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Why Friendship Changes As We Age

“With self-reflection and increased wisdom comes the realization that we really should maximize the amount of good relationships we have and not spend so much time on the ones that aren’t good.” —Andrea Bonior, Ph.D

Few things in life have as big an impact on our happiness as good times spent with friends. And numerous studies show that close relationships with friends — but not necessarily with family — are vital to our physical health, too, with loneliness linked to reduced life expectancy and a host of health issues.

But what if the number of people you count as friends is shrinking, or you find yourself wanting to spend less time socializing — is that just a normal part of aging?

When a recent study showed that as monkeys grow older, the patterns of their friendships change, we decided to investigate.

Changing Patterns of Friendship

Our primate cousins, it turns out, grow pickier about which monkeys to count as “friends” as they age and invest less time in hanging out socially. The study’s researchers point out that humans also become choosier about how we spend our time and with whom.

We asked Geoffrey Greif, Ph.D., a professor at University of Maryland’s School of Social Work and the author of two books on friendship, to tell us more.

“People begin to value their time more as they age,” he said. “But people also have more time, so there are two conflicting vectors. If I don’t have much time, I’m certainly going to want to shepherd it well and spend it with my closest friends. But, if I’m retired and sitting around the house looking for things to do, or people to be with, I may be less selective.”

Complicating that further, it turns out, is that the differences between men’s and women’s relationships may affect how we view friendships as we grow older.

Grief’s book “Buddy System,” which is is based on his research with more than 300 men and 100 women, found that across their lifespans, men’s friendships tend to be “shoulder-to-shoulder encounters” — men might watch a game together and catch up during commercials — while women generally construct friendships around face-to-face encounters. Because women share more emotional content in person, these friendships  require more maintenance. Demanding relationships that aren’t fulfilling can take a hit as we age.

If our tendency as aging humans is to weed out friendships that aren’t emotionally fulfilling because we know time is running out, what about the Barbary macaques that the monkey researchers studied? After all, they’re not counting down the years.

“Older monkeys might spend less time socializing because they find social interactions increasingly stressful and therefore avoid them,” the study lead, Julia Fischer, suggests. The same, she says, may be true for humans.

Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Andrea Bonior, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University who writes the Washington Posts’s Baggage Check column and is the author of “The Friendship Fix,” says that as we age, we don’t need to waste our time on friendships that cause us stress or make us feel badly.

“With self-reflection and increased wisdom comes the realization that we really should maximize the amount of good relationships we have and not spend so much time on the ones that aren’t good,” she says.

Most people have friends who are life-stage specific — friends made at college, through our children’s activities or at work. Once children are grown or we retire, some of these friendships endure, but many do not. And that’s okay, because it would be overwhelming to continue relationships with every friend we ever make. But while some friendships fade out naturally as we experience the life transitions of our later years — retirement, losing a spouse, developing health problems — we also tend to tell ourselves, ‘I deserve to have friendships that are fulfilling, that sustain me, and not waste my time,’ Bonior says.

The result: Fewer friends and, as a result, less time spent with friends.

It’s natural, but if we don’t make new friends, it can be a problem.

Friends With Health Benefits

We’re social creatures. We’ve lived in groups since the beginning of civilization — tribes, clans, villages, towns and cities. Friends meet our need for a support system beyond what our families provide. Even better, we get to choose our friends. They’re not defined by blood ties or neighborly proximity. Our friend circles are unique to us.

As C.S Lewis said: “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.'”

True friendship offers a unique feeling of connection that protects us from stress. Studies have shown that social ties reduce our risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol. University of Chicago professor and neuroscientist John Cacioppo studies loneliness as a health risk. His findings show that loneliness is associated with the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, obesity and lower immunity.

The Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical problems as they aged. The results were so significant, the researchers concluded that not having close friends is as detrimental to our health as smoking or obesity.

Recently, researchers who followed nearly 1,500 older people for ten years found those with a large network of friends outlived those with fewer friends by more than 20 percent.

In that study, close relationships with family had almost no effect on longevity.

Making New Friends

We asked our experts to share their best tips for making new friends later in life. Both recommend getting involved in activities you enjoy and not only staying open to making new friends as you participate, but also being yourself.

Greif says we need to believe we can make new close friends at any age. “As our oldest friends either move far away or die, if you believe you can’t have close friends that you meet when you’re 50, 60, 70 or 80, you’re going to be more isolated.”

But it’s not so easy. Making new friends in later life can be intimidating. People think, “Oh I don’t have that many friends! Something’s wrong with me,” Bonior says. Her advice: Don’t over-personalize it. View making new friends as a concrete goal.

“It’s very funny,” Bonior says, “Because with romantic relationships we would never expect to partner for life with the first person we ever went out on a date with. But if a friendship doesn’t get off the ground, we automatically wonder what we did wrong. We think, maybe it wasn’t a good match. You have to put forth the effort continually, remembering it’s a numbers game.”

Facebook Friends

How about Facebook? Older adults are now the fastest growing demographic segment on the social network, and it can make finding and reconnecting with friends we’ve lost touch with and getting to know new ones much easier.

Bonior says Facebook is a double-edged sword. “I think for older people, especially if there are issues with mobility or health, then it’s a godsend to be able to still feel connected and engaged when maybe you’re not getting many in-person visitors.” But, for some people, Facebook is taking the place of real social engagements. “Is it a nice supplement, or have you stopped going to brunch or book club?” Observe how you feel about yourself after being online. “Some folks get trapped in a cycle of constantly looking at Facebook, looking at Facebook, looking at Facebook, and still are feeling empty afterward.”

A Friends Survey

I asked my Facebook friends whether they think friendships change over time. Here are some of their answers — and interestingly, only women replied:

“My first inclination is to say, “Definitely!” — but then I say, “Sort of.” Now that I’m retired, my best friends are those who are active, like I am, and like DOING things and creating new experiences.” —Susan

“I’ve been semi-retired for two years now. My existing friendships have just gotten better since then. With age comes wisdom, and we can usually just cut to the heart of any issue rather quickly without engaging in a lot of small talk. I also renewed an old friendship from college via Facebook and I’m so glad I made the effort. We had drifted apart due to our busy lives and a little distance geographically, but the heart of our friendship still remains.” —Cathy

“My friendships mean a lot more to me now than they ever did when I was younger. I have more time to develop a closer relationship with those friends.” —Sandie

“I don’t think you can ever have the same relationships with newer friends as you do with the friends you grew up with. So in that respect, I do think they are different. I have lived alone for most of my adult life and made friends mostly at work. Now that I am older, and still living alone, I don’t really feel a need to make new friends. I enjoy my alone time and I have friends to hang out with whenever I want to. I talk to my neighbors and people I meet at classes I take, but I don’t encourage any kind of real friendship.” —Bonnie

Have your friendships changed with age? What are your best tips for making new friends?

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10 comments
  • t t
    REPLY

    My truly best friends, which are few, I am 68, are the ones that when we talk it seems easy to just begin where we are, with a lot of people catching up is just stressful. That’s why I have few friends. I’ve never minded my own company.It wouldI probably be nice to have more social interaction but after any social affair while I enjoy it at the time leaves me feeling drained.

  • Topaz Chanteuse
    REPLY

    I am an 83 y.o. single woman, was married for 22 years and have been happily unmarried for 40 years. I find that surrounding myself with younger people, keeps me youthful, active and au courant. I have a few friends my age, whom I’ve known since my younger days, and they remain my closest and most devoted friends….my chosen family. I also find that having a youthful, upbeat attitude attracts people – young and old – wherever I go, and I never have to be alone… unless I choose to be. At this stage of my life, I want to be around people who bring me joy. I have no time for those who bring me down by complaining about how miserable their lives are. I would rather be alone, with my computer, my music, my reading, my cooking, and my dreams. Age makes no difference, unless you are a cheese.

  • Steven
    REPLY

    and then there are friends who want to change who you are and see the world as they do through their beliefs in religion, politics and so on.

  • Linda Abbit
    REPLY

    Thank you all for your thoughtful comments about this topic. I think there are as many different types of friendships as there are people, and you are each an example of that.

    Mariana, thanks also for the idea about a possible follow-up article. In the meantime, please review the section on Making New Friends above and see if you can take further steps to find some new friends. Please don’t give up on the quest — it’s a vital goal to work towards.

  • DenisL
    REPLY

    Good article that hit the mark with me. I’m 65 and housebound on oxygen in my own home, so I can’t get out like I used to do. But I am more picky with some friends than I used to be, even with long time friends. I now refuse to just sit there and listen to their problems all day; I refuse to be a therapist for my friends even if I don’t get enough face to face human contact to be fully satisfied.

    But there is no point in complaining, I just get busy. I am a generally happy individual with no time to get depressed. I do have friends in many countries due to my past volunteer work and now, despite the fact it’s primarily chatting with friends online, it sure beats vegging in front of the TV all day. I bless the Internet every day because it allows me to keep in touch with good people and keep busy as well with causes I feel are important.

  • Mariana
    REPLY

    I was drawn to the title because i find it harder to make friends at my age (59)…I wish there had been more discussion of why it’s harder and how others are doing it. Important topic!

  • Linda English
    REPLY

    Hello & Goodnight Senior Planet,

    Friendship is a good thing. I miss talking with sista/brotha friends from my younger years. Some
    have moved out of state & others have passed away. It’s never easy when your close , but I’ve learned
    to put on my big girl panties feel happy to meet/greet new friends that come into my life. Life Is Good!

  • Adela
    REPLY

    Mighty interesting article indeed! And all the tenets described are so very true because with age friends relocate or die! Making new friends is not as easy as when we were school age. Also as aging persons, we tend to avoid attending events of our liking due to perhaps the seasons – too cold in winter too exhausting in summer, and so on it goes. Result: some loneliness at least at times.

    Many people, I included, prefer to live alone, even at the risk of some “part time” loneliness. Also too, many of us still work either for wages or volunteering which gives our efforts to make new friends insufficient time.

    This article however should give us all a motive to rethink our efforts to make new and/or better friends at any age and situation and we should all thank you for that. :o)

  • Judyt
    REPLY

    An excellentarticle, it is what I consider my turn now. I do not have parents, a young family or the need to support a large household. I just have me. It is delicious . There are many things on my bucket list and I am trying to fit them all in. Life becomes full and joyous and the wonderful thing is you meet new friends, kindred spirits who feel the same. It is sad when an old friends drops out of your inner circle but your common interest may have dissolved.

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