Have you ever tried to count the number of friends, family members, and colleagues who have passed through your life as you have aged? Do you wonder who will be with you as you turn 60, 70, 80, or 100? Read on to learn why making friends as you age is more than a nice idea; it's essential for your health and happiness.
Social Isolation and Loneliness are Real Health Risks as We Age
Losing friends as we age is a serious risk of getting older. The fear of loneliness is at the top of the list of most people as we age, and with good reason. A third of people over the age of 75 live alone, and almost half of women over 75 live alone, the sad result of partners and older friends dying or moving away. Too often we accept loneliness as an unavoidable fact of aging, but the stark reality is that loneliness can be fatal. A recent University of California at San Francisco study found that lonely seniors were 45 percent more likely to die than others who feel socially connected.
Interestingly, research from McMaster University found that loneliness and social isolation are not the same thing. Some seniors with large social networks felt lonely, while some relative hermits did not. It turns out that loneliness is as much a state of mind as it is a numbers game. According to the research, “People who are lonely are more likely than individuals who are not lonely to believe that other people will reject them. They are also more likely to have feelings of low self-worth.” The good news is that loneliness does not go hand-in-hand with aging; change our mindset and we change the possibilities for our life.
When it comes to friends, it’s the quality, not the quantity that counts
Just about everyone fears social rejection at some time, and most of the time we’re able to manage those feelings well enough. But when I left my full-time career I discovered how disorienting it could be to lose a major social network all at once. I realized that all my friends had come from my college years or through my career, both settings which regularly exposed me to new people over extended periods of time, with relatively little effort required on my part. I knew I should get out there and "make new friends," but I didn't quite know how to do it or even what friends I wanted. I didn't have a friendship goal.
For many of us introverted types setting defined friendship goals is the last thing we want to do, but it's essential as we age, lest we spend our days flat out on the couch, thinking that watching Friends is the same as, well, making friends.
We don't need many friends, but we do need some good ones. William Chopik of Michigan State University found that it’s the quality of friendships that count as we get older, not the quantity. Our friends help us get to where we want to go in life, so it makes sense to cast a critical eye on the quality of our relationships, improving them where we can, and letting others go. We do well to repair or reduce friendships that drain us and to create new relationships with people who we truly want to spend time with.
You can create the community of friends that you want, with people who support your values, interests, creativity, sense of purpose, and fun! But first, you need to learn what matters to you so that you know what you have to give.
Get a sounding board
Travelling through any life change takes guts, especially when it comes to building new friendships. It's easy to talk ourselves out of taking risks by assuming rejection for no objective reason. That's why it's important to find yourself what Richard Lieder calls a sounding board. This is someone who you trust who will give you objective, non-judgmental feedback, help you think more deeply, and most importantly, take action! A coach can serve this function, but a level-headed friend can as well. You can serve as sounding boards for each other. Set a regular time to talk, say once every week or two, for at least 30 minutes each. Share your friendship and life dreams and help keep each other accountable to moving forward.
Make Friends of Many Stripes
As you get more clear on what you want your life to look like, seek out those who can help you get there. Make a list of the friends and family who support you. What do you value each of them for? Now, go beyond your immediate circle. Who do you know who can give you wise counsel? Who can serve as a bridge into new activities or social groups? Do you have any friends under 50? 40? 30? Who would you like to add to your circle who will be there as you age? Share your friendship goals with your sounding board and set dates for how and when you will make contact.
Recognize that as you build your new social community all members are not equal. You may have your gardening friends, your going-to-the-museum friends, your spiritual quest friends, and your getting-tipsy-with friends. Then you have your intimates and family. Accept what each friend or acquaintance has to give. Don't expect to get everything you need from one person. The goal is to have a diversified portfolio of friends, recognizing that these will change over time.
The #1 Secret for Making Friends as You Age
Of course friendship doesn't just happen. It takes time, effort, and regular contact. And it takes generosity. When you meet someone who you would like to create a relationship with ask yourself, “How can I be of service to this person? How can I surprise them or make their day? What can I give?” Giving first is the easiest way I know to keep the fear of rejection and self-doubt at bay. This ain’t high school. Assume acceptance. Be yourself, bring yourself, be persistent but not a pest, and you will create your personal community.
What advice do you have for creating friendships after 50?