It is hard to make new friends after you reach a certain age. Most people’s friendships date from childhood or college days, a work friend here and there. It is particularly difficult if tragedy strikes a family, but even when children leave home to start their adult lives, as they all must do, many women are left alone, unable to find a new niche. Circle of Friends, a relatively new program at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, addresses this problem.
Cori Friedman was instrumental in getting the program off the ground.
“In 2014, I was serving as the chairman of the [JCC] seniors committee. Being a widow myself, I recognized the need of single older women to combat loneliness,” she told the Independent. “There was a men’s group already established at the JCC with a much different format. With the cooperation of the committee, we were able to fulfil the need.”
According to Friedman, 14 women came to the first meeting, but attendance has grown significantly since then.
“The group started in September 2014,” recalled group facilitator Rebecca Porte. “The idea of forming such a group came from the knowledge that the transition following the loss of a spouse, whether by divorce or death, can be challenging. Often old friendships don’t fit as well, social engagements don’t carry the same meaning, and many aspects of life don’t have the same richness and fulfilment they once held. For women 55 and older, the question of where and how to foster their new meaningful social connections was a challenge.”
Circle of Friends became the answer to that challenge. “By now, I have about 75 people on our email list, those who have attended at least one of our meetings,” said Porte. “Since it is a drop-in program, the numbers that participate on any given week fluctuate, but generally it is between 15 and 30 at each meeting.”
She said there is a well-established Circle of Friends group in the Jewish community of Montreal. “They allowed us to use the same name,” said Porte, “and we have modeled much of what we do on their group.”
The JCC Circle of Friends meets every two weeks between September and June on Tuesdays, with the exception of Jewish holidays. The meetings start at 1 p.m. and last for about 90 minutes. “We usually have the first 15 minutes as social time: welcoming new members, introductions, announcements,” said Porte. “After that, there is about an hour of the main program – speakers, discussions, concerts by local artists, seminars, etc. Then another social time for 15 minutes before the meetings break up.”
The group is open to single women over 55, although some exceptions are made. “Most of us are not single by choice,” said Fran Goldberg, a member of Circle of Friends. “And a woman with a terminally ill husband could be very lonely sometimes. She often needs a place to relax, a time for herself.”
Every member of the group has a chance to suggest program themes and formats but, mostly, the programming is decided upon by the volunteer committee. “Six of our members serve on the committee,” said Porte. “They meet semi-regularly and put in some extra time and energy. They come up with ideas and we work together to create a balanced and interesting program. We want it to be relevant and have some level of opportunity for interaction.”
Circle member Cynthia Cherry said the programs include TED-type talks, movies and discussions, seminars on personal finances and nutrition, musical presentations, and more. “I joined the group at its start,” she said. “I had retired recently at the time and wanted to connect socially. I saw the ad at the JCC, dropped in, and liked it. I didn’t know anyone in the group then, but now some of us meet outside the Circle, [have] built new friendships.”
Another member, Lane Stein, said she came to the group after becoming a widow. “I enjoy the ladies and the programs. It’s something to do in the afternoon,” she said, mentioning that, since the beginning, several subgroups have branched out from the main one. There is a separate brunch group now, a travel group, and others in the works.
Porte has worked with the main group since its inception. “My role as facilitator is to help create the framework for each meeting and to facilitate the meetings to ensure that they are interactive, welcoming and run smoothly. In theory, the group could continue without a facilitator, but when I asked if they wanted me to stay, the group was quite adamant. They wanted me to keep doing it.”
The next meeting of the Circle of Friends will be held on June 14, 1 p.m. “We are going to visit the Queen Elizabeth [Park’s] Bloedel Conservatory,” said Porte. “We thought that an outing would be a great way to end our season. If the weather cooperates, we could make it a picnic. Then, we’ll pick up again in September.”
For more information, contact Porte at [email protected].
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].