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Never Too Old For Friends

Henry Ford (1863-1947), the great American industrialist, once stated,“There are three things that grow more precious with age; old wood to burn, old books to read, and old friends to enjoy.” Presumably, this quote is from a time in his life when he could look back on personal friendships which had existed for many years. Social science did not begin to catch up with Ford’s recognition of the value of friendship until the 1970s and 80s.

Friendship is an interesting relationship to study because it is completely voluntary and usually begins and ends informally. In addition, a person’s decision about whether or not to consider another individual a “friend” is very subjective. While agreement about a general definition of friendship exists, there are no concrete criteria which can be applied to identify a friend like there are for a coworker, neighbor, family member, or other social role.

Social scientists have developed several theories about friendships:

                Functionalist theory: Friends serve specific purposes in an individual’s life which differ from other social partners, such as the formation of social identity and support for shared interests and activities.

                Socioemotional selectivity: This theory proposes that the concept of time influences friendships.  Younger adults expect to have a longer future than older adults.  As a result, younger adults have a stronger focus on gaining knowledge and experience, and developing social relationships which will be beneficial for the long-term. Older adults prioritize friendships and other social relationships which provide current meaning and pleasure.

                Social convoy model:  Individuals maintain several levels (convoys) of social networks throughout life. These networks form based on personal (such as age, gender, interests) and situational (geography, living arrangements, working vs. retired) characteristics.  The intimacy, quality, function, and framework (size, frequency & type of contact) of each convoy differs. The specific friends which compose each convoy often change throughout an individual’s life. 

                Relational regulation theory:  Routine conversation and social interaction has a beneficial effect on managing stress in life by supporting individuals in the moderation of their attitudes, thoughts, and actions.

Each of the above theories contributes value to understanding friendships. Studies testing all of these theories have consistently demonstrated that friendships are important for older adults and contribute to their overall emotional and physical health.

Although family members also provide important social contacts for older adults, friendships allow for interaction between individuals without attached strings.  Conversations and time spent with family members may often include routine tasks or required decision-making, while a phone call or meeting with a friend usually has a more relaxed and recreational focus.

Are a few close friends better than a larger number of casual friends?  Not necessarily. Among older adults, close friendships have been associated with a higher reported level of well-being than casual or a lack of friendships.  We develop close friendships when we determine that certain people contribute meaning to our lives, and both parties have a desire to continue and grow the relationship. Close friends may have recently arrived in our lives, or they may be long-lasting relationships, like Mr. Ford’s, which help connect our past with the present and bring the anticipation of future pleasure. We may have almost daily contact with close friends, or less frequent but still regular engagement. Close friendships provide us with stability and security.

On the other hand, contact with casual friends is often less familiar. Unexpected or infrequent meetings and conversations offer a change to our usual routine and expectations. A number of studies have shown that the novelty of these interactions has been found to improve mood and happiness.  Thus, opportunities to connect with different types of people under a variety of circumstances also contribute to quality of life for older adults.

If you are looking for ways to broaden your social circle, here some ideas Adults who are less active, whether by circumstance or by choice, still have opportunities to make friends. A little effort on your part may reap priceless rewards.

Karen Kaslow, RN, BSN