Distance doesn’t have to end relationships. How to stay connected when a friend moves or goes through health changes.
Veronica Boyajian and her husband — both in their 60s and formerly of Highland Park, Illinois — spent months looking for a new home. They wanted a lower cost of living and a supportive community for their adult daughter, who has special needs. Boyajian, however, had a hard time leaving the place where she grew up.
“Moving was so hard for me,” she says, from her new home in North Carolina. She recalls one friend who told her, “You’re leaving right when we need each other the most.”
The statement struck Boyajian. With age, she says, “More stuff starts happening — negative stuff, upsetting stuff. People die, get sick, have strokes. It’s really hard.” And when people uproot themselves, they stand to lose the support that would help them through such hardships.
Of course, circumstances change throughout our lives, introducing tough decisions. With age, someone may need to live closer to family members who will help them, or a person might take on caregiving responsibilities for someone else. People with dementia, physical disability, or increased need for specialized care may relocate to assisted living communities or memory care facilities once they need additional help with daily living activities.
Unfortunately, relocation likely means leaving behind your closest connections. And for older adults, the lack of connections in a new place can lead to social isolation and loneliness, directly affecting their health. Researchers reported a 50% increased risk of dementia related to social isolation; they linked loneliness with increased instances of anxiety, depression, and suicide, according to a 2020 study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM).
The importance of connection
But moving doesn’t have to mean losing touch. Staying in touch with your closest friends has extensive benefits for everyone involved. You just have to find a way that works.
Boyajian says when she would tell people about her hesitations around leaving her friends, they would often respond with suggestions like, “All you have to do is jump on a plane.” Or “There’s texting, FaceTime, phone calls.”
But those just aren’t the same, Boyajian says. “They have their purpose, but they have their annoyances, too. And for visits, you’re steeped in each other 24/7 and then spend months apart. That’s not a great way to have an ongoing relationship.”
Stephanie Bailey is a social worker and program coordinator at the Caring For Caregivers program at Rush University Medical Center. She works with unpaid family and friend caregivers. Even for the people giving care, she says, social connection is essential to their health. “Lacking connection can increase all sorts of health problems and increase the risk of premature death.”
Bailey says that when caregivers stay connected to and engaged in relationships with others, their care recipients experience better health outcomes.
Yet, communication shouldn’t depend solely on the person who has moved away. Those left behind contribute to the wellbeing of the person who had to move when they make an effort to stay in touch, especially in cases of dementia.
Cynthia Phon, director of House of Welcome Adult Day Services and Senior Options at North Shore Senior Center in Northfield, says people with memory loss or dementia can experience social isolation and loneliness because friends might be worried about changes and not know how to become part of their new routine. “Maintaining connections depends on the friend more so than the person living with dementia,” Phon says.
Defeating the distance
Whether you’re separated from your friends by physical distance or the distance that health issues create, here are six tips to stay connected:
1. Coordinate with family members. Phon says that when a person is incapable of making plans, reaching out to their family members to coordinate time together is key. Plus, this gives the family caregivers precious time off.
2. Make the person a part of your routine. Do you still meet up with your high school friends for lunch once a month? Call your friend who has moved, and put them on speaker phone or pass the phone around. And for friends with memory loss or another health condition, Phon says including them allows them to continue participating in familiar activities, even if their level of participation has changed.
3. Utilize technology. Accessing technology, like FaceTime and Zoom, has become easier for older people, as many became more familiar with it out of necessity during the pandemic. For people with memory loss, the visual aspect may help them feel more connected, Phon says. Bailey adds that scheduling a recurring time to talk — such as separated sisters who call each other at the same time every afternoon — gives people something to plan for and look forward to.
Boyajian says she stays connected with people through a mix of calls, texts, and video chats, though she prefers phone calls. She uses video chats to connect with her niece’s children and texts her friends as she thinks of them — like when she was shopping recently and saw a purse that said “Rosé all day”, reminding her of a friend back in Illinois.
4. Get involved. While keeping in touch with your closest friends is the goal, Phon says it’s important to try new activities and make connections in your new community — or your same community, without your friend who has moved. Seek out something you used to enjoy, and find out where it’s happening. “Give yourself permission to try new things, and if something doesn’t resonate, that’s okay,” Phon says.
5. Communicate your feelings. If the distance has you feeling depressed, don’t hesitate to share with your friends or family. Connect with your local senior center or community organization to find a therapist who can help you through the transition.
“Just be honest, vulnerable, and open. Say it’s been hard, [that] I’m adjusting to this new community and letting others know — hey, this is not easy for me,” Bailey says.
Boyajian equates her experience to mourning. “The pain, sadness, loss. You kind of don’t want to get over that because you’ve lost your best friend, your closest friends. But you can’t just be down in the dumps all the time either.”
6. Seek new connections. It’s critical to make an effort to stay connected to old friends, but it’s also just as important to create new connections, no matter the circumstances.
Phon recalls the classic Girl Scouts song: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, and the other is gold.”