How to make friends in your 70s, 80s, and 90s

Which do you think has the biggest impact on your health and happiness – your family or your friends? You might be surprised to learn it is your friends. According to an article in Personal Relationships, “Having supportive friendships in old age was found to be a stronger predictor of well-being than having strong family connections.” Not only does having close friends have a positive effect, but an absence of friends in your life is as bad for you as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.

We not only need friends, but we also need those friends to be part of our support system. Life is unpredictable, especially as we grow older. When we hit a rough patch, we need people in our lives who will understand what we are going through or at least be able to listen to us as we try to explain our feelings.

Not everyone qualifies as a friend, even though Facebook might not agree. There are levels of friendship, ranging from an acquaintance to a confidante or soul mate. You may be comfortable sharing superficial facts about your life with a close acquaintance but are probably more circumspect about revealing personal information. In other words, friendship matters, but the quality of those friendships matters just as much.

Why is friendship something we need in our 70s, 80s, and 90s? We need it because giving and receiving comfort and compassion from others is a basic human need. We need it because having a support system leads to higher levels of well-being, better coping skills, and a longer and healthier life. We need it because it reduces depression and anxiety, stress, chronic pain, the risk of heart disease, and high blood pressure.

Let’s assume you are convinced. You know you need friends, but then what? If you are fortunate enough to have a circle of people you enjoy being around and trust to keep your secrets, you could probably stop reading this. But, if like many of us, you have lost track of friends over time, or they have become ill or passed away, you may see your support system dwindling. Unfortunately, at my age, I’m saddened but not surprised to learn that this has happened to some of my long-time friends.

To complicate my own situation, a few years ago, while COVID was ravishing the country, I moved more than nine hundred miles from Missouri to Florida where I knew no one except my family. For the first two years in my new home, I had zero social life. Then, crazy as it sounds, still in the middle of a pandemic, my family built a new home, and we moved to St. Augustine. This event made me a believer in miracles.

As soon as it was feasible, I started looking for things to do, and my new hometown offered an abundance of possibilities. It’s a city full of history and landmarks, art classes and galleries, festivals and food, and delightfully friendly people. I hit the Internet and immediately found enough art classes to satisfy any art lover, no matter our level of experience or ability. Getting back in touch with my long-neglected inner artist would have been enough, but what I couldn’t have predicted was how many friends I would make in those classes.

My fellow students meshed into an informal support group that welcomed each newcomer  with open arms. While I’ve never believed in instant friendships, this experience was enough to change my mind. Now in its third year, the group continues to grow closer. This gift of friendship was not something I expected. It definitely falls into the too-good-to-be-true category.

If I were writing an instruction manual on how to make friends and influence people, I would certainly begin with this advice: Find classes in any subject you are passionate about, sign up, and get to know your fellow students. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how much you know about your subject. You are there to learn and meet people. You can’t fail at either one of those endeavorss.

Perhaps I should have begun by admitting it isn’t easy to make new friends in our later years. “Finding quality friends is an obstacle at any age, but older adults may have a more difficult time. In later life, we tend to be less active in environments that give an opportunity to make friends,” says GinaMarie Guarino, a licensed mental health counselor with PsychPoint. On the other hand, as our oldest friends either move far away or die, if we believe we can’t have close friends at 60, 70, or 80, we’re going to be more isolated. For those of us who got a taste of isolation during COVID, we know how debilitating that can be.

Ironically, even though we know how important it is to have a close social circle, as we get older, we start to weed out friendships that cause stress or make us unhappy. Maybe it’s because we know time is running out that we don’t want to waste our time on people who drain us rather than fill us up.

What about Facebook and other social media platforms? It might surprise you to know that older adults are now the fastest-growing demographic segment on the social network. The good news is that it can make finding and reconnecting with friends we’ve lost touch with and getting to know new ones much easier. The bad news is that sitting in front of a computer screen and engaging in virtual relationships rather than face-to-face meetings contributes to the isolation we may already be feeling.

So, what’s the answer? How do we break unhealthy patterns to create new and satisfying relationships in our lives? The obvious answer for me was first to reconnect with activities I used to enjoy and second, to take a chance and dive in headfirst.