David Roberts, Vox, Dec 7, 2017
I often think about a piece I read in 2015 in the Atlantic, by Julie Beck, called “How Friendships Change in Adulthood.”
I do think, however, that Beck left out an interesting piece of the puzzle. Our ability to form and maintain friendships is shaped in crucial ways by the physical spaces in which we live. “Land use,” as it’s rather aridly known, shapes behavior and sociality. And in America we have settled on patterns of land use that might as well have been designed to prevent spontaneous encounters, the kind out of which rich social ties are built.
We get by with a little less help from our friends. It’s a familiar tale that Beck tells: Early in life, friendships are central to our development and sense of self. This is true right up through to those early post-collegiate years, when everyone is starting out in their professional lives.
And then people get married. They have kids. Their parents get older and need more care. They settle into careers. All those obligations–spouses, kids, family, work–are things we have to do. Friendships are things we choose to do. And that means, when time constricts and things get busy, friendships often get bumped.
So as we get older, time with friends tapers off. “[In a study we did,] we asked people to tell us the story of the last person they became friends with, how they transitioned from acquaintance to friend,” researcher Emily Langan told Beck. “It was interesting that people kind of struggled”:
In a set of interviews he did in 1994 with middle-aged Americans about their friendships, [researcher William] Rawlins [of Ohio University] wrote that, “an almost tangible irony permeated these adults’ discussions of close or ‘real’ friendship.” They defined friendship as “being there” for each other, but reported that they rarely had time to spend with their most valued friends, whether because of circumstances, or through the age-old problem of good intentions and bad follow-through: “Friends who lived within striking distance of each other found that… scheduling opportunities to spend or share some time together was essential,” Rawlins writes. “Several mentioned, however, that these occasions often were talked about more than they were accomplished.”
This is a sad story. People almost universally report that friendships are important to their happiness and well-being. They don’t want to lose touch with friends and stop making new ones. They lament it constantly. (I can testify to all of this firsthand.)
But as the habits of family and work settle in, friendships become an effort, and as every tired working parent knows, optional effort tends to get triaged.
Does it have to be this way?
Our missing tribes. There’s a temptation to say that this is inevitable, just the way things are. People grow up, they don’t hang out with friends as much anymore. It’s kind of sad, but that’s just how it is.
But it is not inevitable. In fact it’s quite new! For the vast majority of our history, we lived in small, nomadic bands. The tribe, not the nuclear family, was the primary unit. We lived among others of various ages, to which we were tied by generations of kinship and alliance, throughout our lives.
It’s only been since we developed agriculture and started living in semi-permanent communities, more recently still that were thrown into cities, crammed up against people we barely know, and more recently still that we bounced out of cities and into suburbs.
There’s nothing fated or inevitable about each of us living in our own separate nuclear-family castles, with our own little faux-estate lawns, getting in a car to go anywhere, never seeing friends unless we make an effort to schedule it.
Why should it require explicit scheduling to see a friend who lives “within striking distance”? Why shouldn’t proximity do some of the work? The answer, for many Americans, is that anything beyond a few blocks away might as well be miles; it all requires a car. We do not encounter one another in cars. We grind along together anonymously, often in misery.
The loss of spontaneous encounters. Why do we form such strong friendships in high school and college and form comparatively fewer as the years go on?
I read a study many years ago that I have thought about many times since, though hours of effort have failed to track it down. The gist was that the key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact. That’s why we make friends in school–because we are forced into regular contact with the same people. It is the natural soil out of which friendship grows.
The researchers believed that physical space was the key to friendship formation; that “friendships are likely to develop on the basis of brief and passive contacts made going to and from home or walking about the neighborhood.” In their view, it wasn’t so much that people with similar attitudes became friends, but rather that people who passed each other during the day tended to become friends and later adopted similar attitudes.
As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.
This kind of spontaneous social mixing doesn’t disappear in post-collegiate life. We bond with co-workers, especially in those scrappy early jobs, and the people who share our rented homes and apartments.
But when we marry and start a family, we are pushed, by custom, policy, and expectation, to move into our own houses. And when we have kids, we find ourselves tied to those houses. Many if not most neighborhoods these days are not safe for unsupervised kid frolicking. In lower-income areas there are no sidewalks; in higher-income areas there are wide streets abutted by large garages. In both cases, the neighborhoods are made for cars, not kids. So kids stay inside playing Xbox, and families don’t leave except to drive somewhere.
Thus, seeing friends, even friends within “striking distance,” requires planning. “We should really get together!” We say it, but we know it means calls and emails, finding an evening free of work, possibly babysitters. We know it would be fun. But it’s very easy just to settle in for a little TV.
Those of you who are married with kids: When was the last time you ran into a friend or “dropped by” a friend’s house without planning it? When was the last time you had a unplanned encounter with anyone other than a clerk or a barista, someone serving you?
Where would it happen? The mall? Walmart? There are so few noncommercial public spaces where we mix and mingle freely with people on a regular basis.
Say you’re a family with children and you don’t regularly attend church (as is increasingly common). There are basically two ways to have regular, spontaneous encounters with people. Both are rare in America.
One is living in a real place, a walkable area with lots of shared public spaces, around which one can move relatively safely and effectively without a car. It seems like a simple thing, but such places are rare even in the cities where they exist.
Walkable communities are very difficult to find in the US, and because there is such paucity of supply relative to demand, they are expensive, accessible only to the high-income. Places where they exist tend to have absurd zoning restrictions that prevent growing them.
The second, even more rare, is some form of co-housing. There are many kinds of co-housing, too many to get into in this post, but my favorite, a common model in Germany, is baugruppen, or building groups.
The basic idea is that a group of people comes together to work directly with architects and designers, bypassing developers, to build a shared dwelling that they own collectively (a co-op, basically). Taking developers out of the picture saves money–25 to 30 percent in Berlin, where baugruppen are common–and opens up space for much more ambitious, innovative, and sustainable architecture. It also fosters cooperation and community among members of the collective.
In practice, baugruppen are basically like condos, but with much more robust shared spaces and collective ownership rather than developer ownership.
The idea behind baugruppen, and co-housing generally, is that it’s nice to live in an extended community, to have people to rely on beyond family. It’s nice to have bustling shared spaces where you can run into people you know without planning it beforehand. It’s nice to have nearby friends for your kids, places where they can play safely, and other adults who can share kid-tending duties.
Refusing to accept the status quo of default isolation. Both these alternatives–walkable communities and co-housing–sound exotic to American ears. Thanks to shifting baselines, most Americans only know single-family dwellings and auto-dependent land use. They cannot even articulate what they are missing and often misidentify the solution as more or different private consumption.
But I do not think we should just accept that when we marry and start families, we atomize, and our friendships, like our taste in music, freeze where they were when we were young and single. We shouldn’t just accept a way of living that makes interactions with neighbors and friends a burden that requires special planning.
We should recognize that by shrinking our network of strong social ties to our immediate families, we lose something important to our health and social identities, with the predictable result that we are ridden with anxiety and loneliness. We are meant to have tribes, to be among people who know us and care about us.
Your chances of reaching age 100 could be better than you think—especially if you get some additional sleep and improve your diet.
U.S. seniors who make it to their 100th birthdays tend to credit social connections, exercise and spiritual activity as keys to successful aging.
Research from UnitedHealthcare looks at centenarians and baby boomers, asking the former about the “secrets of aging success” and evaluating whether the latter are taking the necessary steps to celebrate a 100th birthday.
The primary findings: Many boomers are embracing lifestyles that could lead to a long and rewarding life—with two exceptions. More than seven in 10 centenarians—71%—say they get eight hours or more of sleep each night. By contrast, only 38% of boomers say they get the same amount of rest. And when it comes to eating right, more than eight in 10 centenarians say they regularly consume a balanced meal, compared with just over two-thirds (68%) of baby boomers.
The report—“100@100 Survey”—begins with some startling numbers. As of late 2010, the U.S. had an estimated 72,000 centenarians, according to the Census Bureau. By the year 2050, that number—with the aging of the baby-boom generation—is expected to reach more than 600,000. Meanwhile, an estimated 10,000 boomers each and every day—for the next decade—will turn 65.
How to reach 100? Centenarians point to social connections, exercise and spiritual activity as some of the keys to successful aging. Among surveyed centenarians, almost nine in 10—fully 89%—say they communicate with a family member or friend every day; about two-thirds (67%) pray, meditate or engage in some form of spiritual activity; and just over half (51%) say they exercise almost daily.
In each of these areas, baby boomers, as it turns out, match up fairly well. The same percentage of boomers as centenarians—89%—say they’re in touch with friends or family members on a regular basis. Sixty percent of surveyed baby boomers say spiritual activity is an important part of their lives, and almost six in 10 boomers (59%) exercise regularly.
Again, sleep and diet are the two areas where baby boomers come up short. Not surprisingly, the one area where boomers are more active is the workplace. Three-quarters (76%) of surveyed baby boomers say they work at a job or hobby almost every day; that compares with 16% of centenarians.
By David Brooks, NY Times, Dec. 4, 2014
A few months ago, Ezekiel Emanuel had an essay in The Atlantic saying that, all things considered, he’d prefer to die around age 75. He argued that he’d rather clock out with all his powers intact than endure a sad, feeble decline.
The problem is that if Zeke dies at 75, he’ll likely be missing his happiest years. When researchers ask people to assess their own well-being, people in their 20s rate themselves highly. Then there’s a decline as people get sadder in middle age, bottoming out around age 50. But then happiness levels shoot up, so that old people are happier than young people. The people who rate themselves most highly are those ages 82 to 85.
Psychologists who study this now famous U-Curve tend to point out that old people are happier because of changes in the brain. For example, when you show people a crowd of faces, young people unconsciously tend to look at the threatening faces but older people’s attention gravitates toward the happy ones.
Older people are more relaxed, on average. They are spared some of the burden of thinking about the future. As a result, they get more pleasure out of present, ordinary activities.
My problem with a lot of the research on happiness in old age is that it is so deterministic. It treats the aging of the emotional life the way you might treat the aging of the body: as this biological, chemical and evolutionary process that happens to people.
I’d rather think that elder happiness is an accomplishment, not a condition, that people get better at living through effort, by mastering specific skills. I’d like to think that people get steadily better at handling life’s challenges. In middle age, they are confronted by stressful challenges they can’t control, like having teenage children. But, in old age, they have more control over the challenges they will tackle and they get even better at addressing them.
It’s easy to think of some of the skills that some people get better at over time.
First, there’s bifocalism, the ability to see the same situation from multiple perspectives. Anthony Kronman of Yale Law School once wrote, “Anyone who has worn bifocal lenses knows that it takes time to learn to shift smoothly between perspectives and to combine them in a single field of vision. The same is true of deliberation. It is difficult to be compassionate, and often just as difficult to be detached, but what is most difficult of all is to be both at once.” Only with experience can a person learn to see a fraught situation both close up, with emotional intensity, and far away, with detached perspective.
Then there’s lightness, the ability to be at ease with the downsides of life. In their book, “Lighter as We Go,” Jimmie Holland and Mindy Greenstein (who is a friend from college) argue that while older people lose memory they also learn that most setbacks are not the end of the world. Anxiety is the biggest waste in life. If you know that you’ll recover, you can save time and get on with it sooner.
“The ability to grow lighter as we go is a form of wisdom that entails learning how not to sweat the small stuff,” Holland and Greenstein write, “learning how not to be too invested in particular outcomes.”
Then there is the ability to balance tensions. In “Practical Wisdom,” Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe argue that performing many social roles means balancing competing demands. A doctor has to be honest but also kind. A teacher has to instruct but also inspire. You can’t find the right balance in each context by memorizing a rule book. This form of wisdom can only be earned by acquiring a repertoire of similar experiences.
Finally, experienced heads have intuitive awareness of the landscape of reality, a feel for what other people are thinking and feeling, an instinct for how events will flow. In “The Wisdom Paradox,” Elkhonon Goldberg details the many ways the brain deteriorates with age: brain cells die, mental operations slow. But a lifetime of intellectual effort can lead to empathy and pattern awareness. “What I have lost with age in my capacity for hard mental work,” Goldberg writes, “I seem to have gained in my capacity for instantaneous, almost unfairly easy insight.”
Getting old often means getting lonely. Five pensioners from Hamburg tried to improve their lives by moving into a shared apartment. SPIEGEL journalist Barbara Hardinghaus, seeking options for her own parents, explored how they fared. She found that old age and happiness can go together.
To read the whole article go to this link.
PBS Newshour, July 6, 2015
GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, Americans have long crossed the border with Mexico in search of cheaper medical procedures, dental work and prescription drugs. Now a new trend is afoot: finding a place to live out retirement years.
Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery has the story, part of our occasional series about long-term care.
KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: David Truly, known as the Barefoot Professor, plays in a local band near Lake Chapala in Central Mexico. He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the migration of retirees to this area.
DAVID TRULY, Autonomous University of Guadalajara: Kind of a range between maybe 8,000 to about 15,000, 16,000 full-timers, but, in the winter, it can blow up in just this community to maybe 30,000.
KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Mexico’s largest lake is surrounded by emerald green mountains. The village of Ajijic draws artists and writers. Cobblestone streets are dotted with galleries and restaurants serving international cuisines.
No Spanish? No problem. With Hawaii’s latitude and Denver’s altitude, the temperate climate has attracted retirees for decades. Mexicans have traditionally taken elderly relatives into their own homes. So, the demand for assisted living and nursing care wasn’t high, until foreigners, many of them Americans, flocked here. Now they are getting older and they need more care.
DAVID TRULY: People are not just aging here, but for the first time, they’re staying here and they’re not returning home. So they’re aging and dying in place here.
KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: When 81-year-old John Simmons’ doctor told him he shouldn’t live alone, he came here to Abbeyfield, an independent senior living facility. His one bedroom casita sits in a lush garden near a lap pool and a covered patio.
JOHN SIMMONS, Retiree: I love the light. I love the cross-ventilation. I like the kitchen tucked away. And so it gives me room for an office and, of course, the views out the windows with all the wonderful plants. The landscaping here, I think, is fantastic.
KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The average cost for independent living in the U.S. is about $2,500 a month.
JOHN SIMMONS: The rent, including all utilities, connections for Internet, television, all of those things, plus three meals a day, just a little over $1,000 a month.
KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: One reason for the cost difference, labor is cheaper here. The minimum wage is just 70 pesos, or less than $5 a day. For those who need a bit more care, there’s been a boom in assisted living and nursing homes.
Seventy-two-year-old Rosemary Grayson came here from Wales. She made headlines 50 years ago as the first “Playboy” centerfold from the United Kingdom and later went on to be a journalist.
ROSEMARY GRAYSON, Retiree: I was burnt out. I was in a state of near nervous breakdown. Lakeside Care put me together again.
KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Ron Langley is a Floridian whose Mexican wife has a degree in geriatric care. Together, they run Lakeside Care. He’s proud of the food he serves and the caregivers he employs.
RON LANGLEY, Lakeside Care: They have a great respect for the elderly. And they will go out of their way to help an elderly person.
ROSEMARY GRAYSON: The people here have compassion written into their DNA. They do it before they know it. The caring is just like of being in an extended family.
KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Assisted care like this in the United States averages about $3,800 a month. And nursing homes can cost upwards of $7,000. Langley charges between $1,400 and $2,000 a month for meals, cleaning, laundry and more.
RON LANGLEY: The only other thing that a patient or a resident here would pay for would be their medicines and their doctors.
KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: And that raises a potential concern: Does the area have top-notch health care? A new hospital just opened on the lake. Though Medicare benefits don’t apply in Mexico, doctor’s visits and prescriptions are often less than co-pays back home. And Mexico’s second largest city is just an hour away.
DAVID TRULY: We are very close to Guadalajara, which can really be considered kind of a medical hub of Latin America, some of the finest medical colleges in–there’s like three universities there.
KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The Lake Chapala area is beginning to draw younger retirees, and some are bringing mom or dad along; 64-year-old Mark Woolley and his wife, Ann, bought a house here a year-and-a-half ago.
When his 86-year-old mother, Kempie McKenna, came for visit, she liked what she saw and chose a room at Abbeyfield.
WOMAN: The second time I came, I came with suitcases. It’s so relaxing here, with the sun coming in. The birds are up there. The flowers are blooming. It’s just lovely. And we’re just sitting and chatting.
MARK WOOLLEY, Retiree: She always considered it more like old-age storage, you know, a lot of the homes in the United States, and they weren’t very nice. And these were literally homes here that people live in and retire in, and with a bunch of friends.
KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Senior care is a cottage industry in the Lake Chapala area now. There’s little oversight, no government regulation, no scheduled inspections. Many homes appear well-run, but there’s no guarantee, so it’s buyer beware.
Most places have just a handful of rooms, but that’s about to change.
DR. TRINO ZEPEDA, Mexico: We want to create a retirement community with all the services related with the aging in place.
KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Dr. Trino Zepeda is working on a new large-scale development.
DR. TRINO ZEPEDA: This is assisted living apartments, and it’s going to be here.
KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: He expects to break ground later this year on a $35 million U.S.-style community, eventually housing 350 people, offering independent living, assisted, nursing and memory care.
Whether those plans succeed may depend on whether Mexico can overcome an image problem. The drumbeat of news about drug cartel violence has included the 2012 kidnapping and killing of 18 Mexican nationals near Ajijic. And the U.S. State Department warns citizens to exercise caution in the state of Jalisco.
But none of that worries Rosemary Grayson.
ROSEMARY GRAYSON: You’re a lot, lot safer than I felt in the U.K., and certainly in the U.S. I think they said 100 people–100 Americans were killed in Mexico last year. And they have now said that it’s not a safe destination. Well, you tell me how many safe destinations in the cities of America there are.
KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: And one more concern: Life moves at a slower pace here.
DAVID TRULY: Manana could mean manana or the day after manana or a week after manana.
But, you know, there is something to be said for the kind of laid-back, almost, you know, wake-me-up-when-we’re ready mentality.
KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Still, the thriving foreign community has lured baby boomers. The Lake Chapala Society, in business for 60 years, offers services for expats and others, from free eye exams, to bridge, to book clubs and volunteer opportunities.
Mark and Ann Woolley can imagine themselves living at Abbeyfield.
WOMAN: Oh, we’re putting our name on the list here.
KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: If the Woolleys are any indication, Mexico can expect an influx of Americans crossing the border for retirement.