Friendships are healthy as boomers age

At our ages — hey, the youngest baby boomer today is 55, which already qualifies for a lot of senior discounts — we’ve all been through a lot of friends. But what does friendship really mean? And even more important, what does friendship really do? That’s what Michigan blogger Cindy La Ferle looks into and, happily, finds out that there are health benefits from friendships as we age.

If you go looking for a friend, you’re going to find they’re very scarce. If you go out to be a friend, you’ll find them everywhere.” ~Zig Ziglar

Sometimes I can’t imagine what I’d do without the dear friends who keep me glued together, grounded, and (mostly) sane.

Current medical research supports my theory: Our health literally depends on the company we keep. Having an active social network can lower the risk for depression, enhance our ability to cope with illness, and increase longevity. As reported by AARP, women with large social networks reduce their risk of dementia by 26%.

By now, you’ve probably heard about the latest social isolation study released in May of 2018 by Cigna, the health insurance company. As reported on WebMD, the study revealed that an “epidemic” percentage of Americans describe themselves as lonely — especially those with extensive social media connections. According to Douglas Nemecek, MD, Cigna’s chief medical officer for behavioral health, “loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.”

If you want to start a new friendship or revive an old one, you have to reach out several times.” ~Shasta Nelson, Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness

Healthy relationships with family members are also essential to our wellbeing, but experts suggest that key health benefits are gained through active friendships outside our family circle. In this case, social media “friends” don’t count unless you’re spending time with them – offline. Sorry, Facebook.

Cindy LaFerle

But making new friends while keeping the old can be a challenge for empty nesters, caregivers, retirees, and freelancers who work at home. Gone are the days of commiserating with other parents in the school parking lot, or gathering with coworkers by the coffee maker on weekday mornings.

“It’s a myth that people over 50 don’t need or want new friends,” notes Lois Joy Johnson in The Women’s Wakeup: How to Shake Up Your Looks, Life, and Love After 50. “We’ve moved away from old ties, are widowed, unemployed, separated or divorced. It’s time to make new connections and reboot your social life.”

Get off your butt and meet someone.

Ironically, while Americans collect countless friends and followers on social networks, many report a lack of depth in their friendships, says Shasta Nelson, author of Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness.

“Between two-thirds and three-fourths of Americans believe there is more loneliness in today’s society than there used to be, and feel they have fewer meaningful relationships than they did five years ago,” Nelson writes.

So, how and where do we begin to rebuild three-dimensional social circles?

Taking the initiative isn’t easy if you’re an introvert, but the rewards are worth it. Look for kindred spirits in your art class, health club, or favorite community group. Make coffee dates. Seek out neighbors you haven’t met and start a book club or walking group. Or, like I did, find others who are willing to meet for breakfast weekly at the same restaurant. To paraphrase Nelson: Real friendships take time and effort; they don’t magically happen.

“Spending time together is essential. Unless your time together is automatic — meaning you’re both paid to show up at the same job, for instance – there’s no other way to foster a real relationship,” Nelson says. “Growing a friendship requires a lot of initiation. Repeatedly. If you want to start a new friendship or revive an old one, you have to reach out several times.”

Roll with the changes and ditch the toxins.

As we mature, it’s natural to put a premium on loyalty. Old friends who share our interests and values — not just a common past — will always hold a special place in our hearts and on our calendars.

“It’s important to nurture a few close friendships to meet our various needs.” ~Irene Levine, PhD, Best Friends Forever.

Once we hit middle age, however, we’re less tolerant of frayed or toxic friendships. As Lois Joy Johnson writes in her guide: “It’s your party and you get to choose the guests.” Since our emotional health is very dependent on the quality of our relationships, sometimes we need to reconsider the ones that hurt more than help.

“Buddies you keep around from habit, history, or guilt will emotionally drain your spirit,” Johnson explains. “Real friends always celebrate your wins, mourn your losses, pick you up, or at least prop you up when you fall down.” If a friendship starts to feel one-sided or uncomfortable, you have a right to make yourself less available or to cut the cord, guilt-free, Johnson advises. Devote your energy instead to reciprocal, mutually satisfying friendships.

According to sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst, most of us reevaluate or replace about half of our friends every seven years, usually due to a change in residence or lifestyle.

Relationships built around a single common interest, for instance, are more likely to fade when the common interest changes. As our kids grow up, we’re not as socially involved with the parents of their schoolmates. Likewise, when we change jobs, we might lose contact with some of our former coworkers. Friends naturally drift apart for a variety of other reasons — but the happy memories are still treasured.

Forget the fantasy friend and build a tribe of BFFs (or, for you less hip boomers, Best Friends Forever).

From Lucy and Ethel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the “best friend” partnership is often idealized in pop culture. Who doesn’t imagine having a BFF who’ll always take your desperate calls after midnight, agree with your politics, love your favorite books, bail you out of trouble, and buy you the perfect birthday present every year?

This fantasy friend only exists on TV dramas and sitcoms. Furthermore, according to Irene Levine, PhD, author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, it’s wiser to build a team of good friends. Having a variety of pals puts less strain on one friendship — especially if your bestie moves away or the relationship suffers a disappointment or misunderstanding.

“No person — whether a friend, spouse or lover — can expect to fulfill all of an individual’s needs for friendship and support,” Levine told me. “For example, some friends are great listeners; others are role models who set the bar higher for our career accomplishments; others are kindred spirits with whom we have shared interests. Thus, it’s important to nurture a few close friendships to meet our various needs.”

Best of all, having a variety of healthy friendships guarantees that you’ll almost always find someone who has precious time to spend with you.

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Cindy La Ferle is an award-winning journalist and author. To learn more about her work, please visit her personal blog: https://cindylaferlehappythings.blogspot.com

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2 Comments

  1. I couldn’t agree more about the importance of friendships as we age or the increase in loneliness esp in these times of electronic overload…but one factor remains the same…friendships have to develop organically you cannot force it. This still remains a challenge for some. I find it harder as I age to make new friends. It’s like cliques have been formed and there are no more joiners allowed. This has been my experience. Perhaps it depends where you live.

  2. Hi Wendy, in many ways, it IS harder to form new friendships after middle age. And you’re right, too, about friendships developing organically — also a challenge as we age. By now, we’ve all established our routines, and many of us are busy being caregivers for parents or grandchildren and don’t have time for much else.

    I’ve written often about the topic of midlife friendship, and after interviewing dozens of people, here’s what I have found: (1) A lot of people said they are too shy to initiate new friendships and are still afraid of rejection (2) Many people wait for others to make the first move when it comes to planning activities and are disappointed when nothing happens. (3) Most of us assume other people don’t want new friends — which isn’t true. (4) We all rely too heavily on social media and we often mistake online interaction for 3-D friendship.

    The author who is mentioned early in this piece, Shasta Nelson, says we have to reach out to people — several times — in order to make new connections. I often find that I am the person who takes the initiative, but once the friendship gets rolling, it becomes more reciprocal. If it doesn’t — I back off and move on.

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