When you think about the friendships you developed in the course of your life, where did they begin? Maybe they started in childhood during recess at school or, perhaps, in the lunchroom. Other friendships develop through work relationships. No matter your age, whether you’re 9 or 69, friendships can be tricky to create and maintain. However, the older a person gets, the harder it may be to develop relationships because of a lack of opportunities or age-related issues. If you’re an older adult who wants to increase your socialization and develop friendships, there are steps you can take to help make this an achievable goal.
The Challenges Becky Peak, senior companion coordinator at ElderServe, says aging itself can impact an individual’s ability to develop or maintain friendships, especially for people who fall into the “older-older adult” category (age 71 and above). “For instance, when you’re 65, you may not have hearing or vision impairment, but by the time you’re a little bit older, you might. If you can’t sit and talk to somebody across the table comfortably, socialization becomes very difficult, and you have to find a different way to do that,” she says.
“Sometimes it becomes stressful because you have to make a real effort to talk to, hear, and connect with people.” Another challenge to senior friendships is the way our communities are laid out. “We’re a very age-segregated society, and we don’t have good public transportation in this country,” says gerontologist Sandra McGuire. Older adults who live on their own and do not have transportation may be unwillingly isolated. Larger cities have ample public transportation options, but smaller cities and towns often do not, which means older adults who can no longer drive aren’t able to socialize as much as they might want to. McGuire notes that senior centers generally aren’t open on weekends or in the evenings, which may cut off opportunities for seniors whose families could drive them places after they get off work.
Being on a fixed income can impact the ability to develop and maintain friendships. Seniors may no longer have the financial ability to spend lavishly on restaurant meals or rounds of golf on private courses with their long-time friends each week. They may no longer be able to pursue hobbies as frequently as they once did before retirement. Technology makes it easier for many younger-older adults (between ages 60-70) to stay connected to friends through FaceTime and Zoom, but many adults who are in the “older-older” group don’t own smartphones or laptops, and if they do, they may not be familiar with social apps and software.
LET US BE GRATEFUL TO THE PEOPLE WHO MAKE US HAPPY; THEY ARE THE CHARMING GARDENERS WHO MAKE OUR SOULS BLOSSOM.”MARCEL PROUST
Proximity doesn’t automatically equal friendship
While adults who live in retirement communities may have plenty of opportunities to connect with same-age peers, being in close proximity to others doesn’t always mean that friendships will develop. There have to be commonalities beyond simply living in the same area.
Commonalities can seem situational at first, but as these situations continue, they become the basis of relationships. For example, attending a music program at a senior center or in an independent living community once a week brings together older adults who have a variety of life experiences and interests. What all of the attendees begin to share is the experience of the weekly music event. “You see familiar faces, and you have similar experiences,” Becky says. She urges seniors to participate in every activity that comes their way because these shared events can lead to connections, which develop into friendships.
The benefits of socialization and friendship
The benefits of friendships and socialization seem obvious. Laughter, talking with others, and receiving empathy have a profound impact on our ability to thrive. Dr. Mazhar Salim, medical director of inpatient psychiatry for Baptist Health Corbin (KY), says, “Socially active elderly people are shown to have better health outcomes, and there is also demonstrated benefit of slowing down the cognitive decline.”
While some people may think that aging means people have less of a need to be social, Dr. Salim disagrees. “With age, this basic human need doesn’t diminish, and if anything, the elderly are more in need of human interaction.”
How and where to connect for possible friendships
Becky recommends faith-based organizations, senior centers, and congregate meal sites as starting places for older adults to seek activities that put them in contact with individuals with shared interests. Elderserve is another resource, which helps connect older adults with each other and strives to be a premier support for helping seniors thrive. As companion coordinator, she encourages her companions — independent older adults who volunteer to check on older home-bound clients or those who have other issues —to ask questions that go beyond just “How are you?” and “Do you need anything?” A question like, “Did you ever go kite-flying in the summer?” is open-ended and allows individuals to reminisce and find common experiences.
By Carrie Vittitoe