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March 25, 2022

Friendships boost well-being, but they're difficult to make as people age

Practical constraints make it challenging to make new friends in adulthood. But there are ways to overcome those barriers

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Duke Barnett Louis Bezich Courtesy/Louis Bezich

Louis Bezich, right, celebrates the wedding of his friend Duke Barnett, left, in 1978. The two have remained close over the decades, underscoring the benefit of long-term friendships.

In a couple weeks, my wife Maria and I will spend the weekend with our good friends, Duke and Sherri, who have retired near St. Augustine, Florida. My longstanding connection to Duke is the genesis of our friendship. Our dads were high school buddies, served in the Navy together and maintained a close friendship their entire lives. It was only natural that their sons would form a bond that we've maintained into our 60s.

As young kids, we lived in different towns, so our earliest relations were formed through family gatherings and sleepovers. When he was in high school, Duke's family moved down the street, so we navigated our high school years together – double dates, sports and a bit of juvenile mischief. Good times that today fuel our conversations and bring a smile. 

Fast forward, our bond has extended to Sherri. Together, their friendship has helped me through the trauma of divorce, among other things. I am godfather to one of their sons, and Duke fulfills the same role with one of mine.

As we've aged, the normal complications of life – adult children, work, relocation and, of course, COVID-19, have made it tougher to stay as close as we once were, but our connection remains strong. The lapse in time between contacts seems to disappear instantaneously when we're back together. The girls get a good laugh when we break into those stories of our youthful adventures and reminisce about our escapades. I'm looking forward.

When it comes to friendships, I consider myself lucky. There are a number of people at work and in my professional life whom I consider friends, as well as fraternity brothers and a couple of other childhood friends with whom I stay engaged. I'm not sure if I could replicate these relationships at this stage of my life. Turns out, I'm not alone. As we age, men are particularly challenged when it comes to making friends despite the positive impact they have on our health.  

Promoting physical and mental health

Johns Hopkins Medicine cites a growing amount of research demonstrating that friendship has powerful health benefits that can help protect you against everything from heart disease to the common cold.

The Harvard Medical School reports that older adults who interact with people outside their usual social circle of family and close friends were more likely to have higher levels of physical activity, greater positive moods, and fewer negative feelings. According to studies they site, varied social interactions translate into less time being sedentary.

The Cleveland Clinic echoes this sentiment, suggesting that friendships are particularly important as we age, and can even extend your life span. And, the National Institute on Aging tells us that there is particular risk of physical and mental problems when people find themselves alone due to the death of a spouse or partner, separation from friends or family, retirement, or lack of transportation.

The challenge

So why does it become more difficult to make friends as we age? The consensus among experts in the field is that it starts with the practical constraints at this stage of our lives – family obligations that include both parents and kids, and fewer opportunities to dedicate the time needed to grow relationships. Other factors include the increasing use of digital interactions, which are less personal. Finally, there are traditional barriers such as pride and a fear of rejection.

There are a number of reasons why it's hard to make friends after age 40. One man's list includes the need to have multiple commonalities with people, being set in your ways, a concern that you'll have nothing to talk about, and the propensity to find fault in everyone you meet.

Quality over quantity

When it comes to the kinds of meaningful friendships that impact our health and well-being, the Mayo Clinic advises that quality counts more that quantity. They give us a number of strategies to meet new friends. Their basics include keeping in touch with people with whom you've worked or taken classes, reconnecting with old friends, and following-up with people you've enjoyed chatting with at social gatherings. More advanced tactics include attending community events, volunteering and hitting the local fitness center. Above all, their advice is to stay positive.

AARP offers a host of tips on making friends as an older adult. They recommend everything from concerts, lectures and tai chi, to creating a Facebook page and inviting your neighbors over for dinner. The key, according to HelpGuide, a small nonprofit that covers all facets of physical and mental health, is to look for someone you can trust and share a meaningful level of understanding and communication. The friendship should make you comfortable giving and getting support.

What does your friendscape look like

Friendscape is a contemporary term that acknowledges the many types of friends in our lives – long-standing friends, co-workers, the guys at the gym, the occasional buddy. Everyone has a different need in each measure. What's you friendscape look like? Does it need a boost? Could you use a bit more diversity? No matter what your age, be mindful of the fact that the social benefits that come with friends can produce physical and mental benefits. Cultivating and maintaining friends are certainly worth the investment.

It will be good to spend time Duke and Sherri, a welcome break from COVID, Ukraine and concerns over inflation. We'll catch up on our kids and family, talk sports and celebrate our time together. Looking back is always fun, but equally motivating will be our discussion of the future. Will Maria and I get a place on Florida's west coast? Might Duke and Sherri move there and bring us closer geographically? Either way, we'll be grateful for the weekend and the knowledge that we're each contributing to our mutual health and well-being. That's what friends are for.

Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website. 

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