Talking about friendships with Seniors

Are old and young different when it comes to friendships?

Posted Feb 24, 2010

I just addressed 75 senior citizens about friendships, both individual and couple.  The program was a weekly lecture series at a Baltimore house of worship. Other lectures have been on theater, the Middle East, health, etc. Three men were in the room.  I couldn't get them to stop interrupting me - they were that invested in the topic.

It is well-established that people with friends live longer, healthier lives. It is also known, according to the literature, that men have more trouble making friends than women and that women without friends experience depression.  I gave my standard lecture drawn from Buddy System.  I talked about my on-going research on couple friendships.  I read from my book about a 28-year-old who does not have enough time for friends.  I read from a recent interview with a 74-year-old woman who has to make all the plans for herself and her husband as he is asocial - she calls the shots in the relationship when it comes to socializing.

Some of the questions I received were the following:

1. How do you stay friends with another couple after their spouse dies? This requires an existential answer about the nature of relationships and connections as we enter later life.  Every one deals with it differently and it may depend on the value of the individual friendship and where one believes obligations to friends lie after a death.

2. How do you handle a friend who is now infirm and in a nursing home and who resents that you don't take her out with you more often? Another existential question - telephoning a lot instead is one short-term way of keeping the friend connected.

3. What does "high maintenance" mean when some people say they don't like that quality in their friends? - One women said she would drop someone who was high maintenance.  I asked the audience if they would drop an old friend who became high maintenance - very few would. But very few would also start a friendship with someone who initially was high maintenance.

4. Do men and women's friendship behaviors become more similar with age? My reading of the literature is YES.  We become less set in stereotypical gendered behaviors as we age.

5. Do men have a harder time making friends? Yes - men don't tend to talk as much as women and, unless sports is involved (watching or playing) many men have a difficult time finding common ground around which to converse.

6. One woman told the story of going on a cruise with a woman who, after the cruise, sent her a letter saying she didn't want to be friends with her any more without giving much of an explanation.  This woman said that losing that friend was as hard as getting a divorce.  Now that ex-friend is making noises about wanting to be friends again.  The woman wants nothing to do with her.

7. One woman asked, "What do I do when one member of the couple is known to be having an affair and you don't want to hang out with her and her husband anymore?" She lost a very good friend and a couple friendship because of the woman's behavior.  We drop friends all the time for their behavior  --- they aren't nice to waiters, children, or us.  But with that dropping of the friend, we may lose access to the good times we were having.

Friendships remain important across the lifespan and become central in old-age to staying active and involved.  Work on friendships now so you will have them for the rest of your life.