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We need friends as we age

This week, in response to a random comment about not being able to sing very well, a friend commiserated by saying, “When my son was about 3 years old, I sang the Johnny Appleseed song to him. And after I was done he said, 'The Lord isn't good to me.' When I asked him why not, he replied, 'because he gave me a mommy that can't sing.' "

Remember the “Johnny Appleseed Blessing?” If you grew up in a Lutheran family in the Midwest in the 1950s and regularly attended Sunday evening potluck suppers, this was the song that typically preceded the meal.

I recall going to a Catholic supper once and they sang it there, too. People joined hands and belted it out — I think doing that sort of whets your appetite for green jello, macaroni salad and friendly conversation.

The tune goes like this: “Oh, the Lord is good to me. And so I thank the Lord. For giving me the things I need, the sun and the moon and the Appleseed. The Lord is good to me.”

It’s a happy and engaging song. I’ve been humming it all day. I may not be able to sing well, but I can definitely hold my own when it comes to humming.

This has been a week when I have been looking for something happy. Have you ever had those life-transitioning weeks where friends pass on unexpectedly and good neighbors move far away? People you care about are being diagnosed with maladies they did not anticipate.

As I age, I am coming to realize the kind of week I just had is likely to happen more often. In order to manage difficult circumstances, I will definitely need a Johnny Appleseed reminder, as well as more friends who not only hum enthusiastically but sing loudly and often.

And so I offer a word about friendship. As we age, having good friends and connecting socially is vital to health and well-being, especially in times of stress. I am not alone in concluding that interdependence plays a huge role in healthy aging. But you need to plan. As one aging expert put it, “In older age and retirement, the structure falls away, and you have to be much more intentional about cultivating networks and activities to engage in.”

Friendship is something we need as we age — it is also something we must cherish and protect. It might start with a birthday card to an age peer you barely know; maybe a telephone query or a compliment. Maybe by seeking out and attending a church potluck even if you don’t belong to any church. Maybe you decide to volunteer with a community-based organization you believe in, or host a neighborhood songfest.

You have so many choices; you are in charge of this. You may not be able to impact disease and disability as you age, but nurturing and expanding your pool of friends and acquaintances is entirely possible.

Plant seeds of friendship and reap an increased sense of purpose and connection. It will be important and useful, no matter what kind of week you may be having.

— Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor. Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.