Connecting with Friends After 50

By Robert F. Bornstein, PhD and Mary A. Languirand, PhD

In some ways all friendships are pretty much alike, and many of the same qualities that we valued in our friends when we were younger remain important to us now. We still want friends we know we can trust-people who have similar values and beliefs, and with whom we feel comfortable sharing the intimate details of our lives.

And along with these timeless qualities, certain aspects of friendship become more important as we age. University of Minnesota researcher Willard Hartup has studied the evolution of friendship across the lifespan, and he finds that as we move from middle to later adulthood we tend to focus more on the internal qualities of friends (their sense of humor, interests, attitudes, and moral values), and less on external factors (like whether they're part of the "in group").

It doesn't matter whether it's a friend you've known since childhood, or someone you met last week; late-life friendship brings many benefits. Three stand out.

  • Social contact

    One of the hidden costs of retirement is the loss of a ready-made social circle-your co-workers. Unless you're a very outgoing person you might find it harder than you think to rebuild this network after you stop working. But even if it's a struggle, it's worth the extra effort: In addition to providing companionship and social contact, friends act as sounding boards…a sort of informal "reality check". They provide feedback and perspective, correct our misperceptions (as we correct theirs), and remind us how other people see things.
  • Emotional support

    Friends provide an opportunity to talk about what ails you, and unburdening yourself of negative emotions actually enhances health and well-being. Studies show that people who spend the most time interacting with others feel better-they're happier, more active, and they live longer too. Ironically (or maybe not), one derives just as much benefit from offering support as receiving is-in this case giving really is as good as receiving.
  • Common bonds

    Just as friendships in our 20s are built in part upon shared interests, so are friendships in our 60s, 70s, and 80s. Though the specifics of our interests might have changed, the need to share them with someone who "gets it" has not. You might be close with a person in her 30s-and that's great-but she'll never understand what it was like to grow up during the era of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. (And she won't get your sly but clever references to All in the Family and Welcome Back Kotter….no matter how funny they are.)

Robert Bornstein and Mary Languirand are the authors of When Someone You Love Needs Nursing Home, Assisted Living, or In Home Care, published by Newmarket Press. The second edition, revised and updated, was recently released. Here's the link: