Weeping with Joy at Clinton's Nomination

A Meditation on Making New Friends While Old

Judging by the number of online stories about loneliness and feeling alone many, many people are longing for a close friend. A best friend. Most of all, someone to trust.

These articles are usually written by people much younger than you and I who presumably get out and about to a wider variety of places than old people tend to do and meet more people.

But one particular change in employment – working from home – has made finding friends much harder for them than during my career years.

According to a recent study, 45 percent (!) of U.S. employees work from home and that doesn't count freelancers. So finding a friend may be one area of living where youth and age have a lot in common these days.

Or not. Old people are not as likely to hang out in bars and clubs. Old people's oldest friends die at a greater rate. Our energy and stamina trim the number and duration of sports and other physical activities where we might meet others.

And maybe some of you are like me – I am not good at small talk so that when I am in a situation where I can meet others, especially more than one at a time, I am not adept at conversation.

Having friends is important (and I don't mean that perversion of the word, Facebook "friends"), even crucial to our health and wellbeing. Increasing numbers of studies continue to confirm that isolation and loneliness can lead to early death; may be twice as deadly as obesity; and contribute to depression, anxiety and suicide.

We all need friends – even people like me who need a lot of alone time too.

The internet is rife with suggestions for meeting people and making new friends in old age, especially important they say when you no longer work. You know the list:

Join a club that matches your interests
Travel with strangers (Friendly Planet, Road Scholar)
Take classes in whatever interests you
Go to a gym or fitness center regularly
Attend a lecture series
See what's at your local senior center
Get a dog
Join Stitch which is for friends as well as dates
Find interest groups on Meetup

They have been giving us these suggestions forever and there is nothing wrong with any of them. They even work for some people and it really is our own responsibility, each of us, to get off our duffs and figure a way to meet new people who might become friends.

But those hundreds of thousands of articles on Google, all with the same advice, lead one to suspect these traditional ideas are not working well enough for enough people.

At one time or another in the past 10 years since I left my New York City home, I've tried most of the suggestions. I have met people I like, people with whom I share interests, people it's nice to spend time now and then. But none who have become the kind of friend I love and trust without question.

In the six years since I moved to Oregon, I have found one of those but by different means than the usual list.

That person came into my life via email over a mutual concern about which we disagreed. I've long forgotten what the issue was but we decided to have lunch to see if we could sort it out and then we kept having lunch.

It has been about five years now that we have been sharing lunches and dinners and hanging out while exchanging email and phone calls in between. Sometime when I wasn't looking it became everything a friendship should be filled with - kindheartedness, generosity, goodwill and honesty.

It's always been that way with me – I didn't know a person had become a friend until we had already been there for a good while. It is such a delight, then, when the realization hits.

Here is one thing about making new friends that I have never read in all those suggestion lists: it takes time. It takes patience. You can't rush it or will it. It takes doing a variety of things together, talking, exchanging ideas, beliefs, backgrounds. At our age we have a lot of history.

What to do if you don't have a friend, a real friend? I think there is an interim space between an acquaintance and a friend for which there is not a word – at least, not one I know.

These are people to spend time with occasionally or see at events or places you attend regularly, maybe have lunch with now and then. There is pleasure in that. And, sometimes, one may become a friend. Maybe that's the path to becoming friends. But even if not, these are worth our time.

I want to be sure to mention that none of this is to discount friends I love and trust and care about who live far away sometimes because one of us moved away, or it is an internet acquaintanceship that grew into more. I treasure each one of them.

But we also need at least one in-person friend to share whatever it is we need to say aloud, with whom we share secrets and know they will stay that way, someone we can touch and hug when we meet.


Sounds ideal.

Making friends since my husband died is my number one frustration. I tried the volunteer route the first year. I go to lectures, luncheons and day trips through the senior hall. I keep busy with various activities out in the world but so far I'm not meeting anyone I'm clicking with the way I do with some of my online friends.

I talk about this topic with my oldest friend all the time. He has great trouble making new friends. I have made several in the last decade, but like you said Ronni, it takes time. One thing my friend talks about is having trouble relating to people with no history. He can relate to people he's known for years, but has a harder time getting to know new people, because without that history he has no patience for them.

Even though I've made new friends, I'm not too interested in making more friends. And I think that's partly due to not having a history. I suppose if I go to a book club for years and develop a history with a person, I'll overcome that.

And I don't know if I should mention this, but I also fear making friends who might die. I've had a couple opportunities to make friends in recent years, and I sense they were going to die, so I held back. And they did die. I should have been more generous, but I've watched too many people die.

I've been retired so long, that my workplace friends have drifted away, and I don't seem to have the patience to make new connections. I rely on my sisters, my husband, and my children for meaningful human interactions. I know that's not good. I miss the relationships I used to have outside of family. They are different, somehow—less responsibility, lighter and more fun. And, of course, I grieve the two best friends I had and lost through illness and death. But I've noticed something new in my online connections: I value them in a different way, and have had enormous satisfaction in getting to know them.

Jim Harris...
I think that's an important thought - the history. When we have known someone for years, decades, there are so many shared experiences that contribute to our connection with them. You don't even need to mention them much but what wonderful laughs when you can say, "Remember when..." and don't have to explain - you were both there.

It's one of the sad things about getting old. When friends die huge chapters - whole books of our lives - die with them and there isn't the time left in our lives to "write" such books with new people even when we're lucky enough to find new friends with whom we find some simpatico.

I may need to write another post on this subject about making connections knowing they will not have the richness of many years as with past friends.

When my husband died I lost my best venue for making friends. He was an extrovert and never met a stranger. He had no difficulty in making friends with everyone he met. By extension many of them became my friends. Most of those friends are now gone.

I am an introvert and find it difficult to initiate a conversation with a stranger. I tried the Singles group when I was in my 60's and had a hard time joining in. I didn't click with anyone and it just didn't work out. Older members were already part of a clique and stayed together. It was just like high school.

I turned to my computer and met some of my best friends. Although I haven't met many in person I have developed a warm relationship with a select few and it seems to take the place of a friend that I can touch. I feel free to express my inner feelings in a way that I am unable to face-to-face.

I do have several good friends that I meet for lunch and two are friends of many years standing. S0 I do get the human touch when I see them. I know they would be there if I needed them.

I have a large number of what I call "friends," but they are really acquaintances. We meet for lunch. We chat when we see one another. But no one calls me and says, "let's go out for coffee," or "how about seeing a move?" Nor do they just call to talk. I had two good friends like that for over 30 years. We were a threesome, traveling together, sharing life. One died, and almost immediately the other had a major emergency with her husband and he has never regained his health in the past four years. I miss our friendship.

Making friends is a commitment and requires work by both people. You have to both want it to work. Meeting every week does strengthen the bond is what I noted in the past when I was making an effort.

I am an introvert and I have to admit I am too lazy? to make the calls and be proactive but I love when I am called and invited to get together.

My husband and I would always laugh when I would say -- maybe I will call my
"almost friend" and check on her.

I didn't really need friends when my husband was alive. He was just enough company to make me happy.

You have covered this very well. It is about time and luck and perseverance.

Thanks for this Ronni. Your post reminds me of a story I heard from an NPR reporter who was interviewing people in a retirement home. She asked them about making friends, and one old woman said, "There just isn't time." The reporter laughed to herself, because to her it seemed these people had plenty of hours in the day with nothing much to do. But as the woman continued, the reporter began to understand what she meant: There just isn't time left in my life to start a new friendship. Because most of the experiences where long-lasting friendships are forged happen earlier in life—college, first jobs, starting a family, moving into a new house. These are all big things, and when we go through them with a friend, we are sharing emotions, and processing through conversation, and knitting together a unique and fire-tested connection. When you lose a friendship like that, there's really no good way to start over with someone else.

I am [only] 49, and I recently lost my best friend. I'm not limited by mobility or health problems, and I've been intentional about working hard to make new friends. I do manage to keep myself busy, but activity is not the same as friendship. At some point I may have to simply concede that I will probably never have a "best friend" again. Maybe that's ok.

Thank you, Ronni. Everything you wrote I have thought. I have no friends, a few acquaintances, yet no one to have lunch with or even call. My husband has Alzheimer's and I am a 24/7 caregiver. I have only a couple of relatives that I seldom see. Loneliness is the worst enemy I have and at my age there seems no way out. Please do another column on this subject, if only to help boost the spirits of the hundreds of other people out there in my same situation. Thank you for being there for us Seasoned Citizens.

I really appreciate your writing about this today, Ronni. I'm going through exactly this experience right now, having moved four months ago from a major metropolitan area where I'd made many good friends over the course of 26 years there, to a small town, for family reasons. Those friendships all developed and richened over time, as you say, but that knowledge doesn't take much away from the pain of loneliness now. I would disagree a bit with one element of what's been said here, assuming that new friendships made at this point in our lives won't measure up to our old friendships. Spending time with a new prospective friend at this age provides the luscious opportunity to share stories with each other of our lives, and we have many stories! And there is always the delight of recognizing a kindred spirit, and the ongoing joy of discovering all the things that make up the new friend. And it's exciting to hear a new point of view--my old friends, who I treasure, are familiar terrain, and our interactions have a comforting familiarity, but they are less likely to surprise me. All these things make me hopeful for the future in my new home--but I hope I don't have to wait too long to make these new connections.

Many of my close friends come from two sources: Al-anon and church. I go hiking with people I am just beginning to know so we have deeper conversations on the trail. This week (maybe cause it's almost 100 degrees and humid week after week) I wasn't enjoying being outside and got kind of lonesome. I decided to join OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning) where the teachers and students are all over 60. So there will be another opportunity to make or deepen friendships. My grandmother died at 100 y.o. She began complaining that she had no friends left 20 or 30 years before then. She taught me to be sure to have lots of friends including younger ones.

I think this is especially hard for the older divorced or widowed woman. Either takes you away from couple friends. History has a lot to do with it, I agree. Being a widow, I would like to have a few male friends, but usually they have more in mind than friendship and I only want friendship. It's also hard to trust someone you don't really know or know someone who's known them a long time. Also those of us without children and grands, don't have that luxury either of family friends. It does take work and perseverance and sometimes as we get older, we just don't have the stamina for that.

That list of ways to meet new friends IS a good one. I moved at 67 to a place were I knew no one but my daughter --a dear but I didn't want her friends, I needed my own. I joined an Academy for Lifelong learning and did not only take classes but volunteered to teach a class- in short became involved. Like you I need a great deal of my own time, this worked out excellently. I think you hit the secret--it takes time. It also depends on what you need and that depends on the kind of life you've lived in the past and how much time you are happy alone. Obviously, we're all different. I am happy with a lot of acquaintances. I am fortunate to have a very loving and competent daughter near-by.

Perhaps many lonely older people need to do more introspection than they've done in the past and assess what they NEED not just what they want in friends. We have to keep changing, keep learning about ourselves, and, I think, above all we need to be able (even if it's a new skill to learn) to reach out and be kind to others. Include others, not only because you need them, but because they need you too. Make the phone calls, or arrange to have coffee together, find mutual interests, discover others' interests. Be generous with your time (you may not have enough money to be generous with anything else except your sincere concern about others.) Kindness always matters.

There is another facet of this problem that I'm surprised no one has brought up. Perhaps I'm the only one who has experienced it: the con people.

My husband and I moved to Tennessee, knowing no one close by. We had some family in Memphis, but we were over 50 miles from there -- on purpose. We value our privacy and enjoy each others' company and my family is a mess. There's always some drama going on and lots of personal quarrels and we didn't want to become enmeshed or have to take sides. We wanted to be close enough to visit once in a while, but not close enough that people would just drop by or even want to stay the night since we had no guest room (again, on purpose). Of course, in an emergency, we'd only be a couple of hours away, but luckily that never happened.

The town we lived in in "ingrown." Everybody knows everyone else and/or is related to them. Although everyone was surface friendly, but no one wanted to make friends with the Yankees -- even after we had lived here for ten years.

Except one woman. She was a hairdresser and openly very friendly and she chatted non-stop while she cut my hair and my husband's hair. She was numerous-times married and had three kids and lots of problems. Over the years we helped her out a little here and there, but nothing very much. Then one day she called us and asked to borrow $1000.00. Well, it turned out she really needed $2000, but was planning to try to get a loan for the other half by cashing in some savings bonds that were for her children's education. To make a long story short, we gave her the $2000 as a gift (we knew she could never pay us back anyway and didn't want to have to hound her for the money, making everything uncomfortable for us and for her. My husband and I made it clear that she was never to ask us for money again because we couldn't afford to ever do this again. And life went on as it had before.

I had an old car that I never drove anymore and we knew wasn't worth much, maybe a couple of hundred dollars. Well, her daughter had wrecked her mother's car and she asked if she could "borrow" my old clunker so she could get back and forth to work, just until her car was repaired. My husband and I talked it over and decided to give her the car, since we worried about insurance and liability. So we signed the car over to her. She actually cried at the time and seemed very touched and kept saying that no one had ever given her a car before.

Two weeks later the daughter had wrecked my old car -- totaled it, to be exact. Somehow it came out that the daughter had a drinking problem and this was not the first time nor would it be the last that she had wrecked other people's cars. We were glad that we had no liability, no one was hurt and we felt we got off easy.

About that time, the woman wasn't anywhere to be reached. It seemed she had gone on vacation. Hell, we didn't have the money to take a vacation, but this woman spent two weeks in Florida on the beach. Her former employer, who was now cutting our hair, filled us in on all sorts of sordid details, told us the woman owed her over $16,000 just for advances on salary, and a lot more dirt -- in short, we were not the only ones who had been milked for money and we had actually gotten off pretty cheap compared to some of her other scams. I felt like a terrible fool. But I learned a lesson.

You can bet I won't ever be such a soft touch ever again.

It was so good to see this topic being taken on, thank you. This friendship issue takes a lot of determination and attention, especially living alone in a rural environment. One way I've found to bring people into my life who interest me, is to begin groups that interest me. Years ago I began an art Roundtable, I host a life drawing session in my studio, and have a very small group of women who are interested in seeing the mythical dimension to their lives. And still, I can go three or four days without seeing anyone. One winter, due to being snowed in, it was six days, which I throughly enjoyed. But at other times the delight of solitude can become loneliness, which, at its worst, can feel very overwhelming. It is a worthy topic for anyone, especially elders, who need to learn skills other than the take a class/volunteer set.

Heartily agree. And after 8 years in NH I have not achieved this. Or such friendship has not arisen. It is so lonely. Esp as the nearest town is 15 minutes away. And filled with few people who hold any interest to me.

A great article and of particular relevance to me (as well as many others). I live in SF where elders are leaving as fast as the landlords and the slimy lawyers who work with them can find reasons to kick them out. If death doesn't take you, the landlord - looking to up the rent on a tiny studio to $5000 a month will create some reason or other and if the elder dies on the street for lack of a roof over his or her head, what does he care? Almost all my friends have had to leave the city; we all had the day jobs to support our passions but didn't make the millionaire money that you now need to live here. I have long felt that SF was no place for older people but now it's REALLY NOT a place for them. I have worked for various volunteer groups and been a free lance arts writer for the last 15 years but when I had my strokes earlier this year, not one person took the time to visit -much less help me shop or get around. I do miss the days when you had friends who were there through thick and thin. That's the friend I am to those who, alas, are long gone but those who have my take on friendship can't get their noses out of their cell phones long enough to look at the world around them.

This continues to be a problem for me. It's one of the lesser reasons I continue to work - not so much because the friendships are so close (they're not) - but because I enjoy the shared experiences that work offers, and the guarantee of daily company.

What you said about time is, I think, true. And I'm putting much more effort into overlooking the differences between me and other people so I give friendships a chance to develop.

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