Your Neighbors Are Not Fine

A week ago, I was on my way home from an appointment with my psychologist. Yes, I need therapy. And, not your business. In any event, I took light rail to Westlake, then walked up the hill from there. I met a friend in Freeway Park, we chatted a bit, then I decided to be brave and ask her a question I rarely ask people. 

Her husband died last winter, but I’ve seen her out and about in our retirement community since then, and she looks “fine.” By this, I mean that she is dressed as smartly as ever, seems always to have a destination in mind, and simply looks as she always has. But frankly, I’m curious about how people deal with the death of a spouse, so I asked her how she is with life alone. Without hesitating, she said, “I hate it. I really hate it.” 

“Wow,” I said, “I’m glad I asked because you always look fine, but I don’t know how you could be.” “No,” she said, “I really miss him. I miss the things we used to do together. Everyday, I miss him. I don’t like this at all.” 

Not an hour later, I was leaving the laundry room on our floor and bumped into another friend. I say friend, but in neither case was this someone I would call on for help. Yet, we are friendly to each other, and we chat from time to time. Again, I asked this friend how she was. “I’m finally starting to feel more like myself again,” she said. The last time I’d seen her, it was near noon, and she’d just gotten dressed and left her apartment, still looking a bit disheveled. This time, she was brighter and told me she’d started taking an antidepressant. A closer friend than I had told her she really seemed depressed and needed to get help. Fortunately, she trusted this friend enough that she followed through and did find help. She said the pills were kicking in, and she was doing better.

Those two encounters made me wonder how many other people I pass in the halls or see in the dining room or lounge each day are not “fine” no matter what they say. I rarely tell people when I’m down in the dumps, and I’m sure most of us are pretty good at passing for fine. So how is it that we can not see that some of us need more than a “Hi, how are you?” in passing. 

Many of the 500 residents here had friends or relatives living here when they moved in. We did not. Neither did the friend who was depressed. And we did not find it easy to make new friends here. Yes, there are plenty of activities that we can join in. We have exercise classes, speakers and programs, committees galore. (That is we did until Covid. We’re just starting to get back to a semblance of normal.) I’ve volunteered for a few things, but I haven’t made close friends from those ventures. I have one good new friend here. One. How many others are in the same boat? 

I’m not sure if there’s a fix for this conundrum. But I think we should ponder it. Residents who moved to Seattle to be near children or grandchildren still need friends here. Unlike college, when we were all looking for friends, not everyone here needs new friends. But those of us who do, don’t have an easy way of advertising that fact. And people who’ve moved in to join an existing cadre of friends or family don’t need to reach out. 

At the very least, I will try to be more attentive when I ask how people are doing. Perhaps I’ll follow up with another question or two and give them an opportunity to open up a bit if they choose to do so. And maybe I’ll open up a bit. Truth be told, I don’t always share much during down times when I could really use a friend, and I’m guessing others don’t either. So I will need to experiment. I’ll report back.

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