On a rainy afternoon, there's laughter that trickles down the phone line from Denis Arnott, who's paused a game of Rummy-O with friends Betty Hohepa and Joan Bell.
The retirees get together every Tuesday at Denis' home, where he lives with his dog Honey, for a games afternoon and a cuppa.
Denis and his late wife Sharon met Betty in 1978 through Rotokawa School in Rotorua, where their five children befriended her four, and Denis and Betty were on the PTA.
"I look(ed) on Denis and Sharon as a brother and sister," Betty says.
Forty-two years on, and both widowed, Denis, 73, drives Betty, 78, to get her groceries each week.
"Before we started this [games] group up, I used to go to Betty's place after taking her home with the shopping, and we used to have a coffee and a game of Cribbage," he says.
They've been meeting as a trio with new friend Joan Bell for a couple of months now after advertising the event in an Age Concern pamphlet.
They hope to entice other seniors who might also be looking for "companionship, something to do, and a bit of a laugh" - because even in advanced years, new relationships take root.
Research from the University of Auckland shows you can make friends at any age, provided you can connect over mutual interests and a level of reciprocity is achieved and sustained, Professor Merryn Gott, of the School of Nursing, says.
Their research also shows there are health benefits to being connected in general.
That's backed by University of Otago researchers who found not smoking and being socially engaged throughout older age can have some control over the ageing process.
A recent analysis of 292 centenarians free from common age-related diseases showed having social activities of long-lasting interest helped decrease the chances of developing chronic illnesses and increase the chances of living past 100.
Associate Professor Yoram Barak, a consultant psycho geriatrician, says being socially active means physically going out of your home and away from families, and visiting friends, volunteering or participating in activities such as attending a concert or playing golf.
Various research bears out the importance of connecting with friends in retirement and, in reverse, how detrimental loneliness can be.
Friendship grows with age
In Tauranga, older residents file into the Bethlehem Baptist Church on the first and third Tuesday of every month, for afternoon tea and entertainment.
Volunteers Dian and Les Cheyne run the social group Encore, which conveys "the best is still to come".
Their aim is to increase human contact among older folk.
"People think 'I've got to this age and my bones are going to fall to bits', but it's a lovely time to enjoy the things that give you pleasure," 73-year-old Dian says of the 80-odd retirees who take part.
"We really encourage them to enjoy their life."
It costs just $2 per session but delivers so much more.
"What we found out during [Covid-19] lockdown is a lot of people don't have family, and so they meet up and make friends in this little group of people, and that really becomes their family in lots of ways.
"When they start arriving, it just does my heart good to hear the buzz of conversation going on. Everybody's so excited and it's just such a lovely atmosphere for people to belong to."
Time together makes the heart happy, Mary Tupai, 69, says of her friend Alison Bradshaw, 78.
"She can talk to me, we can talk to each other.
"When she's feeling down she'll ring me and say 'are you home' and just turn up at my doorstep and spend a couple of hours."
The Rotorua friends, both widows, met 50 years ago in a pub in Auckland and Mary became the babysitter for Alison's three children. They later went on to work together in not one, but three jobs.
They have supported one another through both crisis and jubilant times - holidaying together for the first time overseas in Rarotonga, just before lockdown.
Mary says friendships become more valuable in advanced years and while they each have other friends, this friendship is special.
"We go back a long way and we've just always come back to one another."
It's a sentiment shared by Margaret Waters and Joy Sloane, who met on their first day of primary school at Rotorua's St Michael's School (now St Mary's Catholic Primary School).
The pair, both aged 76, grew up together but spent years apart when Margaret moved to Hawke's Bay.
"We lost contact for a while here and there, but always picked [our friendship] up again," Margaret says.
One of Joy's favourite memories of Margaret is from her 12th birthday party, as a group of girls arrived with gifts.
"She whispered 'don't open this in front of others because it's only a rock, we're a bit short this week'. Well, in those days, in the 1950s, there wasn't a lot of money going around," she recalls.
Later, after everyone but Margaret had left, she examined the rock and the pair came outside to the letterbox.
"She said 'I think you should look to see if you've got any mail', and I opened the letterbox and there was the proper present - a little, china lady with a lace crinoline on ... It was very pretty and I've never forgotten that."
She kept the doll for years until one of her five children broke it.
The pair share a sense of humour and call a "spade a spade", Joy says.
Margaret is moving into a lifestyle village in Pāpāmoa soon, but they'll keep in touch.
"She's been a great friend to me," Joy says.
A lifetime shared
Research suggests women, in particular, are hardwired to crave close friendships and Te Puke's Dorothy Gibbs has several.
Originally from Wales, the former school teacher came to New Zealand 60 years ago on an immigrant ship and still has regular contact with three of its passengers, two women in the Wellington area and another in Zurich.
"We are all in our middle-80s but we can still share our problems and commiserate or laugh about them."
They were brought up in wartime Britain, where petrol-rationing, curfews and air-raids brought their own form of lockdown.
"Our friendships were sustained with letter-writing until the computer era and, bearing in mind that 'there's nothing that echoes more loudly than an empty letter-box', we would try to keep in regular contact - at least three times a year."
With the spare time of retirement, those letters have been replaced by weekly, and occasionally daily emails, exchanging family news and concerns, political views, interesting ideas, and jokes - "some of which need to be censored as our suppressors are wearing out".
On a local level, she's a member of the Te Puke Bridge Club and as well as club sessions pre-Covid, house-bridge sessions, which allow more time for chatting, are "invaluable sources of laughter, news of family-problems and successes, juicy gossip and on occasion, some brilliant card play".
She's also been a guide at The Elms for 20 years and enjoys the relationships formed with the other volunteers and permanent staff.
"It's the shared interests and experiences, as well as a common purpose, which helps to create strong bonds."
Friends good for the heart
A flood of research underscores the importance of such bonds.
Social isolation and loneliness can take a toll on elders, psychologically and physically.
According to Age Concern, the majority of older people are not severely lonely, but current research indicates about half of older New Zealanders experience some level of loneliness, and 8 to 9 per cent feel lonely all or most of the time.
Carole Gordon, a Tauranga social gerontologist, is looking to do research on the post-Covid impact on elders.
"Life changed for many in a variety of ways after Covid," she says, explaining seniors are needing to regain lost ground.
If elders live alone or have no family nearby, then having strong connections with friends "where one can share life's intimacies becomes very essential".
In the Bay of Plenty, senior citizens can now travel on public buses for free, all day, and technology is also keeping them connected.
"As more people live longer, they're not an oddity, they're a beginning of a majority," she says.
"Being connected is a very part of that fullness of life.
"Older people aren't all shut away, they don't all live in rest homes and retirement villages, and even those who do still have a capacity to intermingle in community life and form interest groups.
"The silver economy is an under-recognised resource that comes from elders being connected ... Whether it's the shopkeeper or the hairdresser, they're all important in people's lives and more important when people are older and every connection matters."
When it comes to Carole's own relationships - her youngest friend is 23 - "we laugh and laugh," she says.
She doesn't perceive herself to be old, even though she celebrates a milestone birthday this year.
"My body sometimes reminds me, but I keep a wide breadth of engagement and continue to search for knowledge. You acknowledge your differences, but they don't change who you are," she says.
"There's still the girl who wants to have fun."