Befriending the Elderly: The Case for Friends Across Generations

When I moved to my neighborhood just outside Washington, D.C., a few years ago, I found a church less than a mile from my apartment and started attending. A few months in, an older man with a kind smile approached me during Mass and asked if I could serve as an usher. I agreed, happy to help.

I’ve since become good friends with Art, what many may call an “unlikely pair,” since we are a 30-something and an 80-something. In just a few short years, I’ve come to find a unique value in befriending someone multiple generations older than me.

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My honorary grandpa, as I like to call him, loves to travel and believes in the value of being on time for appointments, church included. Art is a graduate of Syracuse University, back when they were still called the “Orangemen.” He loves the beauty and relaxation of summertime and spending time with his large Italian family.

Art’s also taught me how to cope with loss with grace and wisdom. He lost his wife to Alzheimer’s after a brief and rough battle with the disease. When I went to his wife’s viewing before her funeral, I expected my friend to be shaken and very upset. Instead, he was smiling and seemed genuinely happy. I asked how he was faring, and he told me he was relieved because his wife was no longer suffering and in a better, happier place. His faith that day was certainly something I’ve come to admire.

Art has also taught me the value of finding love after loss, as this is his second time losing a partner to disease. His first wife passed away from cancer, and in a “This is Us”like story, he found love again with her good friend. It’s never too late to find happiness again after feeling such intense sadness.

We really got to know each other when Art began giving me rides to and from church. I love hearing his stories about summering on Cape Cod and the big trip to Europe he took last fall. He constantly surprises me, like the time he showed up to church in a brown leather bomber jacket, a gift he bought himself in Europe—definitely not grandpa-like!

“It’s cool, right?” he said proudly. I laughed and gave him our signature thumbs up.

Through becoming friends with an 80-something, I have come to realize how often I stereotype the elderly. Growing up, the only older individuals I knew where my grandparents. As a child, you never think of older individuals as having things in common with you. Art enjoys a good pint of Guinness and a late-night dinner out with friends. Despite growing up in different times with different traditions and norms, we’re able to connect and enjoy each other without judgement.

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Art gives me advice and wisdom in the most subtle of ways. When I anxiously relayed my financial situation due to being a freelancer, Art was quick to remind me to keep on doing what I love, and everything will work itself out. Just the simple post-church reminder was all I needed to keep going with my writing that day.

We often reminisce together like two kindred spirits. After dinner one recent evening, we talked about growing up in the Midwest and going to fish fries every Lenten Friday. We wished the D.C. area churches would partake in the tradition.

My friend has also boosts my confidence in unexpected ways. When my parents came to visit one weekend last October, he made an effort to meet them and raved about how much he liked me. Just as I  worried I wasn’t  succeeding at life or “adulting,” hearing an affirmation like this truly did my soul good.

I am well aware my time with my new friend will be limited, but as he taught me so well these past few months, we intend to enjoy plenty of life in the meantime.