The Challenges of Finding Friends After 50
How do we maintain strong connections with other women when our lives have changed so drastically?
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Remember the B.B.B. epoch (Before Bone Broth), that enchanted stiletto-wearing era when you didn’t consider a restaurant’s volume before booking a reservation, or need a flashlight app to study its menu while out with friends? Remember when making those friends was as easy as reading Fun With Dick and Jane? For that matter, remember Dick and Jane? Yes? Attagirl, you’re probably past 50. Friend-making is now a whole new challenge.
Most likely, back in the day, a shared context exposed you to potential soulmates, often in biggish groups. Ten girls in your camp bunk, two of whom also had frizzy hair. Twenty other sophomores on the dorm floor, including one who rejoiced with you when your period arrived after 45 days. Five moms in the preschool class who also showed up at the bake sale with Rice Krispie Treats, all eager for adult companionship at the playground. Seven other female rookies at the law firm united in hatred for your sexist, satanic supervisor.
Even an introvert could usually find people among these clusters with whom she felt simpatico. Sometimes they turned into bespoke buddies you expected to have on your forever speed-dial, be they the yin to your yang or My Little Doppelgangers. Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you had to do was call.
Then life … changes. You—or the kids—graduate. You relocate, stop working, switch fields, or get promoted—or your BFF does; given that she’s now your boss, you no longer feel comfortable bra shopping with her. Besides, she suddenly has a personal shopper. Or, you simply grow apart. How could your friend have married such an insufferable boor, voted for that candidate, or become so boring, bitchy, or bossy? This can be painful, especially because at 50-plus your life is usually complicated. You may be mourning an empty nest or divorce or death of a parent or illness of a parent or partner. Your kids may be giving you agita. Maybe going through menopause is of the high-octane variety. To lose an old friend on top of this hurts, but nonetheless, sometimes a friendship, you decide, will not be renewed for another season.
Fine. Moving on. Only how do you find besties at the next stage, when likely contenders don’t come packaged like a box of valentine chocolates?
Reports tell us loneliness can be a bigger health risk than smoking, obesity, couch-potato-itis, or subsisting on a diet of M&M’s. According to University of Chicago neuroscientist John Caciopo, co-author of Loneliness Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, social isolation or rejection’s effects are as real as thirst, hunger or pain. Brigham Young University scientists conducted an influential analysis of literature on this subject and found that social isolation increases your risk of death at an astounding number, anywhere from 30 to 60 percent. In short, having no friends can kill you.
From my 20s to just past 50 I was a magazine editor/mom, both of which defined my identity, yielded many good friends and because the staff and freelance writers with whom I worked were largely women, generated surround-sound female humor, intelligence, and companionship, which felt almost like friendship. When that career screeched to a halt and the children moved on, I became a snake shedding her skin. Gradually, I morphed into a novelist. I love it, but my line of work could not be more solitary. Think about privately assembling a 120,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of your own design with no picture to guide you. Given my hermit-like existence, as the years march on, right up there with worries about health and wealth, I fear morphing into a lonely old lady.
To future forestall loneliness, I’ve seen some of my far-sighted friends—occasionally at the urging of their own moms—take up time-honored social pursuits, like bridge or golf. The likelihood of finding me, now or later, at a card table or golf course are less, however, than seeing me join a street gang. I don’t have the head for—or interest in— games.
So, I’ve had to be strategic. Facebook gets a bad rap, with people complaining that it depresses them to see posts about other people’s happiest highs. But in my case, it’s revived dormant friendships from college and even earlier. This fall, two friends I’ve had since eighth grade visited me in New York City for three play days of museums, theatre, shopping, and confessions of dumbass moves we regret from age 15. Special-interest groups on social media have also introduced me to like-minded people whom I’ve gone on to meet in person. Because my pace for getting tight with new friends is typically set at slo-mo, I would categorize these contacts as warm acquaintances—not bosom buddies—but I like these people, and it’s up to me to step it up a notch.
Some people join meetup groups like Finding Female Friends Past 50, founded in 2015 by Dale Pollekoff when she felt lonely after moving to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C. The group has swelled to more than 800 members who get together to, say, visit an art gallery. Being a joiner always helps, even if you don’t sign on for a formal friend-generating group. Last year, when Mary Herring, Ph.D., of Waterloo, Iowa, retired as a professor of instructional technology and moved 113 miles away to be closer to her grandchildren, she didn’t let the size of her new town (Maquoketa, Iowa, population 5,920) cramp her style. Within months she became a member of a garden club and biking club, got appointed to the school board and “discovered that my neighborhood is a great place to find girlfriends.”
But joining isn’t enough. Acquiring friends is a skill. You can’t just show up, and expect friendship to flower. You’ve got to find people who are right for you, meet them more than halfway, and remember that by 50, most of us know ourselves well enough to be fussy about who we let into our lives. Which is why I think it’s critical to find groups where people reveal themselves, so you can shortcut the process of deciding who is a potential real-deal pal.
For a literary nerd like me, book clubs hit all the boxes. But don’t take my word for it. “Connecting with other women can seem daunting,” says Erin Woodward of suburban Toronto, “but when members all read the same book, it gives them the confidence to discuss the friend they have in common: the book.” Erin should know. When she moved to London a few years ago, she missed her inner circle back home and, failing to find a book club to join, started one. Now she runs The Girly Book Club, with chapters in 100 cities worldwide; 21 percent of the members are 45 or older. I’m in two book clubs, and they’re like group therapy in the sense that people’s observations can expose their heart and psyche.
If you loathe the idea of being required to read a particular book—or read at all—perhaps volunteer at a soup kitchen, start ballroom dancing, attend wine tastings or … you get it. Los Angeles sociologist BJ Gallagher suggests making yourself mega-approachable by adopting a cute dog. “I used to be a cat person,” she admits, “but getting a dog at 51 expanded my social life exponentially. Within six months, even though I’d lived in my neighborhood for 16 years but hardly knew a soul, I knew everyone plus their kids’ and dogs’ names.” Last year, she dyed her hair pink (“every day someone stops to comment on it”) and drives what she calls the Happy-Mobile, an old car painted with stripes, roses, clouds and a peacock. Such visuals statements cry out for interactions.
BJ’s ideas wouldn’t work for some women, but I see their point and adaptability. And almost any of us can follow the approach of people-curator Michele Willens, a chum who seems to acquire friends faster than I can count to 100. She exercises a one-two punch. When Michele meets people, she jumpstarts conversations. (Duh. Did I mention she’s a naturally curious journalist, used to asking questions?) She can meet someone on the bus and walk away with a new friend. Then, she follows through by including new people at parties she periodically throws.
Though she may enjoy alone time, I doubt Michele is ever lonely. Which I don’t want to be, either. Even though my instinct is to hunker down to watch a video of a couple who live as if it’s 1880 or read a novel, I force myself to impersonate an extravert and reach out to smart, witty, low-drama women I’d like in my life.
Hey, how about coffee sometime? How’s Tuesday at two?
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