Finding The Connections You Crave

By Alaina Stratton

Friendship is one of the greatest gifts life has to offer, but making and maintaining new friendships can get difficult as we get older. Unfortunately, statistics show that older adults are especially vulnerable to loneliness and isolation - and this not only negatively effects our enjoyment of life, it also impacts our health in surprising ways.

Making friends in later years may feel more difficult, due in part to circumstances such as mobility or retiring from a career with an office that built social interaction into your life. It’s also difficult because of our mindsets about aging and friendship. Making new friends as an adult is as awkward for Millennials as it is for Boomers - there’s a common resistance to making new relationships and a collective belief that everyone besides us are set when it comes to friendships.

An informal survey of adults in your community would likely reveal a universal truth: we’re all craving connection and longing for more consistent relationships. This isn’t specific to age, location, former career, faith or anything else. It’s simply human.

Benefits of friendship

The benefits friendship yields confirm that desiring and experiencing great relationships is a vital part of our identities. Having friends makes life more fun and enjoyable. We are never too old to create new memories, and sharing adventure with others is more fun than experiencing it alone. Meeting with others, keeping up with each other’s lives, trying activities together - even if it’s enjoying a glass of wine on the back porch - keeps us busy and engaged. It provides laughter, joy and something to look forward to. Our friends give us encouragement, and we get to give encouragement back.

The American Journal of Geriatric Psychology reported that in one study participants stressed the importance of being surrounded by others, having a sense of connection and feeling cared for as keys to successful aging. Further, they identified friends, even more than spouses and family members, as a driving force behind enjoyment of their lives and their sense of well-being! Especially as we age and various factors of our lives change, having friends are like having an anchor in the storm.

Friendships bring a deeper level of emotional and spiritual benefit to our lives. Being in relationship with others is proven to increase one’s sense of belonging and purpose, as well as self-confidence and self-worth, according to the Mayo Clinic. Friendships increase happiness, decrease stress and can make us better people: when we’re in relationship with others, we’re held accountable for our lifestyle and choices - so we’re more apt to make better choices. Real friendships give the sense of being known and accepted on a deep level. Being in relationship with others makes us more resilient in the face of traumatic events or grief; they come alongside us and walk us through dark valleys and celebrate with us on the mountain peaks. Life takes on greater meaning when it is shared; not one of us was built to be an island all alone.

Friendships boost health

All of these more emotional and spiritual sounding benefits also have a direct impact on physical health. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, specific benefits include a potentially reduced risk for cardiovascular problems, some cancers, osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis, a potentially reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease, lower blood pressure and reduced risk for mental health issues such as depression.

Older adults who successfully maintain close friendships and find other ways to interact socially live longer than those who become isolated, reports the University, and these social interactions can even fight illness by boosting our immune systems!

According to the National Institute on Aging, “One study showed that older adults who reported taking part in social activities (such as playing games, belonging to social groups, or traveling) or meaningful, productive activities (such as having a paid or unpaid job, or gardening) lived longer than people who did not.” 

A lack of friendships has the opposite effect - increased levels of depression and decreased health including shorter life. “One study, which examined data from more than 309,000 people, found that lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50%,” reports Harvard Health Publishing. “- an effect on mortality risk roughly comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than obesity and physical inactivity.”

How to make new friends

Making new friendships and maintaining relationship isn’t a problem specific to older adults. Many people begin to experience this difficulty as soon as the era of structured school settings is over, whether that’s high school or college. For a lot of us, friendships were made easier by proximity. Once people move to pursue careers and start having families and other commitments, maintaining relationship gets a lot harder.

There are still many easy ways that older adults can develop and enjoy fulfilling friendships. 

Try new things - Shared experiences are a great way to make new friends and meet people who share your interests. Take a cooking or French class. Check out your local senior center or park district for classes and other programs you may find interesting. Enroll in a local college’s life long learning program in a topic you’ve always wanted to explore. Join a book discussion group at your local library. Start with something you’re already interested in or an area you’ve wanted to better yourself and find a class or opportunity to explore. You will inevitably meet other adults in the community who share your interests and value, and participating in an activity can alleviate the awkwardness of small talk and introductions.

Use technology - Although online interaction is a poor substitute for real, in person friendships, technology can still help facilitate those offline relationships in helpful ways. Consider using Facebook to join discussion groups, book clubs or special interest groups in your area. Or create a Facebook page of people you want to keep in touch with, such as a graduating class or a family update page. Create an Instagram account and follow your family members so you can interact with them and see what’s happening in their day-to-day lives. Check out websites like Meet Up where you can search your zip code for all kinds of events and gatherings. A similar option would be to download the Eventbrite app and search for events in your area. Both would offer free or almost free opportunities to learn, experience culture, meet others and try something new.

Take a part time job or volunteer - Many older adults choose to take a part time job to stay engaged with others and the community even if they don’t need the money. Part-time work provides an opportunity to share your expertise or willingness to serve with others, while putting you in a position to meet new people. Volunteering provides a similar experience. Find an organization or cause in your area you want to support and get involved. You’ll inevitably meet other like-minded individuals and share experiences together doing something that carries great meaning.

Go to church - Joining a local faith community can provide many opportunities to connect with others. Most church or faith organizations offer meetings, events and support groups for members in varying life stages, allowing an opportunity to connect with new friends while sharing something meaningful.

Join a gym - Joining a gym provides not only an obvious health benefit, but community benefit as well. Regular gym goers will often see people who keep a similar schedule, but joining a fitness class would provide an even better opportunity to make friends with those you see each week in class.

Say yes - Say yes to invitations from family, neighbors, acquaintances and friends. Even if you’re not sure you’ll have a great time or want to invest long-term in the person asking. You never know what you’ll learn or who else you’ll meet. Getting out there is half the battle - and the more you leave the house and meet new people, the less scary or awkward it’ll feel. Say yes, be brave and squash social anxiety.