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 Thelma McCrary, 93, and her best friend, Nancy Hauge, 90, met at Samaritas Senior Living  of Bloomfield Hills after their husbands passed away.

Thelma McCrary, 93, and her best friend, Nancy Hauge, 90, met at Samaritas Senior Living of Bloomfield Hills after their husbands passed away.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Widows find friendship in grief

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published March 26, 2019

 Thelma McCrary, left, and Nancy Hauge listen in as Ray DiFiore, also a Samaritas resident, tickles the ivories.

Thelma McCrary, left, and Nancy Hauge listen in as Ray DiFiore, also a Samaritas resident, tickles the ivories.

Photo by Deb Jacques


BLOOMFIELD HILLS — On a damp, cloudy Thursday afternoon in late March, Nancy Hauge, 90, and Thelma McCrary, 93, made their way down the stairs of Samaritas Senior Living of Bloomfield Hills to the dining room.

The weather was of no concern to them — Hauge dressed in bright cobalt blue, McCrary in hot pink with a sparkly black-beaded necklace, their mindset was spring. The two made themselves comfortable at a private table, just steps away from their regular spot near the fireplace where they have dinner together every night.

“Before I forget,” Hauge said to McCrary, handing her a bottle of iridescent mauve nail polish.

“Oh, thank you,” McCrary responded, slipping the bottle in her pocket. “I don’t know what color you’d call this, but it looks so good on you.”

Hauge and McCrary said they don’t have much in common besides proximity, both being residents of Samaritas for the past four years. They moved in one month apart from each other in 2015.

But what they do share is profound.

“We play bridge,” Hauge said. “She’s as good as I am, and I’m not very good.”

The pair both moved into Samaritas following the death of their husbands, a choice they insist was theirs and not their kids’. McCrary was married for nearly 67 years, and Hauge for more than 50.

The socialization they found in each other and in the independent living community has strengthened them, they agree, and keeps them going and enjoying each day.

There’s hard data to reflect that: A six-year study with 17,000 participants over the age of 50 from the Department of Society, Human Development and Health at the Harvard School of Public Health found that those who are socially integrated have less than half of the memory decline of those who are socially isolated.

Social relationships have also been noted to have a correlation with lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, some forms of cancer, high systolic blood pressure and depression, according to the National Institute on Aging at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

That’s no surprise to Deb Sloss, an administrator at Samaritas and a social worker with decades of experience with aging clients.

In their small community, there seems to be a niche for every interest. Sloss said she often visits with the group of guys she dubbed the “men’s table,” which meets each day to “solve the world’s problems.” There’s a group that makes lunches for local homeless people, movie nights, and parties for any occasion you can think of. March 20 — the International Day of Happiness — was marked with food and sunset-colored cocktails.

At Birmingham Next, the city’s center for residents over the age of 50, programming is based first on promoting conversation and second on a specific interest.

“I’d say socialization is exactly what we do here; it’s the foundation and the reason we’re here,” said Cris Braun, the director of Birmingham Next. “We provide a lot of great programming so people can try new and different things that maybe they didn’t realize were so interesting prior to that experience, but it’s really a chance to meet like-minded people and connect with a new friend group through an activity.”

Next is different than Samaritas in that it’s an organization for more active older members of the community — pickleball is massively popular, Braun said — but the concept of bringing folks together is similar. Hot dog Fridays each week in the summer, dinner and a movie nights, specialty lectures from local experts, golf leagues, biking clubs, discussion groups — the list of things to do at Next goes on and on.

Why so many different options? Well, simply being an aging citizen isn’t enough to have in common when you want to forge a strong friendship. Braun said people who retire often lose their core group of pals that came from work, or they move to a new town to be closer to their children and grandchildren. The goal isn’t to supplement companionship, but to rebuild the genuine connections many had and perhaps lost in their youth.

“Whether it’s intentional or not, spending time alone can cause people to become more introverted, and that can be an on ramp to other mental and physical challenges going forward,” Braun said. “Staying active and engaged is important. And you have to surround yourself with great people. I’m certain we have that.”

The same goes for Bloomfield Township Senior Services, according to Director Christine Tvaroha. The BTSS Center is so entrenched with the spirit of community that most of the staff is composed of seniors who came for an activity and wanted to become even more involved.

And one of the reasons they want to stick around, Tvaroha will tell you, is because of how members are treated.

“They’re respected here; they’re encouraged; they’re met by a happy team,” she said. “They meet people and they begin to care and have concern for each other. That bridge club might look like just a weekly card game from the outside, but if one of them doesn’t show up for a week or two, they’re getting called (by other players). Some of them offer to drive each other to doctor’s appointments or pick up where family members might leave off.”

Hauge made an appearance at the Happiness Day shindig, but McCrary had a bridge game. You might think the gals were teenagers the way they navigate their packed social calendar — literally, they have a calendar filled with events, shopping trips, bridge games and volunteer commitments. They recently finished a two-year stint as president and vice president of the Samaritas resident council.

Sloss said the small-but-mighty democracy and volunteer and club opportunities within the facility aren’t an accident — residents deserve to have control over their environment, and it gives seniors the chance to live life the way they always have. McCrary volunteered with her church and for Goodwill Industries for years, and Hauge worked her way up to president of Beaumont Health System’s 600-member-strong volunteer program.

When there’s time to spare, McCrary checks in with her family, including two daughters — a reconstructive plastic surgeon and an attorney/author — and a grandson rated among the top 20 collegiate basketball prospects in the country. Hauge likes to hit the in-house salon or cheer on her picks in the March Madness tournament.

“Oh, I’m so into it,” she said with a laugh.

In their more private moments, there are conversations about where they’ve been. McCrary retired as a principal in Detroit Public Schools, and Hauge raised her three children after she married and earned a degree in microbiology from Purdue University. She worked briefly at the Parke-Davis Research Laboratory, off of Jefferson Avenue in Detroit, not far from McCrary’s four-story home she shared with her husband and girls in Lafayette Park.

There are also things that are unspoken, but understood completely.

“There’s this understanding you have as a widow (with another widow), how we think and how we feel,” McCrary said.

“Exactly,” agreed Hauge. “Some of the aches and pains come naturally. And you get it.”

The American Association of Retired Persons’ Public Policy Institute reports that nearly 70 percent of women over the age of 75 are widowed, compared to only 30 percent of men of the same age. Losing the love of your life is a pain that can never be healed, but friendship and purpose can be lifesaving, Sloss said.

It’s not something that comes easily, they’ll admit. Meeting new people and finding new happiness involves stepping out of one’s comfort zone.

“You have to go halfway,” Hauge said. “People won’t come to you, but if you go to them ...”

“They’ll ask, ‘Where are you from?’” McCrary cut in. “And that question can lead to so many things. You could have so many things in common.”

And you never know what those commonalities may bring. In the golden years of their lives, McCrary and Hauge have found their new other half.

A couple of years ago, Hauge gave her pal a Christmas ornament that reads, “We’re just like sisters.” The memento sits in McCrary’s curio cabinet all year long.

“It doesn’t go away after Christmas. It’s right where everybody can see it,” she said.