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Girl power: Importance of female connections even greater in later life

Female friendships, whether forged in childhood or found in later decades, are critical to health and well-being.

When Winifred Blades' husband passed away before Christmas, she knew one thing. However grief might overcome her, she knew she'd be okay because she had her 'girls'-a core gang of friends to offer steadfast support, night or day.

"On our usual Sunday morning walk, a few of the girls said straight out, 'tell us what you need; what you want. That was so helpful to hear--no pressure--and me being able to say, 'I just need to know you're there for a 3 a.m. call, or to pick up a few groceries. These women have been my rock, for sure," said Blades, a retired teacher who, at 73, has lived through divorce and death at one end of the spectrum; laughter, travel and companionship at the other.

"I was feeling sorry for myself the first Christmas after my divorce in the early '90s, when I realized it's the women in my life that are important. They've been a reason to cook, a reason to laugh--to NOT feel sorry for myself."

Female friendship in later years isn't something oft-discussed, but the subject has come to light again with the reboot of t.v.'s Sex and the City. The show, 'And Just Like That...' sees the now 50-something friends leaning on each other to deal with issues like death and adult kids plus, of course, aging and wrinkles. The series has taken hits for portraying women of an older vintage still focused on fashion and ouch...those heels, but what viewers say it gets right is the interdependence female friends have through all life's foibles--good, bad and ugly. Women do discuss grey hair, wrinkles and the injustice of gravity, yes, but so much more too.

"These women in their 50s, worried about aging. We say 'just wait another ten years," laughed Blades, adding her 'crazy group' of friends (in their 50s, and on up) talk about jobs, love, travel, news, books and more. They include the regulars she walks with on the weekends, some she sees for lunch a few times a year, and those that have become travel mates.

"I started having Christmas parties for the women from different areas of my life long ago, and realized age doesn't matter--it's whether you're like-minded, whether you make a connection. My mom lived to 97 and her friends were various ages, part of church groups and such. It makes your brain work to have friends at different stages of life too. You need those other perspectives."

Edmonton's Leanne Smoliak knows how important it is to be able to sit on the floor and 'ugly cry' with a girlfriend, though it's an understanding she has come to over time. The 58-year-old has had a high-profile life with her chef husband of 30 years, Brad, but because she knows Brad may not live into old age due to a congenital heart defect (see bradsjourney.givetouhf.ca), Smoliak says she's come to rely more on her female friendships to weather life's storms.

"I sought out my dearest childhood friend--my next-door neighbour from birth through our school years. Our lives went in different directions and I hadn't seen her in over 20 years. But I found her again, and now my heart feels settled," said Smoliak, who acknowledges though Brad is 'without question', her best friend, finding Sam (and reconnecting with her cousin Aubin) has been a full circle moment. 

Smoliak muses on the seasons of our lives, when we're busy building careers or raising a family, and how female friendships may take a back seat, or be lost altogether. "I never kept my childhood friends. I had a robust working career and put everything into that, but now here I am, doing all Brad's home care and on long-term disability. Our son lives overseas, and our families are wonderfully supportive too, but friendships have come to mean so much."

"Over the years, I missed many anniversaries and birthdays, rushing to the office, but able to buy the expensive shoes and purse and having great stories to tell at dinner parties. I know what matters now. I have Brad, a new puppy and the important connections with the women in my life."

Blades says with her daughter and grandchild living in Calgary, and she in her own condo here, life is as busy or quiet as she wants it to be. "We friends communicate about once a week--it's how we work," she said, noting many of her core group of friends are childless or come from small families. "Friends become family to those who've lost husbands or don't have kids. I've been remarried and then widowed, and I've seen older women who only had 'couple friends' not do well after their husband passes. It's stunningly clear how important it is to have support from female friendships." 

A Psychology Today piece said this about female friendships: "By your 50s, life has had its way with you in one fashion or another. My group has gone through divorce and sickness, big wins and life-changing losses. We stay connected in all the ways we can. We stretch our 30-year-friendships across ourselves like a cozy blanket on a cold night. We text, we call, we say in a million little ways, "I've got you, and thank you." The author goes on to say women are each other's emotional support system, intuitive and ready to keep secrets, give advice, lend an ear or be a shoulder to cry on.

The pandemic has been especially difficult for seniors who've been without the ability to visit and participate in group activities. But Blades and friends haven't let that stop them; pushing through with regular Sunday walks. When coffee shops were closed, the ladies would bring their thermos of coffee and sit on a park bench for a socially-distanced visit, determined to keep sharing their lives, Blades says.

The instinct to make friends the ties that bind is natural and, it turns out, healthier, according to research. Though most people assume strong family ties are a bigger influence than friendship on well-being in old age, one study says it's the contrary: As you age, friendship is actually thicker than water. A 2017 U.S. study, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, showed the older you become, the more important it is to have strong friendships. You're happier and healthier when friends are too, and you're more likely to be sick when you don't value friendship. 

When Blades asked who among her friends wanted to go to Paris for her 65th birthday, seven gals made the trek. "It was a bit like herding cats, but I was astounded how great the trip went; how well we got along," she said. "We each named one thing we wanted to be sure to do and we did that. But we did our own thing too, so it worked well. We've done that kind of trip four times now for major birthdays, and we're talking about London next."

Smoliak says she knows whatever is next for she and Brad, the friends in her life have her back. "I feel so lucky. I have loved wrapped around me every second."