Friendship Frontier: Reflecting on the Difficulty of Making Friends as We Grow Older

Feb 19, 2024 | Aging Successfully

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Two senior aged friends laughingIf you feel that making friends nowadays isn’t as easy as it used to be, then I think you’re probably right.

I can feel it. It is not as easy after the pandemic,  and it is not as easy when you work from home, it’s not as easy when I’m not as active in my community or don’t have a faith group. I may literally have no accountability. 

–Wait, that was until I declared my situation to you just now.

Some of what I am talking about today can be negative – if we approach it that way. Stay with me and consider now to the less than positive, and we will shift quickly into the positive, enjoyable and doable, OK? I will offer some solution, as always – a couple of tips to make things easier.

This lack of friendship and lack of community presents a huge “back door open” for many.  

I am a Solo Ager, I live alone. As a solo ager, I may love my independence, but it can backfire, and I know it. As a professional who works with the aging population, I see the backfires.

A client has no support in a time of need. A patient is caught short when they have not built their team. That gives way to “I’ve no one to talk with about this.” “No, there’s no one who’s looking in, checking on me.” 

Yikes! Why don’t we just prop open our door, and invite calamity and debacle on in?

As we grow older, lacking friendships represents a vulnerability. All of us can have our back doors open relative to having enough friends and becoming more emotionally healthy and supported. 

I am friendly-ly. I am fun, I consider myself to be approachable, and willing. But I must admit that I need to work on this friendship. Do you?

Oh, there are lots of work-friends and acquaintances built around this or that. My work has me interfacing with people across the US. And I’ve never been much on maintaining a BFF. Since I packed up and moved to another state I am now not only lacking, I am in the perfect situation to do something about the number of friends I have.

There is cognitive dissonance with in me, a term meaning discomfort stemming from holding two different beliefs, values or attitudes. I am conflicted. My insides don’t match my outsides. That’s a motivator for me. I am uncomfortable.
Some days I experience some reticence to pursuing friendships with others. Do I wanna go, stick my hand out, make the effort? Gawd, it’s like being four again and being shoved into a preschool or Kindergarten class and reduced to feeling on a Maslovian level: “What will become of me?”

Those of you who know me will hear me professionally prescribe that we must work to maintain this valuable asset called friendships if only to help us as we age. Help us in terms of duty or task, but also for emotional health and support. The Joy Factor is only gonna bring gravy! The Joy Factors bring happiness and fulfillment.

We’ve been through a pandemic, and we all are aware of the isolation and loneliness data that came out of that. It was either data or we had lived in real life. As someone who lived alone during the pandemic, I can attest. It was hard being my own pod.

After the pandemic, research by Brigham Young University found loneliness to be a major threat to longevity, on par with smoking half a pack of cigarettes per day or being an alcoholic. Studies have shown that people who are lonely or socially isolated have a higher risk of impaired immune function, depression, dementia, and cardiac death. 

Let us also note that in May of 2023, the US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, declared a loneliness epidemic.

All that is scary! Let’s talk about the solution and the more pleasant side of friendship. Healthy friendships can help us age better and cope with the challenges of life, and has been proven to healthy friendships have been proven to win.

I’m not talking about just avoiding the negative, and I am not suggesting that we live our lives just to take action to avoid awfulness. I don’t like living my life to avoid something awful.  Rather, I want to move toward something that enhances my life. I want to get the goods, the Feel-goods.

Let’s look at positives. Let’s go for that! Let’s talk about the positives and how pursuing friendships is a way to overcome the negative – because Nancy wants something to celebrate! Nancy wants us to get into solution (because that’s where y’all know I like to live, in solution).

Why would we want to make and maintain friendships?

It’s good for the mind and the body. Just as loneliness can hurt our health, friendships can actually improve it in far-reaching (and sometimes surprising) ways. Studies have found socializing can strengthen the immune system. It can help us recover more quickly from illness, lower blood pressure and the risk of heart disease, sharpen memory, and help us even get a better night’s sleep. Socializing can also improve our odds of living longer. According to one study, people with strong connections to family and friends have a 50% greater chance of outliving those with fewer social ties.

Marshall shares his story.

What’s more, friends can motivate us to adopt healthy habits. I read a story about a fellow named Marshall. Marshall began working out of the gym. “One day, I met a man in the locker room who used to be a gymnast when he was younger, and we hit it off,” he said. “He gave me pointers on working out, and one day a week, we’d do supersets together. That’s when you do three exercises in a row without stopping. I also started lifting more weight because some other friends encouraged me to. I was lifting more than I ever would have on my own.”

Friends can also help you keep your health on track. Friends and family care about you and remind you of things you need to do, like a mammogram or colonoscopy or yearly physicals or eye exams. They may also notice when you’re developing hearing or vision loss or need a walker or cane. And you may not even realize that until they point it out to you.

Maybe I am pointing out the obvious, however, these benefits remind us of what we are moving toward:

(I think to myself) Great, great, all that is great. I get it, intellectually I understand. Still, there are days that, despite obvious benefits, I still can put up a fuss. Yes, me, I can be reticent. I can push back on the very thing I know that will benefit me, even with the prospect of having fun doing it. What’s up with that?

Best we get into the solution, right away. Nancy needs a “W.” Nancy needs a WIN.

How to get into that well-friended state of being

Be proactive – As has been mentioned, we are gonna have to do a little bit of pursuit on this one, gang. Just a little bit of effort, planning or just looking at how we can parlay what we already have.

It may be helpful to realize that we will have friends coming in and out of our lives all our lives. When we think of the friendships in our lives, hasn’t that always been the case? People coming in and out of our lives, they are moving and changing, we are moving and changing. Let’s figure out how we can maximize what we have and embrace what we have and what will come!

Part of that begins with just thinking about it, and that you can make this happen. 

Be Optimistic I don’t have to tell any of you the advantages of a positive attitude toward anything we might undertake. I employ optimism and some logic: Since we know happiness is contagious, friendliness can also be. We have something to give here and go along with the receiving we’re seeking. It’s all very likely. We’ve done this before,  in grade school and clubs. We found friendships, and so we know we can do it! The optimism can and should be in place.

Make a list – As an exercise, write down the names of three to five people that we know and with whom we would like to be closer. Then, reach out to them by sending a text or an invitation for coffee or by sharing a photo or memory. As those friendships are coming in and out of our lives, we can often reach back and rekindle. Welcome a reconnect. You’re already ahead of the game. You had a connection before. Your list of three to five may include someone new. Perhaps there has been someone you met recently at an outing and “kind of-sort of” felt like something was there to further. Has there been someone like that? Could they be on your list? Reach out.

Branch it out –  Don’t limit yourself to one close friend. We’ve already acknowledged that friends come in and out of our lives at different times. Then there is that old saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Come tomorrow, we may need different friends at different times. We need multiple people and for various reasons, studies have shown.  Having those few good buddies can really make a difference. A 2020 Northern Illinois University study of middle-aged women found that those with three to five friends reported higher overall satisfaction with life.

Expect awkwardness – There may be awkwardness or awkward feelings about what I’m talking about today. That’s 100% normal in my book. But it is no reason not to try to expand our friendships and circles. As a matter of fact, the awkwardness is often what brings people together. 

Nancy and Margaret 

I had come to a Newcomers Meetup group when I bumped into another lady who was looking for the event’s meeting room. We recognized that our faces both displayed that searching look. “Are you looking for the Meetup?” She was. “I’m Nancy.” “I’m Margaret, new from New York City.” We chatted and found we were not only both new to the area, but both of us worked in healthcare. A new friendship struck, and with a tad of commonality, we marched into that event and made more friends

Do you see how that kind of bonding awkwardness can create and propel you and the other person forward? We’ve made that story our own. (“That’s how you two met?”).  It’s the kind of stuff that sticks with you forever. We tell that story now and will to others – even when we are in Meetup groups, individually or together. 

Sure, I’m going into Meetup groups and other new situations, and it is a lot easier when you have a “W,” a WIN.  A study by Northwestern showed that we tend to overestimate how awkward a first meeting is going to be. One researcher put it into perspective when she said, “The other person doesn’t want an awkward conversation either.” 

Talking will get you both out of any awkwardness there ever was! Margaret and I are proof-positive.
Put time in – Remember that grade school experience when we were thrown into the same room for days on end? We made some friends. Sometimes, the durations are made for us by a school year, the duration of a class, or the length of an outing. Making close friends takes time. A study at the University of Kansas found that reaching friendship levels takes 200 hours of time and over several weeks.

And that is exactly why you and I received so much encouragement to volunteer, or to take a class. Repeated actions will build in the time for you while you focus on getting the most out of the people within that activity.

Embrace vulnerability. – Let’s talk about vulnerability for a moment. Vulnerability is a cornerstone of friendship. It’s both a benefit of a friendship and a scary thing for many as they go to contemplate It. People will shy away from investing in relationships and creating friendships because they’re afraid of being vulnerable. Yet if we turn that around, one of the very best things about a close friendship is being vulnerable with that other person. 

I’d add to that another benefit along those lines. What about the absolute gift of their being vulnerable with  you? Trust. High honor.

Highlight – Lowlight exercise

Here’s a great little exercise for use when we’re working toward strengthening and deepening a relationship. It’s called Highlight – Lowlight. Highlight – Lowlight goes like this: In your exchange, you can ask somebody, “What was the best part of your week?” Then, while in conversation, follow up with “What was the most stressful?”

Those highlight-lowlight prompts, along with exchanging your answers, will broaden your knowledge of the other person and their knowledge of you. Highlight-Lowlight places you on the road to friendship.

Practice – Like anything we do, we’re going to get better at it if we practice. I don’t know about any of you, but the pandemic, coming back out after the pandemic was, in a word, weird, for so many. How do we gather, what do we say, and for a while there it was” Do we fist bump or shake hands?” We had to learn some social etiquette all over again, but you know what? That was some of that awkwardness that we can acknowledge and talk about. That became the subject, the opener, for a while. We would demonstrate respect and diplomacy as we entered into conversation by ascertaining what the other preferred. How courteous were we, and while we were doing that we leveled the playing field and allowed each to respond with how they feel about it. 

Now, this practice thing rings true, think about it: If the same four people sat around the same table daily for a few days or arrived at an event at the same time regularly (or for a meeting or for first grade, or a Faith gathering) – if those four people did that several times the conversation would definitely go beyond commentary about the weather. They would have covered that. The conversation becomes easier if two people are there for the same reason (or four or ten). Commonality, shared. Frequency is back, and frequency is your friend when making friends. People are recognized or are recognizing others and initiating talk, even small talk. All becomes easier. 

We know the benefits, and we have done this before

We know the benefits. Maybe some of us will now rethink our preconceived ideas about making friendships. It seems odd to have to break it down, and to think about it, and go out there and do it, but by gum, we’ve all done it and lived through it. (I assume you all made it through the first grade?).

But do think about it.

And we have those skills. Intellectually and emotionally, we can understand the benefits, especially as adults or those of us who are aging or aging alone. 

I am also motivated to make friends by knowing I can and have. I’ve done this before, and I can again. You also!

Maybe we need to get a little selfish about it. Perhaps I should tell myself  “This one is for me, this is good for me.” The studies are there. (I’d simply like to point out that this stuff is studied. I’ve cited at least four studies in this segment!  One was also…Wait for it… a study of studies).  

It is time to flip the lead domino

I am gratified, even inspired, by the fact that I don’t have to do too much to increase my health and wellness in this way, so I’m setting a goal. Right now, before you and with you. Will you do that with me? 

I will choose one of the actions I’ve discussed today. I am choosing to begin with the ‘Make a List’ technique. I will write down the names of three to five people that I know and with whom I’d like to become closer. Among those on my list could be a friendship I’d like to rekindle. I am going for the Friendship “W”!

I will have more on this topic soon. I will do that because it remains a big, even growing concern for us all. Right now, it is time to flip that lead domino and take some simple action to do what I already know how to do. 

How about you? 

Position yourself for better outcomes by developing friendships. Nancy Ruffner is a consulting patient advocate who works with patients and their loved ones toward healthcare navigation, aging, and solo aging.  Offering a Complimentary Consultation toward engagement. 919.628.4428