Nothing but a number: Retirement community residents find new friends and a new lease on life

CINCINNATI - It may not appear on a list of prescriptions or doctor's orders, but friendship can be a key ingredient to living a longer, healthier life.

A recent study on aging found that people age 70 or older with active social lives live 22 percent longer than those with less active social lives.

“Studies show having one or more good friends helps extend your life,” said Brook Wilson a social worker and admissions director at The Kenwood by Senior Star. “It helps ward off depression and as you know, depression can lead to poor health conditions. So you’re healthier by simply having a friend.”

A 2010 study by Brigham Young University and North Carolina at Chapel Hill studied participants for a period of seven and a half years. The study found those with without strong social connections averaged 50 percent higher odds of death than those with strong friendships. Having strong social connections proved equally beneficial for all participants with no variance based on sex, age, gender or health status.

When people decide to move to a retirement community, they often experience a certain amount of trepidation, Wilson said. She likens the experience to growing up as a child and starting a new school. To help form bonds, she explained, they nurture friendship from the moment newcomers enter the door, introducing them to others who may be from the same area of town or have similar interests.

“When someone new comes in, our residents just take them under their wing,” she said. “They might show them the way to the dining room, invite them to have their meal with them, invite them to come to their apartment for a glass of wine. So they’re very welcoming.”

In her three years at The Kenwood, Wilson said she’s seen lasting friendships blossom, even those of a romantic nature. She explained many times residents move in after experiencing loss of careers, friends, family or the love of their life. She said she knows of one couple who met there then found love again with each other.

“it’s beautiful,” she said. “This particular couple is very supportive of each other and they even went on a cruise together. So that companionship is just crucial and they’ve done so well with it.”

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Cay & Margaret

Cay O’Bryan, 83, arrives at an appointment to say her friend Margaret Frank, 92, is running a little late. Already today, O’Bryan has attended an exercise class at 9:30, listened to a featured speaker at 11:00 and taken a knitting class at 1:30 p.m. She explains some activities have become challenging due to deteriorating vision from macular degeneration, but she’s still holding her own.

“That’s been my day so far,” she says. “And that’s pretty typical.”

Frank enters on her walker all smiles. The two met just over a year ago when O’Bryan invited Frank to join her at a Cincinnati Woman’s Club event. They reminisce and giggle about the outing; they took pictures, they had a lovely day, Frank wore a hat and it was gorgeous.

“From that point on we sort of palled around together,” O’Bryan says.

Frank and O’Bryan are so close it’s hard to believe there are two more. The two are actually part of a foursome with their other friends Ruth and Maureen not in attendance. O’Bryan mentions that Ruth recently broke her hip.

“She’s having a rough time, she broke it in two places and is now in a wheelchair and walking a little bit, but it is such a slow process,” Frank says.

O’Bryan makes light of the four friends going to dinner and traveling to events together.

“Maureen is an amputee, so she’s on a walker and with Margaret’s walker and Ruth’s wheelchair. And when I came in I was on a walker because of an injury to my leg,” she’s says. “So you can imagine, we have fun getting around. But we still manage even with all of our devices.”

Frank says although they have a few health challenges, the friends have fun. After her husband died in 2001, Franks says she lived at another retirement community for eight years before moving to The Kenwood. She decided to make the change after she met a friend for lunch one day and became enamored with the food and the grounds.

“I have no regrets,” she says. “I was telling my son today, it’s such a great life and I’m so fortunate that I can do this.”

O’Bryan explains she too lives alone. After moving in a year ago, the divorcee says she immediately started enjoying her new life. While both O’Bryan’s and Frank’s children live nearby, they say they have no designs on spare rooms in their homes. They agree they're having too much fun right where they are. 

“We have great kids, we all do, we’re so lucky that we have wonderful children, but I don’t think any of them want us living with them,” O’Bryan says. “And we don’t want to be living with them.”

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Alan and Tom

Thomas Grogan, 89, is first to arrive for an interview. Grogan is the type of person who’s never met a stranger. He affably engages all those within his radius in conversation.

“I really like people,” he affirms. “I like to be around them. I like to be involved with them and that’s what I did when I was working and it has continued here to some degree.”

After his wife died in 2000, Grogan continued to live in his house for six years before purchasing a condo in Mt. Auburn. When other owners started renting to college students, it was time to go. He says since moving to The Kenwood 18 months ago he’s forged incredible new friendships.

“I've had the opportunity to meet some really fine people and sitting across from me is one of them,” he says. "Alan and I try to have dinner with one another when we can and that’s frequently.”

With his youthful appearance, Alan Threlkeld, 67, seems a bit out of place. As one of the youngest residents, Threlkeld moved in just about a year ago. He says he decided to sell his home and look for a new residence for himself and his dog. As he lived less than a mile from The Kenwood, he became intrigued with the property. After verifying the rooms were quiet and they accepted pets, he decided to make the move.

“I’m going to stay here,” he says. ”I really even debated moving into one of those condos in Mariemont, but I don’t cook and I thought if I lived there I’d still have to go out and eat all the time. I’m pleased with the food here and the people are really friendly – like Tom.”

Life in retirement

Ages of the residents at The Kenwood range from 62 to 96. Grogan makes the distinction that The Kenwood is primarily an independent living facility with less than a third of the units devoted to assisted living, skilled care and memory care. Even at 89, Grogan works part-time serving on an institutional review board for protocols regarding new medications. While he and Thrilkels are still active, he said some are not as fortunate.

“Alan and I see it 24/7 and there are people who live here who should be in assisted living because of their condition,” he says. “And I’m glad that they’re in here because usually it’s a couple and one or the other or both need help.”

He says it’s impossible to be lonely at The Kenwood, unless by choice. He admits he sees some residents who have lost a spouse and still have trouble adjusting, but he says they have friends waiting in the wings.

“I think it’s good because you see people in the dining room and you see people in the bar and you see people in the parlor and they’re always talking,” he says. “You don’t have very many strangers here.”

Connie, Helen, Jan and Ralph

Jan Abbott, 77, Ralph Davidow, 83, Helen Greenberg, 84 and Connie Smith 79, assemble in one of the Kenwood’s gathering rooms to discuss their newfound friendships. A lively conversation immediately ensues, as if they were long lost friends rather than people who have only known each other for a short time.

(Left to right) Helen Greenberg, 84, Ralph Davidow, 83, Connie Smith, 80, and Jan Abbott, 77, pose for a photo at the lounge where they often meet to socialize at The Kenwood. (Photo by C. Knight)

After the chatter dies down, Smith begins. She explains she and her husband decided to move to an active retirement community as they’re both relatively healthy. She says just after Abbott moved in, the two met in the parlor and became fast friends. After adding their husbands into the mix, they started socializing even more.

“We all have dinner together and Jan and I have shop together - we have a good thing going,” Smith said. “We’re enjoying it so much.”

Like Smith, Abbott says she and her husband wanted to move to a retirement community while they could still take advantage of activities and social events. As a resident, she says she has plenty to keep her busy. Moving from their home of 30 years, Abbott understands how some people may be tentative about living in a new place and making new friends.

“If you want to be alone, you can be alone, but I think you’d have to work at it here because everyone is friendly and reaches out, “she says. “I see Ralph eating with all kinds of different people.”

Davidow nods in acknowledgement. In 2010, he and his wife were two of only nine initial residents at The Kenwood. In the last few years, his wife moved to the memory care unit while he still resides in independent living. In addition to the friends he already had, he says he’s added an abundance of new ones.

“I think most people came here and expected to make friends and expected to have someone to eat with,” he says. “I don’t think I've ever eaten dinner by myself here. This is just a great place to live.”

Greenberg agrees. With a southern drawl she explains how she moved to from Mississippi to Cincinnati to be closer to her daughter. As most of her friends were either dying or moving away, she says relocating seemed to be the best way to be close to family while forging new relationships.

“It’s just so easy to become friendly when you share activities,” she says. “And I became especially friendly with my neighbor. It’s just been wonderful.”

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