Rebooting the buddy system

Relationship experts weigh in on the art and science of friendship after 50.

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Michigan Prime, a supplement to the Sunday Detroit News and Free Press.

As Lennon and McCartney wrote, we all get by with a little help from our friends. But current medical research also shows that our health literally depends on the company we keep. In fact, having an active social network can significantly lower the risk for depression, enhance our ability to cope with illness, and increase longevity, explains Irene S. Levine, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine and creator of The Friendship Blog.

DSCN1916“One study suggests that friends may be more potent than family in enhancing our physical health and emotional well-being,” Levine says. Furthermore, as reported by AARP last year, women with large social networks reduce their risk of dementia by 26%.

Yet making new friends while keeping the old can be a challenge for empty nesters and retirees. Gone are the days of commiserating with other parents in the school parking lot, or gathering with coworkers by the coffee maker on weekday mornings. Other factors — including divorce, relocation, or becoming a caregiver – also complicate friendship later in life.

Ironically, Americans collect countless friends and followers on social networks, yet many report a lack of depth in their friendships, says Shasta Nelson, author of Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness (Seal Press; $16).

“Between two-thirds and three-fourths of Americans believe there is more loneliness in today’s society than there used to be, and feel they have fewer meaningful relationships than they did five years ago,” Nelson says.

Reach out and meet someone

So, how and where do we begin to rebuild our social circles? Introverts, take note.

“Be open to anything,” advises Annick Hivert-Carthew, 68, a freelance writer in Auburn Hills. “I’ve lived in foreign countries for 40 years. It would have been lonely had I not taken the first step to meet people. I believe it’s easier for seniors to make new friends because we have more leisure time.”

Hivert-Carthew says she smiles a lot, chats with dog walkers and introduces herself to new neighbors. She also joined a senior center, takes classes, and volunteers for organizations.

“My neighborhood has an awesome Bible study group,” she adds. “I’m not religious, but I was curious, so I joined the group and I love it. We go to lunch, help each other during illness, share cultural activities, and knit hats for elementary schools in Detroit.”

Likewise, Mike Atwood, 68, a retired sales manager in Royal Oak, refuses to isolate himself.

Version 2“Making new friends is a matter of staying engaged in life and being interested in other people,” he says. “I make a point of meeting in person – not relying on social media to stay in touch.”

Shasta Nelson agrees.

“Time together is essential. Unless your time together is automatic — meaning you’re both paid to show up at the same job, for instance – there’s no other way to foster a real relationship,” Nelson says. “Growing a friendship requires a lot of initiation. Repeatedly. If you want to start a new friendship or revive an old one, you have to reach out several times.”

Roll with the changes

As we mature, it’s natural to put a premium on loyalty and shared history.

Marie Osborne, 58, host of “In the Mix with Marie and Rochelle” on WJR Radio, learned that true friends prove their mettle at life’s inevitable crisis points.

“Six years ago, when both of my parents died within three weeks of each other, I was in the funeral home and noticed three of my girlhood friends sitting together and chatting,” recalls Osborne, a Royal Oak resident. “At that moment I found the word to describe us. We were ‘lifers.’ These are the friends who understand you to the core – no words necessary.”

After 50, however, we’re also less tolerant of what experts call “imbalanced” relationships. More than 60 Prime readers were polled for this article, and several admitted they’ve dropped “toxic” friends who made them feel used, drained, neglected, manipulated or bullied. As one anonymous reader put it: “With age I have more self-respect, and I seek out friends who treat me well and are fun to be with.” Others admitted that they’d grown tired of “always being the one who reaches out” to initiate time together — and consequently allowed those friendships to expire.

According to sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst, most of us reevaluate or replace about half of our friends every seven years, usually due to a change in residence, career or lifestyle. If we’re trying to curb unhealthy habits, for instance, we might spend less time with pals who smoke or drink too much.

Or, as Marie Osborne found, some friends simply “drift apart” over time. “Those friends, although still loved, didn’t make the return effort of friendship,” Osborne explains.

Build your tribe

From Lucy and Ethel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the “best friend” partnership is often idealized in pop culture. Yet it’s unrealistic to expect one person to meet all of your friendship needs, warns Levine. It’s wiser to build a team of friends, including, say, the empathetic listener, the shopping buddy, the political ally, the fellow film buff, and the pal who loves sports or pets as much as you do.

And while you’re expanding your circle, don’t overlook friends from different age groups. Reaching across generations will sharpen your perspective on life.

But always take it slowly, Levine advises. “Don’t make the mistake of expecting too much too soon. Friendships take time to nurture and develop.”

How to be a good friend

Friendship experts and Prime readers agree that friendships thrive on mutual care and effort. Follow their tips to strengthen your own:

*Initiate. Don’t wait to be contacted. Invite pals to lunch; suggest special activities; host a gathering. Take turns making plans and follow through.

*Engage. Express interest in others; be a good listener. Don’t monopolize conversations with your own issues or problems. Ask questions; remember details about your friends’ lives.

*Communicate. Be responsive. Stay in touch with emails, texts, calls and birthday cards. Don’t let social media become a substitute for real contact with close friends.

*Reciprocate. Return favors, dinner invitations and other gestures of kindness. Show courtesy and respect. Aim for a balance of give-and-take.

*Support. Be there when times get tough — and to applaud your friends’ successes. Refrain from competitive or judgmental comments.

*Respect. Honor boundaries; don’t pressure friends to meet your needs.

*Affirm. Never take friends for granted. Express gratitude and affection often.

Photos by Cindy La Ferle, copyright 2016

How to be a good friend

You can’t stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” — A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

friendsWhile writing an article on friendship last year, I found several terrific resources on the topic. Among them: Shasta Nelson‘s new book, Friendships Don’t Just Happen: The Guide to Creating Meaningful Circles of Girlfriends.

A former pastor, Nelson was a life coach who often found herself helping clients form new friendships when they moved to new cities or entered new life stages. Drawing from that experience, she launched GirlFriendCircles.com, a popular friendship match site for women.

As Nelson reminds us in Friendships Don’t Just Happen, many women have fantasies of what “ideal” friendship looks like. In television shows like Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, she explains, “friendship is always highlighted as the one relationship that is constant through life’s ups and downs.”

But real-life friends sometimes fall short of Hollywood role models. Real-life friends might criticize or compete, push boundaries, neglect to reciprocate or support, never initiate plans, show up late, or forget to send birthday cards. In other words, real-life friends are human and they will disappoint us.

Not to worry. Nelson’s book provides a map for creating healthy, mutually satisfying friendship circles — and encourages us to ask ourselves what we’re seeking (or expecting) from individual friends.

DSCN0152“Knowing that most friendships aren’t forever invites us to forgive ourselves for those relationships that didn’t live up to the fairy tale,” Nelson writes. It also helps to understand — and value — the various roles that different friends play in our lives. Listing five categories of friendship, from casual friends to committed friends, Nelson explains how each category enhances our well-being.

Nelson’s book encourages us to ask ourselves what we’re seeking or expecting from our friends.”

According to sociologists, most people re-evaluate their friendships every seven years. (Yes, there’s even a seven-year itch for friendship.) Citing examples from her own research, Nelson also explains why some friendships take a nosedive or don’t even get off the ground.

Understandably, introverts can get stuck when it comes to transforming acquaintances into comfortable friendships. But the whole process of making new friendships while maintaining old ones is a challenge for all of us — especially if we lack free time for social activities beyond work and family.

“Time together is the primary ingredient for forging friendships,” Nelson told me in an online interview. “Unless your time together is automatic — meaning you’re both paid to show up at the same job or both attend the same church — there is no other way to foster a friendship without someone initiating that time together. Growing a friendship requires initiation. A lot of it. Repeatedly. And it doesn’t need to be 50/50 with two people taking turns! If you want a friendship then you should be ready to reach out and invite several times.”

We live in a world where relationships shift. Sometimes, through no fault of our own, we will have to rebuild community around us. — Shasta Nelson

0-4Last year was a turbulent, pivotal year for me, starting with my mother’s recurring trips to the ER and culminating in her permanent move to a nursing home. More than ever, I needed to make an effort to have some fun — even in the midst of my family’s medical drama. I needed time with friends.

As much as I appreciate my writers’ groups and book clubs, I still found myself craving conversation that wasn’t about writing, career goals, or the novels I’ve read. I wanted some old-fashioned girl talk; the nurturing energy of women. So I followed one of Nelson’s suggestions and made a mental list of new and old friends with whom I’d been meaning to reconnect, then contacted each with a social plan. It did me a world of good.

Last month, for instance, two of my neighbors and I met for a holiday kick-off dinner. (One had just moved in last year, but we rarely glimpsed each other across the street.) Over a bottle of wine at a local restaurant, the three of us spent several hours getting to know each other better. We had such a nice evening, in fact, that we’re talking about starting a monthly dinner club, perhaps including other neighbors too.

IMG_0241

Friendship sustains, validates, comforts, and supports us through life’s challenges. Writing for U.S. News & World Report, Tom Sightings reported that relationships with friends bring “longer lasting feelings of happiness” than entertainment or educational activities. “Yet paradoxically, the number of friends you have on Facebook or any social network has no bearing on how happy you are,” Sightings wrote.

Other experts claim that having close friendships can decrease our risk of cancer and other health crises. Shasta Nelson even suggests that friendship can change the world, and I believe she’s right.

If you’re ready to build healthy friendships in 2014, treat yourself to a copy of Nelson’s book. You’ll be rewarded with more than you bargained for.

Here’s to a wonderful new year of friendship for all of us!

Photos and original artwork copyright Cindy La Ferle