Sunday Signal

Gettin’ Up There: Friends: All You Need is a Handful

I have 466 Facebook friends. That’s a whopper to some folks, a wee figure to others. But who’s counting?

After all, social science experts tell us that when it comes to true friends — the ones who selflessly celebrate our joys, tightly hold us before, during and after a heartbreak, accompany us to scary doctor appointments — would sooner drive toothpicks up their nailbeds than divulge our secrets, and love us because of and in spite of who we are — they comprise, in reality, a small number within the Rubik’s Cube of human relationships.

Evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar of England has studied friendships, particularly in this era of Facebook and Instagram. Dunbar reports that while it’s possible to have about 150 friendships — that could include FB friends whose breathing spaces you’ve never actually inhaled and pals with whom you rarely play mahjong — only five are truly, deeply and psychologically manageable as your besties. (Even if it’s three, you’re winning.)

I have my handful. And I feel especially fortunate about that because friendship was, early on, an enigmatic phenomenon to me. Having attended five grammar schools between first and fifth grade, I never had any lasting friendships as a kid. But then one day in 11th grade health class my first real friend appeared. From four rows over I knew she was my kind. We were both mildly neurotic, prone to giggling, and sometimes way too serious, smart asses. We also shared a penchant for Creedence Clearwater and need to be with someone who’d understand us, and laugh with us, not at us. Rapidly, we became family. Our kids grew up as friends. It continues.

My second soul sister arrived in my 20s during nursing school. I was a Jewish, brunette Valley girl, she was the platinum-haired daughter of a Baptist minister. Click — 40 years later, despite a few periods of being many miles apart, not communicating, heavy health challenges and finding what life was like after long marriages, we Golden Girls are closer than ever.

During my 40’s, I became amigas with some special women in my community. I adore them. We’ve shared celebrations, tough times, mid-to-later life illuminations, and charitable causes. One has lovingly helped me to better grab onto hope, resilience, and self-awareness. Another one is politically quite different from me, but we both know that our friendship is more durable than any elephant or donkey.

My newest precious pal arrived in 2017. After many years as a volunteer publicist for the American Cancer Society, I was stepping down, and this lovely English professor and two-time breast cancer survivor, was stepping up. As if by kismet, we instantly became two 66-years young sisters in spirit. She’s a keeper.

Such treasured ties can help seniors live happier and longer.

But what about when one’s beloved circle shrinks? By now, many seniors have lost partners, friends are dying or relocating, and grown children pursue their own lives. In addition, many elders face physical, psychological, and financial challenges, often leading to isolation, loneliness, and declining health.

Truly, you have got to have friends.

Silver lining alert: It’s never too late to make a new friend and be one. Today, you’re the wisest, most authentic, and grateful you, ever. That’s an excellent start for saying hello. Through community events, social networks, nonprofits, senior centers, support groups, and even becoming a grandparent-like Big Brother or Big Sister, you can add fresh riches to your friendship bank.

Audrey Hepburn once said, “The best thing to hold onto in life is each other.”

I could never embrace 466 friends, but a handful is one beautifully manageable number.

Diana Sevanian is a longtime Signal writer and columnist.

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