The Healing Power Of Friendship

Whatever your age or gender, friendships are essential to wellbeing.

Everyone knows that eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise and sleep are essential to longevity. But there’s at least one other factor that can contribute to a long, healthy life: friendship. According to Scarsdale resident Harris Stratyner, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, “As people age, it is very important to their health to maintain friendships that allow them to feel connected.” Loneliness, on the other hand, “that feeling of isolation, can negatively affect your health, even to the point of illnesses that can result in death,” says Stratyner, who has hosted the WFAS radio show Here’s to Your Good Health for 28 years. 

Best Friends

Seventy-two-year-old Chappaqua resident Karen Brown, who met her best friend, Barbara, in 1956, understands the power and significance of lifelong friendship. “I met Barbara in junior high,” she says. “We had very different interests, but we just became friends and stayed that way.” Karen remembers that while the two may have seemed an unlikely pair (at 13, Karen was a social butterfly with a keen interest in boys, while Barbara was reserved), they shared a wonderful sense of humor. “We just gravitated toward each other.”

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Through 59 years of friendship, Karen and Barbara have shared almost every significant event, including weddings (Karen married Ed and Barbara married Neil) and births (Karen became a mother of two, Barbara a mother of four). The friendship endured even when Barbara and Neil moved to Florida. Then, when Neil became terminally ill at the age 49, Karen and Ed traveled to Florida frequently during the last six months of his struggle. Having each other’s shoulder to cry on has made the hard times a little easier to bear for both Barbara and Karen. “We raised our children together and helped each other through illness and death and all the hard stuff,” Karen says. 

Karen’s husband, Ed, 76, says he has a similar take on friendship. Ed met his best friend, Lewis, when he was 9 years old and they were both living in New Rochelle. Sixty-seven years later, the friends still get together every few weeks for lunch. “Through our friendship, we seem to put our lives into perspective. When you can have memories that go back so many years, you can just mention a name and it brings a whole rich history,” Ed explains. “That’s a wonderful relationship, but it does not necessarily cover the whole spectrum of needs and emotions in life. I think you have certain friends to provide certain sustenance to your life and others for other support. And that’s okay.” Still, he says, something that his father told him has stayed with him since he was a teen: “If you have one best friend in your life, you are lucky. If you have two best friends in your life, you are blessed. And if you have three best friends in your whole life, it is indescribable how fortunate you are.”

“It’s very important as we age to have peers  who can relate firsthand to the things we have experienced,” says Stratyner. “To be able to associate with your peers helps you to maintain a sense of self and to feel like you are not alone because people of your age are still alive.” 

School Friends

According to Jennifer Turetzky, school psychologist at Heathcote Elementary School in Scarsdale, there is no one formula for school-age friendships, as all kids have their own social personalities. “For young girls, friendships tend to be focused on conversations, and, for young boys, they tend to form friendships because they like doing the same activities. But that is a very global generalization,” she says.

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While it is critical that all children have at least one healthy friendship, according to Turetzky, the number of friends just doesn’t matter. “Some children may have one best friend and that is enough, because having that one strong connection feels and works best for them. And then you’ll have children with a wide range of friends, who move between groups, which is what feels best for them. That sense of being connected to other people is very important,” she says.

Being a high school student in Westchester County is stressful, but friendship can go a long way in alleviating that stress. Just ask 18-year-old Horace Greeley senior Lindsay Emery of Chappaqua. “Hanging out with my friends after school or during the weekend has always been a way to unwind and just take a mental break from the stress of school,” she says. In 2014, Lindsay found a new way to de-stress when she began working as an assistant at the Westchester Youth Choirs (WYC) in Mount Kisco. “Without these girls, I never would have found the new side of myself that strives to make everyone feel completely included. The older girls are constantly encouraging the younger girls to have a loving, caring environment, which is quite amazing to watch develop, as most of the girls are no older than middle-school age.” Elliot Cohen, PhD, director of psychology for the Scarsdale Public Schools (he also has a private practice in White Plains), says that people benefit from both being a friend and having a friend. “One of the best methods to stave off depression is to get outside of yourself and do something for somebody else,” he explains. “You take that internal focus away.”

Colleen Domoracki (left) with her sister and best friend, Wendy Klingensmith

Soul Sisters

Whereas family relationships contain an element of obligation, friendship is purely voluntary, though sometimes the ties that bind family members extend into the realm of friendship. Rye resident Wendy Klingensmith, 43, says that her older sister, Colleen Domoracki, 44, is her soul sister and best friend. Being only a year apart in age, they were very close as children, but when college came along, the women went to different schools and grew apart. “As we got older and started our careers, we reconnected on a much deeper level,” Klingensmith says. Domoracki recalls, “When our dad died at 58 years old in 2007, we leaned heavily on each other for support. We both loved him so much. We shared our grief, which made it a little easier to handle.”

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Although Domoracki lives in Ohio, the sisters talk and text daily, vacation together and spend holidays together. “Wendy is my biggest cheerleader,” Domoracki says. “She truly wants the best for me.”  For example, she says, “Wendy has always been very fit, and I am looking to become more active. She will take me to Equinox, where she trains, and let me use her trainer for a session, or go on a slow-paced walk with me. She pushes me a little but respects my limitations.” Klingensmith says that love and support are mutual. “Colleen teaches me so much about the world,” she says. “About travel and wine and the arts. We laugh together. We cry together. When I need support or an honest opinion, I call Colleen!”

Helping Children Make Friends

According to Elliot Cohen, PhD, director of psychology for Scarsdale Public Schools and a clinical psychologist in private practice,  parents can play a big role in helping their children make and sustain friendships. Here are some of Dr. Cohen’s tips: 

1. Encourage your child to join a facilitated group activity (such as school sponsored clubs and teams) in an area of their interest.  Responsible adult activity leaders sometimes can help with the hurdles of entry and integration. 

2. If your child is socially awkward or anxious, have him invite a friend to do something specific and at a set time. This helps for two reasons:  First, it facilitates the communication.  Second, if his friend doesn’t accept the invitation, the rejection is softened because it can be attributed to less personal factors such as the activity, time, or place; not your child.

3. If kids do choose to communicate social frustrations to parents, it is important for moms and dads not to jump to the “problem-solving stage.” Kids won’t really accept guidance unless they believe that your feedback is based on a true understanding of their predicament. Only when a child feels that you understand what the situation feels like for them can they then begin to accept problem-solving and other strategies.

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