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Why and how do friendships change as we age?

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Even Though We Are Distance Apart

Many studies show that relationships with friends, apart from family members, are very important if we are to remain healthy.  We know that loneliness is one cause of ill health and often leads to shorter life expectancy.

According to Andrea Bonior, Ph.D. “With self-reflection and increased wisdom comes the realization that we really should maximize the number of good relationships we have and not spend so much time on the ones that aren’t good.”

So how are we to understand and manage a situation where the number of friends you have is decreasing, or you are less interested in socializing and perhaps spend more time on your own on your computer or on your smartphone playing at an Intertops casino mobile. Is this just something natural that happens when we age?

Relationships and the way they change over time

Studies carried out on monkeys have shown that as they get older, they become more selective about which monkeys they have as friends and how much time they spend with them socially.  Researchers say that this is also the case with humans who also become pickier about how and with whom they spend their time.

Geoffrey Greif, Ph.D. professor of Social Work at the University of Maryland says “People begin to value their time more as they age. But people also have more time, so there are two conflicting vectors.  If I don’t have much time, I’m certainly going to want to shepherd it well and spend it with my closest friends. But, if I’m tired and sitting around the house looking for things to do, or people to be with, I may be less selective.”

It also seems that there is a difference between the friendships of men and women as they age and this may well affect our perception of relationships as we grow older.

The “Buddy System” written by Geoffrey Grief based on his study of 300 men and 100 women, shows that men and women’s friendships across their lifetimes are different.  Men’s friendships are more “shoulder to shoulder encounters”, meaning they may watch a match together and talk during the intervals.  Women’s friendships will be more “face to face encounters”.  Women are more likely to interact and share emotionally when they meet and these friendships will therefore be more demanding.  Relationships that require a lot of maintenance may be more difficult to sustain as we get older.

According to Julia Fischer, the study lead for the research carried out on monkeys says that it seems “Older monkeys might spend less time socializing because they find social interactions increasingly stressful and therefore avoid them.”  She argues that this is probably true for humans as well.

Dr. Andrea Bonior, Professor of Psychology as Georgetown University and author of “The Friendship Fix says “that as we age, we don’t need to waste our time on friendships that cause us stress or make us feel badly.  With self-reflection and increased wisdom comes the realization that we really should maximize the number of good relationships we have and not spend so much time on the ones that aren’t good.”

Generally, people have friends that are specific to particular times. For instance, friends from university, friends from work or from activities done with our children.   As our children move on or we stop working some of these friendships continue but many of them don’t.  

Many friendships will disappear naturally as we move along in our later years, perhaps through retirement, or health issues but we may also make a conscious choice to be more selective. Bonior says “I deserve to have friendships that are fulfilling, that sustain me, and not waste my time.”  We therefore have less friends, and spend less time with them.   Is this a problem?

Health benefits of having friends

Humans are social beings.  What we don’t get from our families by way of support, we get from our friends.  We get to choose our friends, which is not the case with our blood relatives.  Our choice of friends is unique to us.  C.S Lewis pointed out that “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”

The support that we gain from our friendships, protects us from stress.  Many studies point to the way in which friendships and social human connectivity can reduce all kinds of health problems like lowering blood pressure or cholesterol.

John Cacioppo, a professor and neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, looked at the question of loneliness in relation to health and wellbeing.  He found that loneliness is “associated with the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, obesity and lower immunity.”  A study carried out by Harvard Medical School, ‘The Nurses Study’ noted that the greater number of friends that women had, the less health issues they developed as they got older.   As a result of this study, the researchers argue that having fewer friends is actually not good for our health.

A recent longitudinal study of 1500 people over a 10-year period, revealed that those with many friends outlived those with less friends by more than 20%. It seemed that longevity was not impacted by family relationships.

Developing new friendships

The best way to make new friends later in life is to get involved in things that interest you.  It is important to believe that it is possible to make new friends at any stage of our lives.  Greif says “As our oldest friends either move far away or die, if you believe you can’t have close friends that you meet when you’re 50, 60, 70 or 80, you’re going to be more isolated.”

But it can be difficult and somewhat intimidating to try to make friends as we age. Bonior says “It’s very funny, because with romantic relationships we would never expect to partner for life with the first person we ever went out on a date with. But if a friendship doesn’t get off the ground, we automatically wonder what we did wrong”.  She goes on to say “Don’t over-personalize it. View making new friends as a concrete goal.”

Talking about Facebook friends

Facebook can make reconnecting with old friends and finding new ones really easy. More and more older adults are connecting to Facebook.  Bonior says “I think for older people, especially if there are issues with mobility or health, then it’s a godsend to be able to still feel connected and engaged when maybe you’re not getting many in-person visitors.”  However, it is important that sitting in front of the computer does not replace real life social interactions. Bonior goes on to say “It is a nice supplement, or have you stopped going to brunch or book club?”

It is important not to get stuck in a cycle of continually checking Facebook. Bonier says that “Some folks get trapped in a cycle of constantly looking at Facebook, looking at Facebook and still are feeling empty afterwards.”

David Smith