Remember when you were in school? It seemed so incredibly easy to make friends in those days. Dozens of them, in fact. And there was always room for more.
It probably was simpler then, when you spent the whole day in school, interacting with dozens and dozens of interesting individuals your own age. At least a few of your classmates were always ready to chat in the hallways between classes or plan afterschool fun.
But making friends became more complicated as you got older. Work provided some opportunities, of course, with holiday parties and other company events, but you lost touch with your coworkers after retirement. And you left the workforce quite some time ago.
Ever since then, your world seems to have become much narrower.
But that doesn’t mean that the importance of friends and friendship has diminished. In many ways companionship is even more important as we get older.
There was an article in the New York Times some time ago in which a 71-year-old woman named Rose Haber addressed the need for new friendships with a refreshing directness.
No one wants to be lonely.
Haber, a widow living in the Bronx, who had made several new friends in the past year, was reflecting on how essential it was to keep making friends, no matter what her age.
''It is critical for older people like me to develop new friendships because we are losing so many other relationships. Family members die and lifelong friends move away. If the elderly don't replace these relationships, they can end up feeling lonely and isolated.''
Friendship is more than just a warm and fuzzy thing that makes daily life richer.
Science shows companionship is a necessary component of senior life.
In a decade-long study of social networking among older adults, researchers from the Centre for Ageing Studies at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia concluded that a network of good friends is more likely to increase longevity than close family relationships.
According to Lynne Giles, one of four primary researchers, "it looks as if friends are most important in terms of survival."
Surprisingly, the study discovered that close relationships with children and other relatives, while sometimes emotionally gratifying, had little effect on longevity rates.
Think about that for a moment. Usually, we regard family relationships as by far the most important ties in our lives. But as it turns out, prevailing wisdom doesn’t seem to be upheld by science, and the Aussie researcher decided to dig deeper to find out why that was the case—at least in their study.
Friendship forms necessary connections to life and community.
Older adults with extensive networks of good friends and confidantes outlived those with the fewest friends by 22 percent— numbers that held true despite the presence of factors we usually associate with shortened life span such as the death of a spouse of other close family members.
For some, friendships with people of different ages or cultures proved especially invigorating.
The belief behind this fact is that the inherent dissimilarities between friends provide a fertile source of intellectual stimulation.
That might sound daunting for some of us. After all, many of us have a sense that younger people look at us as artifacts from a different age.
But you’ve probably already had a cross-generational friendship without even realizing it—some younger adult in your life who has shown special interest in you and your experiences. It could be someone from your church. Or the person cutting your hair at the salon. Or the outgoing young couple at the next table at a Starbucks who strike up a conversation.
In each of those cases, you have already experienced a bond, if only in a small way. Sometimes an opportunity may arise to explore that bond, to learn more about a person. Often, the inclination is to say “no, I can’t do that.” But before you say no, think again.
It could be the beginning of a beautiful, life-affirming friendship.