The Jewish Advocate

March 7, 2014 Edition

The golden years of love and friendship

By Susie Davidson

Special to the Advocate

The Men’s Club is one of many social-interaction opportunities at Hebrew SeniorLife.

Does love ever fall out of favor? The grand consensus appears to be no. Studies, magazine articles and personal interviews seem to concur that this most basic, sometimes elusive, yet often attainable human emotion enhances life and provides any number of emotional, spiritual, physical, social and mental benefits.

We seek it, we run from it, we savor it. It entices, it makes us happy, it makes us sad, it changes, it grows, and unfortunately, it can fade and die – but it never loses its magnetism or mystique. And short of a future cyber-culture with sharply decreased human interaction, it’s not going away anytime soon.

So when you find it, studies agree, embrace it. The benefits of love, courtship and even friendship cannot be underestimated.

By the way, we’re talking about lifelong love here. Not necessarily love that lasts a lifetime, but love that can happen at any stage along the way.

Bernyce Shimberg and Mel Frankel, who live at Orchard Cove in Canton, formed a friendship that has turned into something more.

That’s what’s been happening at Hebrew SeniorLife (HSL), where many residents of its communities have known love, and too many have lost it. But it is never too late, and Mel Frankel and Bernyce Shimberg, two seniors who reside at Orchard Cove, a senior living community in Canton, have found themselves in a committed, longterm relationship. They began as friends, which led to a love relationship that has even connected their families.

HSL, a nonprofit, non-sectarian senior care organization founded in 1903, is an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. According to its website, the organization, which remains at the forefront of new research in geriatrics and gerontological practice, is the largest provider of elder care in the metropolitan Boston area. Its independent, assisted living and long-term nursing home senior housing communities strive to enable seniors to live full, as well as fulfilling, lives.

Orchard Cove resident Irv Rosenberg says his dog Zoe has helped him make new friends.

Orchard Cove is friendly,” Shimberg says in a “Power of Friendship” video highlighting HSL’s two independent living communities, Orchard Cove and Dedham’s NewBridge on the Charles. (“A friend is someone who gives you total freedom to be yourself,” a quote by the late Doors singers Jim Morrison, adorns the webpage where the video can be found.)

Artistic,” adds Frankel in the clip. “Comfortable,” says Shimberg. “Romantic,” Frankel interjects, while planting a kiss on his beloved.

I never thought I’d fall in love again. I never knew that there’d be anyone I could feel that way toward,” says Shimberg, who recalled that when she met Frankel, he insisted that she go to the chorus, which he loved. “Now it’s a big part of our lives,” she said. “We go once a week.”

The couple explains how each of their daughters embraced and encouraged their budding romance, and later became friendly themselves. “I read an article where a woman asked a couple when they had stopped being friends and became lovers,” said Shimberg. “And she said, ‘Oh, that’s the secret – you never stop being friends.’”

Other HSL residents convey the same sentiment. “[My fellow residents] ask me to do different things with them,” says one resident. “I first opened those doors for a look-see, and it was like a million arms embracing me,” says another. “Even before we picked out our apartment, we went to the coffee klatch, and people came over and asked if we were moving in, said we were going to have dinner together, and that’s exactly what happened,” says a third. “You need a friend so that you can talk to that person, and I’ve met a lot of lovely, lovely women here,” adds a fourth.

Having friends can positively impact an individual’s happiness and sense of self-worth,” said Dr. Rob Schreiber, medical director of evidence-based programs at HSL. “The desire to feel that one belongs is a normal part of human nature, and being part of a supportive community can help satisfy this need. Conversely, caring for others and being a source of support for them can also give one purpose and direction.”

There is also a relationship between friendship and decreased stress levels, he explained, citing a two-year study he’s read that surveyed 500 women with suspected coronary artery disease. “It was found that those with a solid support system had better outcomes after two years,” said Schreiber. “Additionally, their hypertension and diabetes levels were lower.” A potential explanation, he hypothesized, was that levels of the stress hormone cortisol can increase when an individual feels lonely. “That leads to an increase in blood pressure and hormonal imbalances,” he said.

A 2008 study by the Japan Public Health Center, “Social Support and Stroke and Coronary Heart Disease,” which appeared in the American Heart Association’s Stroke publication, determined that while low social support was associated with higher risk of stroke in men, social support was not. The evidence suggests that social support may be a greater assessment in the prognosis of stroke than preventing their incidence.

Friendship has numerous heart health benefits as well, including enhanced recovery from a major health challenge, such as a heart attack,” said Schreiber. “Additionally, friendship and social interaction has been proven to lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels, which can have a positive impact on heart health,” he said. “A recent study found that women with frequent, diverse social interactions were more likely to have healthy blood pressure profiles than their more isolated counterparts.” As for the physical and emotional benefits of friendship, Schreiber said that it is a truism at any age, but especially for seniors. “Maintaining friendships can do everything from extending lifespan and protecting against dementia to lowering stress levels and aiding in recovery from illness,” he said.

Extending life?

Yes, studies have shown that seniors with strong social networks tend to be healthier, have lowered risks for certain diseases and have improved longevity,” he said. Loneliness, Schreiber explained, is a major contributor to depression, which substantially increases the risk of death in adults. “Having a group of friends and social motivators can help ease loneliness and encourage an individual to be more outgoing, active and engage in and maintain many healthy habits (such as better nutrition or taking up new hobbies).

So, friendship also encourages the development of better habits? “Absolutely,” said Schreiber. “In addition to preventing isolation, friends keep you accountable for your well-being and happiness. They can serve as motivators, encouraging you to not only find a new hobby, such as painting or a book club [or chorus, in Shimberg’s case], but to make resolutions and stick to them.” These might include going to the gym, changing one’s eating habits or cutting back on smoking. “Additionally, social interaction can help keep the mind sharp and an attitude positive, and it’s never too late to learn something new or pick up a new hobby,” he said.

Another study, published last year by the National Center for Biotechnology Information of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, found that healthy lifestyles help to prevent coronary heart disease (CHD), while intervention of preventive practices aimed at lifestyle change were disappointing. In other words, emulation and a bit of peer pressure might be just the thing.

I don’t have a mate, but I have made many good friends,” said Irv Rosenberg, a resident for seven months who moved to Orchard Cove following 20 years in Florida. “I feel like I’ve been friends with people here for 20 years, when it’s only been months,” he said. Rosenberg is usually accompanied by his dog Zoe, who has also made many friends. “I just tag along, and he opens doors for me,” said Rosenberg. “ The dog has made it even easier.” Asked what he believes are the most important components of life at Orchard Cove, he returned to the common theme: “Friendship, then community, and then friendship again.”

How does pet ownership affect emotional and physical outlook? “Pet ownership has a number of benefits, not limited to reduced stress and depression, lower blood pressure and increased social interaction and physical activity,” said Schreiber. “Pets provide a constant source of companionship and love in a seniors’ life and can stimulate friendships and interactions with other seniors who may approach the owner to interact with the animal and ask questions.” HSL guideline considerations for pet ownership include the value of prior pet ownership, the health of the pet, the right age, the proper animal to complement one’s own physical limitations, and financial considerations.

Friendship means to me having loyal people who are there for you when you need them, and that certainly is happening here,” says an HSL resident in the videos. “Friendship is having a person around where if you need her you can call her, and she’s never too busy to help you when you’re having problems,” says another. “It was nice that the Men’s Club has created an environment where I know so many more men,” observes a male resident. “We haven’t run out of conversation yet,” says a woman about her new BFFs.

Common challenges for the elderly include illness, separation and loss. Here again, friends can step in to mitigate suffering. “Networks of friends and close personal relationships can provide a strong support base on which to lean when coping,” said Schreiber. “Friends have likely had similar experiences, and can lend their support accordingly.” Even sitting in silence with a friend close by has great value, he said. “Many seniors face loneliness, whether as the result of living alone, loss of a spouse, a lack of close family ties, or feeling disconnected from society as a whole,” he continued. “Having a close network of friends can incorporate seniors into the community and provide positive social stimuli.”

What about spirituality? “Friendships can help us relate to others, laugh (even at ourselves), experience compassion and encourage us to be or find our true selves,” said Schreiber. “All of these things can contribute to spirituality, regardless of your religion, traditions or orientation.”

I’m very, very happy,” says a woman who lives at Newbridge. “I have a lot of wonderful friends. I go over to the [adjacent] Rashi School, and even this little boy here knows me from last year.

They call me – what is it they call me? ‘Gigi,’” she beamed.

2014-03-07 / Local News