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Why it’s important to make and maintain friendships as we age

Q. I have lost four of my good longtime male friends in the past two years. All were married. I am saddened and a bit dumbfounded that none of the wives have close girlfriends or a support network. In one case, a widow had no one to accompany her to pick up her late husband’s ashes and just a few people helped her spread his ashes off the pier. Can you write a column to encourage ladies not to drop their old girlfriends, a valuable support in time of need? Best wishes, H.B.

Thank you for caring about others’ needs and concerns.

Let’s first try to understand why women may no longer have those special friendships they may have had in their younger years. We know friendships change over time because of circumstances.

Close friends die. This particularly is the case if those close friends are of a similar age. That lends credence to the advice of having friends of different ages, stages and generations, not only for the pleasure of those friendships, but also for just being there for one another.

Time is precious. The role of friends can become more important as we become increasingly aware that we have less rather than more time on our planet. Consequently, we may assess our friend relationships and choose not to spend time with those who are negative, toxic, insincere or with whom there is little reciprocity. At the same time, we may realize the importance of strengthening relationships that matter.

Knowing ourselves. As we age, most of us know ourselves rather well. We know what is important, our needs, preferences and values. We may distance ourselves from those who are too materialistic, have different interests and values and realize such differences are too big to overcome. We also are likely to be clearer on what we don’t want in our lives.

Quality counts over quantity. In later life, most older adults don’t need lots of friends to be happy. What seems to count is a few good friends that may include one’s partner, longtime school friends, neighbors or more recent friendships from work, volunteering, leisure pursuits, classes or participation in faith-based organizations and more.

The benefits of having good friends in later life are even more than personal pleasure, companionship and having a good time together.

Friendships slow cognitive decline. According to research from Northwestern University, friendships could slow decline in memory and cognitive functioning. In one study, researchers asked 31 SuperAgers and 19 cognitively “normal” older adults to fill out a questionnaire about their psychological well-being. (Superagers are men and women over age 80 with the mental faculties of people decades younger.) Compared to the cognitively “normal” adults, the SuperAgers stood out in one area: “The degree to which they reported having satisfying, warm, trusting relationships,” writes Judith Graham in a piece in Scientific American headlined, “Good Friends Might Be Your Best Brain Booster as You Age.”

Friendships may help us live longer. According to another study, people with strong connections to family and friends have a 50 percent greater chance of outliving those who have fewer social ties.

Friendships counteract loneliness. Older adults are particularly vulnerable to loneliness as they face chronic illnesses, hearing loss and more. Loneliness is feeling of being alone, regardless of the amount of social contact. It’s not the numbers that count, but the quality of the relationships.

Friendships are good for our health. They reduce the risk of many significant health problems such as depression, high blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index (BMI). Friendships encourage us to avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as excessive drinking or lack of exercise.

Covid-19 actually has improved relationships. An AARP survey on friendships found that the epidemic served as an opportunity for older adults to reset their priorities. More than half of people ages 50 to 59 indicated the pandemic strengthened their relationships with family and friends.

It’s never too late to make new friends. Author Shasta Nelson (“Friendships Don’t Just Happen”, Turner, 2103) notes that it usually takes six to eight meaningful interactions before women feel comfortable calling someone a friend. It may take a year to two before that person is someone in whom you confide.

What’s the message? At some time one partner will exit the planet. So make time for those special friends and include them in your life — now! And know it is never too late to make one or two new good friends.

Thank you H.B. for your good question. Stay well and just continue to pass on that gift of kindness.

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Visit Helen at and follow her on


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