Childhood friends

Five friends since grade school, now each around age 75 — Kathy Sedlack, from right, Mary Jane Manley, Judy Claus, Miriam Bryant and Rosalie Lawinger — sit on a bench inscribed with their names at Morton Arboretum in Lisle. Experts say developing and maintaining friendships, as the women have, gives you the best opportunity to age successfully. (Stacey Wescott, Chicago Tribune)

"None of us could sing, but we didn't care. We weren't the popular group, but we didn't care about that either because we had each other. We were happy," Lawinger says.

Time tagged each with a reputation she has managed to keep. Lawinger was the daredevil, always daring the others to jump off a porch ledge or something. Sedlack was the chicken who would not jump. Bryant was the artist, and party organizer. Manley had all the boys on the South Side in love with her. Claus was the princess, accustomed to having things done for her.

In 1955, three of the five, Lawinger, Bryant and Sedlack, went off to Loretto Heights College in Denver. All five got married between the late 1950s and early 1960s, and among them they had 22 children. Getting together was difficult during the years when they were busy having babies, they say, but occasionally they would go out to lunch.

Communication among the Ya-Yas has changed from the secret codes and swiftly passed notes of childhood to letters, phone calls, greeting cards and now emails.

"We alone keep Hallmark in business," Manley says.

They all tolerate good-natured teasing, but they are also not afraid to tell each other "what's what" if necessary. To them, a good talking to is just another gesture of friendship.

Developing and maintaining friendships, as the women have, gives you the best opportunity to age successfully, says Dr. Diana Kerwin, assistant professor of medicine and geriatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

According to Kerwin, studies have shown that there is a reduced level of depression in people who retain more social engagement as they age. Keeping up with what's happening in our friends' lives helps us maintain our own memories.

"Many people ask what brain exercises they should do to age well," she says. "Actually the best thing you can do is to go to a lecture, see a show, go to a coffee or meeting, and then have a conversation with someone about it. "

People who maintain friendships at an older age also stay in better physical shape, she says, as friends may encourage each other to address health problems in a timely manner and to remain more physically active.

On top of the hill

In the group, Bryant is the one credited with getting them started at the Morton Arboretum, and she always has a kite in the trunk of her car. The five also spend a girls-only weekend each fall in Michigan, enjoy Ravinia concerts twice each summer, and have an annual twilight and wine picnic. And it is not uncommon for one to make a spontaneous call and announce, "Hey, I need a girlfriend fix."

Feeling comfortable about reaching out to your friends like that is crucial, according to Lucia West Jones, executive director of the Northeastern Illinois Agency on Aging. Jones says, "One of the leading causes of depression in older persons is isolation. As long as people are working, they have connections, but for some, retirement is the closure of their outside contact."

"We see the people who have stayed connected or have reunited with friends," she says, "but we also see too much of the other side, the people who have become isolated."

Bob Lawinger, 78, admits that at times he was jealous of the Ya-Ya friendship his wife cherishes. But they inspired him to form his own groups, and now he has regularly scheduled breakfast and golf with the guys.

In June, he surprised the women with a bench dedicated to them at the top of the arboretum's Frost Hill where the women would walk before some health ailments slowed them. Inscribed with their names, it honors their lifetime of friendship and their 75th birthdays, and it is near the redwood tree that the Lawinger children dedicated to their parents for their 50th wedding anniversary in 2010.

Keeping childhood friends is not easy today as people migrate away from home for schools and careers, Greenwald says.

"Having friends who have been with you for a lifetime is for a lot of people in this day and age a relatively unique phenomenon," he said. "Those childhood friends often exist at a distance. They are the ones we send Christmas cards to."

In a serious moment at the lunch table, Sedlack says: "We know we are lucky to have each other. When we get together, it's the dumping ground. You know it's a safe place to let it go."

And then Bryant finally gets her chance to talk.

"I just want to say," she says quietly, "that I am my happiest when I am with them."