Moving to a new area, retiring, going through divorce or the death of a partner are all times of life that can reduce our circle of friends. For many, making fresh or better friends as you get older seems a near-impossible task without the natural pool of work colleagues that often helped create our social lives.
But the good news is that with a bit of derring-do, you can do something about it. After all, there are many like-minded people out there going through the same life stages that you are. Company is good for you – for your emotional and physical health and simply to make good times even better – so make the effort. As James Taylor sang, ‘Ain’t it good to know you've got a friend’.
Read our guide to finding a new purpose in retirement.
What sort of friend do you need?
When clients ask her how to widen their social circle, Karen Perkins, a Sheffield-based life coach who often works with older people, tells them to think about what sort of person they are and which sort of new pals will complement that. ‘Get existing friends and relatives to text you three phrases that describe you,’ she suggests. ‘‘‘Reliable” maybe, “fun to be around”, “a great helper”. Look for someone who’ll complement those qualities. A good listener, perhaps, if you like talking; a glass-half-full person if you’re a little pessimistic.’
Elisabeth Davies wrote Growing Old Outrageously (Allen & Unwin) with old school chum Hilary Linstead, chronicling their experiences travelling the world together after being reunited in retirement. Their partnership succeeded, says Elisabeth, because they had different talents: she had ideas for trips, while Hilary did the planning; Elisabeth was the expert on culture, Hilary was the foodie.
Target the people who really fit your personality’s needs, agree the experts, and the friendships you make can be stronger and deeper.
Don't be afraid to approach people
You’ve got to poke a bit into people’s business a bit if you want to discover who you will hit it off with. A 54-year-old art-loving former teacher friend of mine from London used to glance through her neighbours’ window, see them in their sitting room and wonder if they’d get on. One day, she noticed an interesting painting on the wall, so she marched up their front path and introduced herself. They got talking about the picture and have been close ever since.
With a contacts book of 50,000, Carole Stone is the queen of networking, paid large sums by companies to bring businessmen and potential clients together over lunch. She puts her success down to being curious about almost everyone she meets and making a conscious effort to ask them about themselves.
‘I often go up to people on their own,’ she says. ‘At parties, I hover at the edge of a conversation and wait for a pause. Sometimes, people might snub you, but it doesn’t matter – I’m not planning to marry them! Don’t worry about what you have to offer. There are things you’ll never know about someone if you don’t ask.’
We all know hobbies and interests are a good way to meet people. ‘They give you things to talk about and make you more interesting,’ adds Karen Perkins. Waiting around for something to happen rather than getting stuck into an activity, she points out, can also make you frustrated and less good company.
But for some people, activities are an absolutely essential tool for building friendships. Many of us, particularly men, are not particularly comfortable with the sort of direct communication you might have at a meal out or party. ‘Women are better face-to-face,’ says Kate Bennett, a psychologist at the University of Liverpool, who specialises in social relationships later in life. ‘Whereas men do things side-by-side.’ So they are far more likely to make good mates playing golf, football or fishing.
Former community worker Mike Jenn founded the UK Men’s Shed Association, which currently has 187 activity centres around the UK where men can turn wood, work metal or tinker with bicycles, and maybe strike up a chat. ‘The sheds can help people rediscover their purpose in life, giving them a shared interest to discuss, which then opens them up to speak about personal problems. It can improve not just their personal health but relations with their partner at home.’
Alternatively, volunteering is a great way to mix with people with similar concerns, says Karen Perkins. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations supports volunteer centres across England – find your nearest one via the website – where you’re likely to find opportunities from gardening to helping disadvantaged children. Or why not offer to walk the dog of a housebound or working person? ‘It gets you out and dog owners tend to like other “dog” people!’ says Perkins.
You can learn new skills – from IT to pottery – while making friends through a hobby, and it can even make you money. I know a divorced mum in her sixties who runs a market stall, partly for the banter with fellow traders, but who makes a tidy income from it too.
But don’t do lots of activities just to keep yourself busy, cautions Kate Bennett. ‘Distraction is not a particularly helpful strategy. You’re more likely to stick at something and value it if it gives you pleasure, rather than because you’ve just decided it’ll do you good.’
Read our guide to keeping busy and social in retirement.
Look to the future
If you want to turn occasional friends into closer pals, don’t constantly talk to them about your own or shared memories. ‘With friendships, the liveliest energy comes when you are looking ahead,’ says writer and former priest Mark Vernon, author of The Meaning of Friendship (Palgrave Macmillan).
Relationships that derive all of their energy from the past, he says, sometimes feel as if they’re on the way out.
Michael Pass, 57, a retired accountant, and his 53-year-old partner often talked about future plans with a female sailing buddy. This brought them closer and she invited them to stay in her Algarve villa.
She herself found love after they all worked on her profile for a crew-finding website and is now sailing around the South Pacific with one of the respondents. Finally the friendship led to an entire change in lifestyle, when Michael and his partner decided to move from England to be closer to her in Portugal. ‘I’d be happy to leave here in a box,’ says Michael of his friend-fuelled new home.
Get down with the kids
It’s not healthy to rely on your children as your best friends, but they can be a great introduction to other people. A friend whose son plays football with a club in south-east London has noticed lots of men coming along with their grandchildren and forging friendships. Sixty-year-old music teacher Serena Gambarini was able to become the pianist for the Colerne Military Wives Choirs near her home in Wiltshire because her son was in the army. ‘I enjoy the music enormously, but there’s also a huge sense of togetherness.’
It’s easier for older people to tap into friendship through younger generations – be it helping at a grandchild’s school fete or going to adult children’s drinks parties – says Karen Perkins, because in such groupings ‘they feel they have a common purpose or a role, perhaps as a grandparent, and that gives them self-esteem’.
Find out how intergenerational learning can help young and old.
Be a good host
When you’ve met some fascinating folk, invite them over for a drink to get to know them better – but act on the invitation as soon as possible. ‘If you say something to a possible new friend, it’s important to follow through quickly,’ stresses Kate Bennett.
Having people round to your place seizes the initiative and will make it easier to socialise. ‘People are more confident in their own homes,’ says Bennett. ‘They’re in control, in their comfort zone.’
Carole Stone, who admits she’s a hopeless cook, loves inviting people round to her Covent Garden flat for a simple lunch or a glass of wine and crisps.
Her newly divorced cousin tells people she’ll be at home between 10.30am and 12 on two consecutive Saturdays and invites them to drop in for a coffee. ‘If no one turns up just read the paper!’ she says.
Use our recipe finder to plan the perfect dinner party.
Take time to laugh and be happy
According to a study by psychologist Alan Gray of University College London, laughing with someone makes you more likely to disclose secrets about yourself, forming deeper relationships. This may be because the endorphins released banish negativity and make people more outgoing.
So why not get a group of people together to go to a comedy show? The very act of organising an outing will help your social life. ‘Become the arranger and people will come to you,’ suggests Karen Perkins.
Or, if you’re a woman over 50, join your local branch of the Red Hat Society whose members dress up in red hats and purple dresses for cinema visits, picnics and other daft fun.
Try to be upbeat. I know of an older couple who have a rule that they and their friends only talk about their ailments for the first ten minutes after meeting. Frequent moaners can make people feel drained or frustrated, says Perkins.
Read about the benefits of laughter yoga.
A friend in need is still a friend
‘Be willing to be vulnerable,’ says Karen Perkins. ‘Sharing some of your story can make others empathise more with you, building trust.’
Seek help when you need it. After Ruth Binney’s husband died, their Dorchester allotment became a little too much for her. One day she found a rat in her compost bin and had to ask a local villager to get rid of it.
It turned out Charles, who was in his fifties, wanted more space to grow vegetables. ‘So we became allotment partners,’ says Ruth, 71. They help each other with the work but their chats also make Ruth feel ‘more comfortable with myself as a single person’.
Read our guide to websites to help make friends.
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