Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Social Connectedness: With 100 Close Friends, Joan Beats a Big, Ugly Tumor -- and Then, What a 50th Birthday Party!

On a Saturday night recently, the Elk's Club near where I live was jumping with a surprise party for Joan's 50th birthday. More than 75 friends showed up, almost everyone who had been invited.

And when the thoroughly surprised birthday girl arrived, she was immediately surrounded by a sea of laughing friends hugging her, kissing her, loving her.

They were celebrating more than a birthday.

During the planning for the surprise party, a large mass was discovered on Joan's left ovary. It was a "possible malignancy." Though shocked, though incredulous that this could be happening, Joan's friends went on planning her surprise 50th bash -- but found it strange going ahead when the very life they were to celebrate hung in the balance.

One of the planners, Dianne Williamson of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, wrote in her column: "We resolutely went ahead with Joan's party plans as she underwent more tests: a Ct scan, an ultrasound, gynecological exams. We hired a caterer just as her blood work came back with slightly elevated protein levels. When the oncologist scheduled the biopsy, we booked the disk jockey."

Meanwhile, Joan handled it all with "amazing aplomb." She went through two hours of surgery during which the tumor was removed along with her ovaries, uterus, and appendix. As each test came back inconclusive, she remained positive while recuperating in a friend's spare bedroom. Everything was going to be OK, she said.

And then, while Joan was watching a movie in her friend's living room, came the call from the doctor with the pathologist's report: all the tests were negative. It was the best possible outcome. Joan cried. Her friend cried. Calls went out to Joan's many anxious friends telling them of the wonderful news.

So when Joan showed up at the Elk's club that Saturday night and was ambushed by a packed hall of friends shouting "surprise,"a bunch of mostly middle-aged women partied like college girls. The guest of honor twirled around the dance floor like a woman reprieved, grateful to have her life back, glowing from the love and devotion of her many friends, grateful to have so many of them.

Joan is very, very unusual for having so many friends and for being so socially connected -- which is why I am passing on her story here. She is a startling exception to today's rule that when a single women who lives alone gets up to around age 50, she is put on the social shelf. She's going to be lonely unless she refuses to be.

(This is much less true for men because of gender-based cultural and demographic norms which deem vertical men to be socially connectible into their 70's and 80's. Unlike older women, most older men do not live alone. Most tend to remarry quickly or arrange for a live-in female companion, often many years younger.)

How many friends would show up for your 50th or 60th, or 70th? 75, the number that Joan attracted? Most likely not. If you are like many people today, you would be lucky to get a half kitchen of family members and maybe a couple of friends. If you are lucky. If you have a party at all.

If this is you, don't feel bad. It may have nothing to do with you at all. Your family members may be all over the country, the norm for families today. What with the price of gas, it would be a real hardship for family members to drive all those miles and back just to celebrate your 50th. And of course, they're busy, busy.

It's not your fault you had to change jobs so many times -- because of buyouts, layoffs, and company failings -- that you never made a friend at work. Nor can you blame yourself for all the moves. You just get settled into a respectable community, you meet some nice people at church, and, boom, the job goes to hell; and you have to pick up and start all over. In the social connectivity game, you keep getting put back to square one.

This is the world we live in today, documented by researchers at Duke and the University of Arizona. The researchers say that since the 1980's the number of true confidantes that Americans have has dropped from about three to about two. A fourth of Americans say that they have no true confidantes outside of their family.

More than 11 million Americans over 50, the majority of them women, often feel isolated. They are lonely. They are, in effect, starving for human contact. And it is taking a toll on their health, according to a new study in the journal, Psychology and Aging.

The study of 229 Chicago-area men and women ages 50 to 68 found that the loneliest people had blood pressure readings as much as 30 points higher than those who feel more socially connected. Loneliness can be as bad for the heart as obesity or inactivity, the study concluded.

How did it come to this?

Our lonely society has been developing for generations. But only in recent years has the trend gained recognition among research sociologists and other academics. As recently as 2,000, Robert Putnam published a bestselling book called, "Bowling Alone," in which he described what he saw as a pronounced decline in neighborliness, civic engagement, and social connectedness -- and the academic world challenged his thesis.

Today, just six years later, with study after study confirming what he described, the critics are silent. Putnam, a Harvard professor, feels fully vindicated. His work has inspired several organizations working to connect people and build civic spirit. The goal: communities with vibrant social networks and healthier and happier individuals.

In other words, recapturing how it used to be.

In the old days -- before Wall-Mart, CVS, and interstate- highway anonymity with the same brand names everywhere -- it was so different. We still had a small-town America, kids played in small, tightly-knit neighborhoods, went to school together, grew up together, and formed powerful bonds.

With families able to live on the income of one parent, people had time for their children and also for extended family and a network of friends. It was common for people to work for the same company all their lives, acquiring close friends, often for life, among fellow workers.

There was a sense of community, where people knew each other and ran into each other regularly on busy Main Streets, then lined with thriving and locally-owned shops and full of pedestrians. Main Street was alive with knots of people talking and laughing, many of whom had known each other all their lives.

Every Main Street had a drug store that had been there forever and an old pharmacist who had been filling prescriptions for everybody for as long as anyone could remember. Same with the breakfast place where regulars gathered daily and lingered, gossipping, on weekends. Same with the grocery story, the fish market, the hardware store, the doctor's office.

The same people met regularly at the same familiar places and saw the same familiar faces, replenished from time to time with a "stranger" just moved in. After suspicious looks, after being put through the third degree, the stranger would gradually and inevitably be found to have a common spark of humanity --- and be welcomed as a neighbor and friend. These human connections all came about naturally.

Today, we're so socially disconnected that if we want to make a friend, we have to "reach out." We join a dating service. We take up golf or join a fitness club. We darken the inside of a church. We go out at night and become wallpaper at a loud drinking and music joint. We join a self-help group.

We're super-connected by e-mail, instant messaging, cable TV, I-Pods, video games, big-screen home movies but disconnected from live people. To find someone who is friend material, we have to step out of the digital world and go hunting human beings in a socially fragmented jungle.

Eye contact? What's that? I often walk around nearby Worcester State University. Although there are lots of young people going to and from classes, you hardly ever see them talking to each other. They're all talking on cell phones or are listening to their favorite music on their I-Pods. It is not uncommon for incoming freshmen to stay in their rooms interacting with their computers instead of taking part in activities and getting to know other students.

I walk by them and they don't even see me, much less say something to me. I am invisible. I used to say "Good Morning" or "Good Afternoon," but -- if they actually heard me -- all I got back was a why-are-you-bothering-me look telling me that I am soooooo last century.

It's not their fault. It's how we brought them up. Because we had to work like slaves in order to move up the ladder and get the big house in the nice neighborhood so they could have the best, we didn't have time for them.

We spent more time in our cars than with our kids. Even our scheduled "quality" time with them was rushed, what with the killer commute and working nights and weekends.

And then there is the schedule, the detailed plan for how every minute of every day WILL be spent, no excuses accepted. These kids, so tuned in to communication technology but so tuned out to other human beings, have grown up being ruled by the almighty schedule.

Airtight, all spontaneity wrung out of it, non-negotiable, the schedule has no time in it for making and nourishing friends. We schedule slaves have created a new generation of schedule slaves. Not knowing anything else, they walk right in our footsteps away from person-to-person connections.

Now as we grow older, and the children are grown and gone, and we see people we know die, the most fortunate among us realize that we were wrong to place the job and the house and the things before people. We face up, finally, to the most basic human imperative after oxygen: connection to other people.

When we get up there in age, say at age 50, is it too late? No. As people around us retire, die, and move away, is it possible to get socially connected, perhaps for the first time in our lives? Absolutely. At least in theory and in a few real-life cases, such as Joan.

How did she do it? I wish I could tell you but, being a product myself of a go-it-alone society, I don't know. I'm 68. I learned early that I was da man and that whatever I was going to be in this life was up to me and nobody else.

Friends had nothing to do with achievement, success, and happiness. They were after-hour luxuries. They were for when you had nothing better to do. They were strictly disposable, to be dropped on a whim or crushed if they get in your way.

One would expect Joan to know that this is how it has to be. And yet she obviously does not and has in fact gone in the the opposite direction. Her friend Dianne described her as follows:

"Joan lives alone but has more friends than anyone I know. And when I say friends, I mean real friends. Not the sort you e-mail or meet for lunch a couple of times a year. Joan's social network is breathtaking, and she has somehow managed to hold tightly to virtually every friend she has ever known: the girls from the 'hood... ; friends from high school and college; work friends and friends she met in later years, I among them.

"To Joan, friends are people you talk to almost daily. You know when they've had a bad day at work and you know the dates of their kids' birthdays. Her cell phone is legendary for some 100 names in her direct dial function. She uses it."

Unlike most of us, Joan works at it. And, make no mistake, keeping up with 100 real friends on a nearly daily basis must take a monumental effort. I wouldn't know; I hate to make even one call.

On paper, there are not hours enough in a day for someone to keep up with 100 friends. In theory, it can't be done and still work full time, clean the house, shop, prepare meals, do the dishes, do the laundry, pay the bills, go to the doctor, get the car fixed, and everything else that must be done.

Except that Joan does it. And, with an unshakeable positive attitude and with the loving support of her many friends, she also found time to send a big, ugly tumor packing out of her beautiful life. No way was she and her friends going to let a stupid tumor spoil her 50th!

I have a 70th birthday coming up in, let's see, 20 months and 18 days. The magical date is May 2, 2008. Do me a favor. Write that date down and put it someplace prominent, say on the fridge. This is an important date, important enough if your fridge is plastered with family photos to bump a kid's photo or two. I'll tell you why in a sec.

I know there's going to be a party for me only because I have four younger siblings and we have a tradition of having a party celebrating each of our milestone decades. God willing, I'll be the first to reach age 70. The youngest is 62 and we go up from there.

I don't know when the party is going to take place or where but as soon as I find out, I'll let you know if you e-mail me your interest in attending at Yes, I'm turning over a new leaf and reaching out to beef up my social connections. You are invited to my 70th.

You may also bring a confidante. I happen to know that, like mostly everybody else, you only have one or two at the most. Besides celebrating my 70th, it'll be a chance to meet new people and maybe, just maybe, add a third confidante. Details to follow.

Meanwhile -- excuse me while I look in the mirror -- I'll see if I can find out what it's like to be interested in somebody other than myself, though, to be honest, it's not something I'm looking forward to. I find other people so totally boring. I don't even like using them.

Right now, the people I expect at my 70th are as follows: one wonderful wife, four younger siblings, four adult children, and one or two friends -- of my wife's. That's a grand total of eleven, all of whom are obligated to come. And if I know them, they are already working on excuses not to come. Hey, I went to their parties; they can just come to mine!

Compared to Joan's 75, all of whom wanted to be there, 11 is one sorry number for a 70th. For all of them, attendance is required. The way it looks now, no one will be going to my party of his own free will.

Unless something is done, the party is going to be a big flop. With no volunteers stepping forward, I guess it is up to me. I figure if I start talking it up now, and maybe do some deft marketing (Raffle? Free lotto tickets at the door?), I might be able to get a respectable turnout.

As for the party itself, it will naturally be all about me. I have started working on a little talk about my life and my many achievements in the face of impossible obstacles. I will keep it as short as possible, no more than an hour.

See you there!

Until then ...

So long and keep moving.

P.S. Why do others not want to be my friend? What is their problem?

P.P.S. Food for thought from the authors of the study referenced above:

"In light of these findings, demographic changes in the United States portend a health crisis. Not only is the U.S. population aging, but household size is decreasing, the number of people living alone is increasing, and geographic mobility continues to separate people from the love and support of caring friends and family members.... Under these circumstances, risk of loneliness increases, and along with it so does risk of morbidity and mortality."

Primary source: Psychology and Aging. Source reference: Louise Hawkley et al. "Loneliness is a unique predictor of age-related differences in systolic blood pressure." Psychology and Aging 2006; 21.