Our Shrinking World

Terry Lieb Coping with Adversity, Healing Relationships 4 Comments

“As you age, your world gets smaller and smaller.”

This dire pronouncement from our neighbor, our boy’s self-designated adoptive grandmother, haunted me from the moment I heard it. Over the years Rita and I reflected on it often, even more frequently as we entered our own post-retirement phase.  

Already we had experienced the loss of several close friends, and now as we faced a move to an over 55 retirement community many miles from our home, we would be cut off from the daily interactions with everyone we had grown to love and cherish over the many years.

In addition to the normal, inescapable challenges of maintaining friendships as you age, in these “unprecedented” times, relationships seem to be facing threats from entirely new directions. The last few years of COVID restrictions and increasing tensions in many of our friendships due to growing political differences just intensified the whittling down of our social circle.

Was there nothing I could do to reverse this seemingly-inevitable shrinking of my world as I aged? I have a long pattern of questioning anything presented as an absolute, but was this just simply a fact of life I would have to accept?

As Rita and I prepared for a trip “up home” to Schuylkill County—a much-needed day off from the overwhelming task of de-cluttering over 50 years of “stuff” as we prepare to move this summer—I received a call from the daughter of a long-time friend who died last year at the age of 99. She was calling to let me know she was cleaning out her mother’s home and wanted to offer me the opportunity to stop by and pick out something to remember her mother before the auctioneer came. 

If you have followed my writings for any length of time you know “characters” are my favorite friends to spend time with, Martena definitely fit my definition of “character”!  I have missed our spirited conversations; there were plenty of issues facing our country we didn’t agree upon, however, we did respect each other and did agree how much we appreciated our friendship!

Yet another relationship gone that will never be replaced, I thought.

Our first stop on our way to Schuylkill was a breakfast meeting at Buddy’s Log Cabin Restaurant in Pine Grove, which, for me, is a pleasant step back in time! This is a common meeting place for Barry, my roommate from Williamson College of The Trades where we both graduated from in 1968. Another totally unique “character,” Barry is brilliant, loyal, and has a sense of humor that is altogether disarming! This time it was a suggestion that I hunt grouse after the wild grapes begin to ferment which, when eaten by the supposedly-unaware grouse, leaves them intoxicated and consequently easier to shoot! I wrote a complete post on my friend Barry.

The other even longer-time friend present was Dave, who also graduated from Williamson in 1968.  However, we both grew up in Lavelle as kids generating stories many of which I couldn’t include in a family blog! Dave also has all the credentials to qualify as a “character”!

While the three of us were telling the same old stories, often with some new “interesting twists,” Rita, who heard these stories many times, started up a conversation with a mother and her two daughters at the next table. Shirley, 91, was the mother and clearly the more talkative of the three.  We quickly found out the daughters went to school with a long-time friend of ours. New friends that knew old friends!

The next stop was Lavelle, where I was born and raised. Visiting my cousin Gale is always a fun time. After a report on the changing resident population, some new interesting tidbits about deceased family and friends which will be helpful in spicing up my storytelling, and then updates on what is new in Lavelle, she informed us she made a quiche and also remembered from a former visit that my favorite cake was Jewish Apple just happened to have baked one of those as well!  

I tried to explain that we just had a huge breakfast, a blueberry pancake that was bigger than the platter it came on and a piece of fresh sausage that was at least twice the size I was even served at any other restaurant!  She “appeared” to be listening as she cut a huge piece of cake for both Rita and I followed by “I will wrap up the rest of the cake and the ceviche for you to take along home”! Knowing our dietary practices Cousin Gale assured us she “added very little sugar” which allowed both of us to wolf down these seldom-experienced treats! Feels like back home!

Our next stop was just “down the alley” but this visit was difficult and emotionally painful. Jim had basically been family as long as I can remember. For me he was another older brother. Jim is now 95 and his wife Pat who is “a bit younger” are at a very challenging and difficult stage of their life journey; Jim is sadly experiencing many of the classic symptoms of dementia.  He didn’t recognize either of us when we first arrived but within a few minutes responded much the same as he had the previous visit. 

As Jim began repeating the same stories several times during our visit—stories Pat surely had heard hundreds of times—Rita sensitively shifted her attention to Pat. Although Pat is the absolute epitome of strength, fortitude and commitment, we knew from experience that caregivers often suffer as much or more than the one with the diagnosis. My heart went out to my two very special friends. As I closed their front gate on our way out, I wondered, as I had on our last few visits, if this could be the last time I see them.

On the drive home, my mood was low. The number of people who had known me my entire life was steadily dwindling; each visit there were fewer and fewer familiar faces. Like it or not, my world was shrinking.

The next morning the devotional I read on Facebook (included in full) didn’t help matters any. It eloquently extolled the virtues of old friends who have seen you through all aspects of life—the highs, the lows, the in-betweens. I’ll never make friends like that again. First, I’d had to leave the people of Lavelle, now all our friends in our hometown of 40 years.

I went back to the task of paring down our stuff, trying to decide what would make the cut to come with us to Willow Valley. It seemed that everything I touched brought up a memory. The stained-glass window I’d designed and given to Rita as an anniversary gift, the Monster maul from countless wood-splitting sessions with our boys, the custom-made serving tray a Pastoral Care Team had given me to commemorate our work together, the gear from fly-fishing trips to Pine Creek I’d taken with my four friends for well over 30 years.

So many wonderful memories. From college and graduate school, which opened my mind and horizons, through a career more fulfilling than I could ever have imagined growing up in a coal mining town. Best of all were all the people I’d been blessed to come into contact with along the way—friends, neighbors, patients, and, of course, my beloved and incomparable wife!

With a jolt, I suddenly realized that none of the things I so cherished would have been possible if I hadn’t first left Schuylkill County. As much as I loved Lavelle and its people, leaving there hadn’t made my world shrink, it had made it bigger! Why should this move be any different?

People experience losses and make transitions at all ages. In reflecting back over the past 70 years, on both friends and patients, it’s amazing how differently people respond to a wide variety of crises and losses. Some seem to get “stuck” and unable to move forward, while others are able to gather up the strength and mobilize the resources to not only put their lives back together but, in some cases, establish a more meaningful life than they had previously! 

Physical limitations, losing loved ones, moving to a new place—these things don’t have to shrink your world if you don’t let them—and neither does aging. It’s our attitude and unwillingness to creatively and courageously pursue new interests and intentionally seek out and cultivate new friendships that make all the difference.

I’m committing to proving our neighbor’s axiom that aging will shrink your world dead wrong. Life is an amazing gift from our creator, and it shows a terrible lack of appreciation and celebration of that gift to not take full advantage of every day. 

On our recent visit to Willow Valley, we attended the Club and Activity Group Expo, which laid out an overwhelming number of opportunities. There was a Great Decisions discussion group, a group for learning the dulcimer, a woodcarving group, a writers’ group, a competitive pickleball group, and more volunteer opportunities than you can shake a fist at! At the Fishing Club table, I met two gentlemen that I immediately connected with and thought could be fun and interesting as potential future friends. One even has been fly-fishing at Pine Creek since he was a boy! They can’t replace the two fly-fishing buddies I lost recently, but they will bring perspectives, experiences, and interests that will expand and enrich me in entirely new ways. 

That’s the true secret to keeping your world large: not by avoiding the pruning of dead branches and old limbs (an impossible feat!), but by allowing it to create new growth.




  1. What is your definition of a full, “large” life? How big is your life currently? Is it as full as you would like? Why or why not?
  2. Can life be too big? Can you be pulled in too many directions and need to pull back? Is this an issue for you now? Why or why not?
  3. Have you experienced the losses of key relationships in your life through death, separation or estrangement? How has that impacted your life?
  4. How do you keep in touch with old friends? Do you spend too much, too little or just the right amount of time maintaining long-term relationships? 
  5. When was the last time you made a new friend? How did that happen—was it effortless or did you work to nurture the relationship?
  6. What are the unique benefits of old friends? New ones? 
  7. What is the balance of old and new friends in your life? Are you comfortable with it? If not, how could you change it?


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Anthony Bifulco
Anthony Bifulco
February 1, 2024 2:24 pm

Sounds like you and Rita are ready for the next adventure. I tried to give you a 5 star rating but it wouldn’t accept my choice. As always I appreciate your sharing with the rest of us.

February 1, 2024 3:51 pm

This thought, that my world is shrinking, has been with me for awhile but, as always, you remind me of that one great gift out there. Hope—nothing has to be and isn’t set in concrete (except our eventual death). It just takes courage to meet and greet as many as you can and prayer, along with hope will take us a long way. Grand new adventures and new friends are still out there. Just have to keep on, keeping on. Thanks again for your posts and the positivity they bring to our lives! And glad you appear to have found… Read more »

James Buskirk (Jim)
James Buskirk (Jim)
February 1, 2024 4:13 pm

Terry, a wonderful piece! You’ve managed to capture the invisible warmth of long-time real friends. I say real friends because I’ve found there are acquaintances and there are friends. You get lots of acquaintances but only a few real friends. We moved to a 55+ place 21 years ago It’s been a great time. Now we are nearing the bottom of the twilight side of the hill and reluctantly thinking/discussing what our next move should be stay and ride it out or go to a place of continuing care. We too have many things that have enormous sentimental value and… Read more »

February 11, 2024 4:19 pm

Your reflections always inspire me to think outside the box. Thank you. I am late in seeing your comments. The message ended up in my spam.