Need More Friends?

Finding social support.

4 min read

Aug. 21, 2000 -- When Evelyn Rinzler, 83, retired nearly 20 years ago, she said goodbye to her friends on the East Coast and headed for California, where her older son and grandchildren lived. A widow at 55, Rinzler prized her family ties. But weeks after she arrived and purchased a house, her son took a job in New York City, leaving Rinzler alone in a community where she knew no one.

Though no one keeps count of retirees who move long distances to live near their children, aging experts say it happens a lot. Many people see their children as their greatest comfort in old age. They want to see them frequently. And researchers are finding that such intimate social contact is crucial to health (see Life of the Party Life of the Party).

But adult children of retirees like Rinzler don't always make themselves available. They change jobs; they get transferred; they become preoccupied with careers and children of their own. So how can retired people decide whether they should transplant themselves to their children's backyards?

The answer, say experts on aging, is to figure out where you can establish the richest social network -- whether or not that network includes your children. "It's important for people to start thinking about this early," says Audrey Kavka, MD, a psychiatrist at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute. "The question should not be, 'Should I live with my children or not?' but rather, 'What would be most fulfilling for me?' "

Swedish researchers shed some light on the problem when they examined the mental health and social lives of 1,200 people over age 75. After following those people for three years, they found that those who were the least content with their social lives were 60% more likely to suffer dementia during this period than those who socialized frequently and happily, according to their report in the April 2000 issue of Lancet.

Those who saw their adult children regularly and got along well with them did fine. Those who socialized actively apart from their children also fared well. But those who described their contacts with their children as "frequent but unsatisfying" had a substantially increased risk of dementia -- suggesting that the quality of relationships matters at least as much as the quantity.

Housing choices matter, too. Surveys conducted regularly for the past 20 years by the American Association of Retired Persons indicate that the great majority of older people prefer to remain in their own homes as long as possible. But if that means spending too much time alone, it could be a mistake, the Swedish researchers concluded.

The people most likely to benefit from moving may be those whose local ties have deteriorated. Perhaps a spouse has died, or best friends have moved away.

Jay Meyerowitz, MD, who directs Our Parents' Health geriatric center in New Jersey, believes that older people who can relocate to be near children have a better chance of maintaining a higher quality of life.

"This doesn't mean they should move in with their children," he says. "The ideal situation would be to relocate to a senior facility nearby if it is financially feasible. Those facilities have a host of services and activities aimed at helping seniors maintain the highest quality of life, but at the same time, the family is nearby."

On the other hand, some people may do better staying put, says Carol Nobori, LCSW, of Oakland, Calif., who specializes in counseling retirees. "I've seen some patients who move across the country to be close to a son or daughter 'just in case' something happens," she says. "But the family doesn't realize how much the older person has given up and parents don't tell them. Instead they put up a brave front but are miserable."

"I ask them to think about their relationship with their children. Just because you're parent and child, you're not necessarily destined to be good friends," she says. "They should really start the process by thinking, 'What brings me pleasure in life? How can I get that?'"

The good news is that retirees don't have to have a date every night to establish the kind of network they need to stay healthy. "Our data indicate all you really need is three people in your life on whom you can depend," says Laura Carstensen, PhD, a Stanford University professor of psychology. "What matters is knowing you're not alone in the world" (see Finding Friends).

As for Rinzler, she's far from alone. Ensconced in her California home with a garden, a swimming pool, and "great shopping" nearby, Rinzler chose to stay there rather than chase her son back to New York. Responding to an ad for a widows' group at a local hospital, she says, "I met two women there who are now my closest friends here."

Bored with retirement, she went back to school to become a paralegal, and after some years of volunteering, was hired full time. A few years later, with her life pleasantly full, Rinzler got an unexpected bonus. Her son and his family returned to the Bay Area -- to be closer to her.

Christine Cosgrove, a freelance writer based in Berkeley, Calif., specializes in health and medical issues. She has worked as a reporter for UPI in New York City and as a senior editor at Parenting magazine.