Longtime friends take the ‘lonesome’ out of aging

Mary Dill (left) and Betty Bartling were friends for 59 years. Photos courtesy of family

Credit: Photos courtesy of family

Credit: Photos courtesy of family

Mary Dill (left) and Betty Bartling were friends for 59 years. Photos courtesy of family

Mary Dill and Betty Bartling had the type of friendship poets and songwriters often pen words about. It was long, consistent and celebrated.

The two Atlanta seniors were friends for 59 years and had a longtime standing lunch date every Friday.

Mary, 83, regularly drove through Buckhead’s noon traffic to spend a few hours with her 99-year-old friend at the Canterbury Court senior living community on Peachtree Road. Betty called it her “Mary fix.”

Long before they became seniors themselves, the two had been social workers specializing in elder care. They lived out the textbook theories about aging and friends, discovering that long-term friendships really do make life less lonely.

Theirs lasted until the end.

On April 12, a Friday, Mary arrived for her scheduled visit with a chocolate milkshake for her friend, only to find that Betty had peacefully died a short time before.

Mary was heartbroken and yet relieved. She loved her friend but also saw her struggle with declining memory and quality of life.

“Betty no longer had family in Atlanta, so I tried to keep her from getting so lonely,” Mary said the morning before her friend passed. “She can’t see very well and is hard of hearing, so life has become difficult.”

The two women enjoyed each other’s company and shared common interests in gardening, cooking, travel and faith. Mary said Betty could recall their fun times together because their friendship spanned so many decades.

Betty’s son, Chris Bartling of Oregon, said the importance of Mary’s close friendship with his mother cannot be overstated.

“It’s not that easy living in a level-of-care place, but having a friend who’s always there for you is critical,” he said.

Bartling and his sister, Julie Ricker of Colorado, would fly into Atlanta every few months to check on their mother. Betty’s grandchildren, nieces, nephews and other friends also would visit. But none shared Mary’s watchful eye, Bartling said.

“Having that consistent friend she always knew was coming that week was critically important,” he said. “It had a lot to do with why she lived as long as she did.”

Chris Bartling of Oregon and his mother Betty Bartling. Photo courtesy of Chris Bartling

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Credit: spe

Mary and Betty first met in St. Louis in 1965. Mary was getting her master’s degree in social work, and Betty was going back to work after her four children were in school. They worked for the same home health department, calling on seniors at their homes and evaluating their conditions. They often compared notes and were both interested in gerontology.

Spousal career moves eventually brought both women to Atlanta, and they reconnected around their shared professional and personal interests.

Betty worked for the Georgia Department of Human Services Division of Aging and helped set up Medicaid benefits for seniors. She later worked for a company that ran personal care homes for seniors. Mary worked for several years as the director of an adult day care in Atlanta.

“We met every Friday for lunch all those years,” Mary said. “I didn’t pay attention to what she was doing professionally because we were personal friends. When we met, we would talk about all our kids and the grandkids.”

They shared the joys and sorrows of life and always celebrated their birthdays—one day apart—every March, sometimes with lunches at the Swan House at Atlanta History Center.

Betty Bartling, 99, left, and Mary Dill, 83, celebrated their birthdays in March. The two women, both former social workers with an interest in gerontology, maintained a 59-year friendship. Photo courtesy of Mary Dill

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Credit: spe

Mary said that Betty helped her, too, over the years. “She was always smart, very friendly, and warm. We laughed almost every time we were together.”

Betty’s husband, Walter Bartling, died almost two decades ago, and she outlived two of her four children. Mary was determined her friend would not be alone.

“I decided a number of years ago that I don’t need a volunteer job,” said Mary. “I’ll just go see (Betty) once a week, and that will be my ministry.

Mary kept up the visits even when the pandemic forced them to sit outside on a porch with portable heaters. Sometimes, they would go out to eat at a nearby Chinese restaurant or to IHOP for pancakes, Betty’s favorite.

“Sometimes, it was stressful,” said Mary. “I’m 83, and I have a lot of arthritis and have to use a cane. She used a walker, and when we would go out to lunch, we looked like the blind leading the blind.

“But she’s been my friend for so long, and I’m her friend for so long, that I just couldn’t stand to see her alone and without anybody.”

Reflecting on her years in social work, Mary remembers going into many senior living communities where residents had no visitors. She said a call, visit, or card means so much.

“I hate to think about other people who don’t have anyone to visit or go out to lunch when it’s not too hard for them,” Mary said.

Before Betty’s death, Mary’s husband tried to convince his wife that taking a break from her weekly visits was OK. She would have none of it.

“I’m not going to leave her,” Mary said. “I’m not going to let her be alone all the time. And I know I meant a lot to her and did mean a lot to her for me to come.”

Bartling said the family has always been grateful for Mary.

“Mary was always consistent,” he said. “Mom had other friends as well, but nobody was as consistent weekly like that. Mary watched out for Mom’s care, made sure she had what she needed, and would contact us so we could take action if we needed to.”


Friendships are strongly associated with older adults’ well-being and positive mood. They often serve as a source of connection and happiness in late life, partly because many of these relationships have endured for years.

Source: National Institute on Aging