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Successful Aging: How to make and keep friends in our lives

Your column a few weeks ago about friendship and your perfect friends left me feeling lacking because my friends are not perfect. I imagine I am not the only person who feels that way. I faithfully read your column and usually appreciate the information and guidance you share. However, your column had the opposite effect on me to what I imagine you intended. Any comments? M.L.

Dear M.L.

I can well imagine how my column had the effect you described. And for that, my apologies. I don’t believe there is a truly perfect friendship, but we can come close.

Perhaps what we can address are some obstacles to creating and maintaining friendships and how to make them as fulfilling as possible.

I recently wrote a chapter on the subject in the book “Getting Good at Getting Older,” by the late Richard Siegal and Rabbi Laura Geller (Berhman House, 2019).

Here are some of my findings on the topic:

Not everyone is fortunate to have long-term friends for several reasons. Such friendships often fall to the wayside because of different interests, circumstances and priorities. Many friends who date back to the time when we had young children have drifted away. It was easy to see them because of our common activities — sitting together as our kids played sports, volunteering in their classrooms or attending their recitals. As our children became more independent, there were fewer opportunities to be together.

Friends from work often disappear when we change jobs or move on to retirement. We may have less to talk about with our working friends when we no longer share a common employer, workspace or career. And then there is the age thing. As we get older, typically our social networks get smaller. Friends move, some die and others may want to spend more time with their families or just are busy maintaining their health. Add to that many of our older friends may no longer be as mobile as they were in their younger years limiting their opportunities to physically get together.

So much depends on our expectations. We may have friends who join us for the movies or dinner; other friends will be there for us regardless of the circumstance. We may have friends from whom we learn and are a source of inspiration or have friends just because we like them — they are fun, interesting and equally important, interested in us.

Making a new friend can take time. Shasta Nelson, author of “Friendships Don’t Just Happen” (Seal Press, 2016) notes that it usually takes six to eight meaningful interactions before women feel comfortable calling someone a friend. The same may be not true for men. Geoffrey Greif, author of “Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships,” (Oxford University Press, 2009) refers to studies that indicate it is harder for men than for women to make friends since women often are more comfortable reaching out to others.

We can make new friends in later life. Here are some suggestions from my chapter in the Siegel-Geller book.

Set aside time for meaningful conversations. Talk about what’s important in your respective lives, changes you have gone through, your aspirations and dreams for the next chapter of life. Try to go beyond weather, traffic and kids.

Do some physical activity together. Leave the electronics at home. Consider walking, hiking, biking or taking a yoga class.

Work on a project you both care about. That might be a fundraiser, a literacy project or even co-authoring an article or newsletter.

Do something nice for the other person. When you see a small something that your potential friend might like, buy it or just extend an act of kindness.

Existing friendships can be deepened. Of course, this must be mutual. Here are a few more suggestions. Be authentic and willing to take risks. Sharing feelings of joy, grief, anticipation or disappointment can bring you closer together. If you like games, consider playing a board or a card game. You might go to a cultural event together to hear your favorite band or orchestra or have lunch at a new restaurant. Think about taking in a special exhibition or an afternoon movie.

Friendships are based on mutuality, a give and take with a shared interest and respect for one another. And, you just have to like the person.

M.L., Thank you for sharing your perspective on the friendship column. I appreciate your candor. Best wishes for satisfying and fulfilling friendships.

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