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Extending families: How friendships can fill a gap in later years

  • Gregory Wilson, center, Alex Bykhovsky, David Ringey and Marcel Boisvert are part of a group that meets twice a week at the YMCA in Northampton following a fitness class. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gregory Wilson and Alex Bykhovsky are part of a group that meets at the YMCA, following a fitness class, just to talk and spend time together. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Alex Bykhovsky, David Ringey, Marcel Boisvert and Gregory Wilson find lots to talk about, from politics to personal topics, in their twice-a-week gatherings. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gregory Wilson and Alex Bykhovsky are part of a group that meets at the YMCA and just to talk and spend time together. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Janet Dibrindiski and Carolyn Bruneau are among the members of the group that have become close friends as a result of their gatherings at the Y. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marcel Boisvert says close friends can fill a gap created when family member live far away. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The women sit at one table, the men at another. Above are Nancy Ringey, Janet Dibrindiski and Carolyn Bruneau. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nancy Ringey and her husband, David Ringey, started coming to the YMCA after David suffered a stroke and needed to find different kinds of activities. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nancy Ringey and her husband, David Ringey, started coming to the YMCA after David suffered a stroke and needed to find different kinds of activities. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Alex Bykhovsky, talks during an elder group that meets at the YMCA. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • "It certainly does meet a need, to belong, and to have someone you can confide in if you need to,” says Carolyn Bruneau. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • "It certainly does meet a need, to belong, and to have someone you can confide in if you need to,” says Carolyn Bruneau. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS



@AndyCCastillo
Monday, July 30, 2018

President Donald Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin was the main topic of discussion last Tuesday at a small table in the Hampshire Regional YMCA’s lobby, where a group of elderly men shared coffee, perspectives and time.

While their discussion about the day’s politics was serious, the mood was light and cordial. They seemed familiar with each other, so familiar that passersby could have mistaken them for family.

“He’s like my brother,” said Alex Bykhovsky, 67, slapping Marcel Boisvert, 68, on the shoulder. Across the table, David Ringey, 85, and Leanord Cohen, 79, agreed. “He’s the ringleader,” Cohen added. 

The men’s “Romeos” luncheon group, and their counterparts the “'Lovely Ladies Loving Lunch” group — which was seated at another table in the lobby — meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 a.m., following a fitness class they all attend. The after-gathering is called the YMCA’s Active Older Adults Coffee Hour.

At the women’s table, Carolyn Bruneau, 77, was avidly discussing her experiences with gambling.

“I’ve never won anything in my life,” she said. Next to her, Janet Dibrindiski joked, “my oldest son doubled his money, once. He got $1.99!”

The other women roared with laughter.

In addition to the twice-weekly meetings, which come together after the fitness class, each group goes out to lunch once a month.

Since the lunch tradition began about three years ago, the friendships have grown strong, Boisvert says.

“It means camaraderie, and caring for one another. For men in particular, they tend to be less social,” he noted. That connection has helped some in the group overcome hardships created by failing health, lost friends and biological family members who live far away, which has become increasingly common, he says.

Scattered families

Decades ago, “when people reached a certain age, they lived with their kids,” he said. “That’s gone. You’re lucky, now, if your kid lives within a state or two.”

Boisvert, a retired IT professional, who lives in Amherst with his fiance, Patricia Gorman, says his biological family has gradually scattered across the United States. Of his three brothers, only one is still local — in Goshen. The other two live in New Hampshire and Tennessee respectively. In lieu of those physical family ties, he says, friends in the groups have become a social support network.

“(We’ve) created our own extended family,” he said.

Bruneau recalled that while growing up in Holyoke during the 1940s and ‘50s, everyone in her extended family — except one aunt — stayed close to home. Back then, traveling to Boston was an all-day affair because Interstates 90 and 91 hadn’t yet been built, she said.

Even locally, “going into Springfield was a big deal. My grandmother would take us on a train from Holyoke to Springfield. It was a big trip," she said.

Today, however, technological advancements have made it so that people can travel quickly from one place to another, and keep in touch digitally. As a result, many people choose to move away from their hometowns in pursuit of jobs or education.

Bruneau and her husband, William Bruneau, 77, have four children, 14 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren, she says, many of them live elsewhere or are busy with their daily lives. So, as a result, the elder group fills a gap.

“It certainly does meet a need, to belong, and to have someone you can confide in if you need to. You can ask for their opinions,” Bruneau said, noting that within the group people have gone through divorces. “We've talked about that, and they've been support for each other. Basic family stuff.”

Beyond the Y

While a variety of paths have led the members to the group, a thread that connects everyone is that desire for companionship. Nancy Ringey, 71, said that she began attending the Y with her husband David Ringey after he suffered a stroke.

“When you have a stroke, sometimes you become isolated, and David is very much of a people person,” Nancy said, adding that, afterward, her husband “wasn't able to ski anymore, he wasn’t able to play golf with his friends, so he needed to develop another venue of forming relationships.”

Soon after they began attending the active adults fitness class, which is run by Lynne Zusi, Ringey suggested to Burneau that the women meet for lunch sometime.

“We started what we call the ‘Lovely Ladies Loving Lunch’ group,” Bruneau said. “And the boys got jealous. They decided to start a guys’ luncheon group called the 'Romeos.’ ”

Over the years, they’ve become like “one big extended family. All of us live within 20 years of each other," Bruneau said. "We've become really good friends. All because of this class.”

The men mostly talk about politics and the military, wars, etc., and, while some of the ladies would like to be over there, most of us are not interested. We mostly talk about family.”

Over time, the friendships moved beyond the YMCA and the monthly luncheons. These days, the group members go on bus trips together to flower shows and musical performances and hold holiday parties — inviting significant others who might not attend the Y — for Christmas and New Years, Mother’s and Father’s Days and Valentine’s Day.

“Nancy started the Christmas, or holiday, gatherings, at her house,” Bruneau said. “But then it got to be too many people, so we started going to other places. We went to the Yankee Peddler one time, and to (Brunelles Marina and Dockside Restaurant), once.”

Beyond the outings and parties, the group is there for each other in good times and bad. When someone is sick, they sign cards and visit. When one member, Ellie Holiday, moved to assisted living, the group surprised her with a birthday cake in honor of her 95th birthday. 

An overarching theme that’s tangible in the groups, which Boisvert stressed are open to any elder at the Y — even if they don’t attend the fitness class — is to make sure people know “they’re not forgotten, and there are people who are thinking about you and care.”

“It makes you feel like you’re not just (alone). This is a group that watches out for each other,” he said.

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.