As baby boomers age, more and more folks will reach their 80s, 90s—and beyond. They will not only lose friends but face the daunting task of making new friends at an advanced age.
Even in your 90s, the notion of being a sole survivor can seem surprising. Perhaps that’s why 91-year-old Lucille Simmons of Lakeland, Fla., halts, midsentence, as she traces the multiple losses of friends and family members. She has not only lost her two closest friends, but a granddaughter, a daughter and her husband of 68 years. “There’s only one living sibling—and I’m having dinner with him tonight,” said Simmons.
Five years ago, Simmons left her native Hamilton, Ohio, to move in with her son and his wife. She had to learn how to make friends all over again. Simmons takes classes and plays games at her community. She also putters around her community on a golf cart (which she won in a raffle) inviting folks to ride along with her. She spends quality time with relatives (whom she regards as friends) and non-family friends.
Friendship in old age plays a critical role in health and well-being, according to recent findings from the Stanford Center on Longevity’s Sightlines Project. Socially isolated individuals face health risks comparable to those of smokers, and their mortality risk is twice that of obese individuals, the study notes.
Baby boomers are more disengaged with their neighbors and even their loved ones than any other generation, said Dr. Laura Carstensen, who is director of the Stanford Center on Longevity and herself a boomer, in her 60s. “If we’re disengaged, it’s going to be harder to make new friends,” she said. Carstensen said that going back to school can be one of the most successful ways for an older person to make a new friend.
Genuine friendships at any age typically require repeated contact, said Dr. Andrea Bonior, author of “The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing and Keeping Up with Your Friends.” She advises older folks to join group exercise classes or knitting or book clubs.
She also suggests that seniors get involved in “altruistic behavior” like volunteering in a soup kitchen or an animal shelter or tutoring English as a second language.
“Friendships don’t happen in a vacuum,” she said. “You don’t meet someone at Starbucks and suddenly become best friends.”
Perhaps few understand the need for friendship in older years better than Carstensen, who, besides directing the Stanford Center on Longevity, is author of “A Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health and Financial Security in an Age of Increased Longevity.”
Carstensen said that going back to school can be one of the most successful ways for an older person to make a new friend.
Bonior recommends that seniors embrace social media. These social media connections can help older people strike up new friendships with nieces, nephews and even grandchildren, said Alan Wolfelt, an author, educator and founder of the Center for Loss and Life Transition.
“It’s important to create support systems that don’t isolate you with your own generation.”
Many older folks count their children as their best friends — and Carstensen said this can be a big positive on several levels.
“I don’t think it matters who your friends are,” she said. “It’s the quality of the relationship that matters most.”