Why multigenerational friendships are beneficial as we age

Q. I am 75 years old and continue to work full-time in my profession. My husband’s social life and mine are intertwined. If he exits before me, will I have any friends? Two of my closest friends just passed away. Looking to the possibilities of the future, I probably should intentionally cultivate some younger friends now. How does one go about this? Many thanks. B.D.

Thank you for raising a complicated and important question. Here are some facts. 

Today, we have more opportunities to develop multigenerational relationships and friendships. According to an AARP survey, nearly four in ten adults have a close friend who is at least 15 years older or younger than they are. The friendships emanate predominantly from work (26%), then the neighborhood (12%), at church or temple (11%) or through mutual friends (10%). And these friendships endure. The survey indicated almost half of close intergenerational friendships have lasted at least 10 years and one in five has lasted for more than two decades.

Such friendships occur equally among men and women. However, having friends from a different generation is more common among boomers and Gen Xers than millennials. Respondents to the AARP survey indicated that these generational cohorts value having friends of different ages because of the diverse life perspectives they offer. Younger adults in particular indicated they often are inspired by their older friends, seeing them as role models.

Friendships are organic. They develop in a variety of venues and circumstances. Looking at my own experience, I am fortunate to have two very good friends around 15 years my junior. They just occurred; I was not looking for them. Both emanated from a leadership role I had in a nonprofit organization. One followed me as president; the other was a staff director. Our shared mission brought us together.

Working side by side, we got to know, respect and like one another. We began to celebrate holidays together and knew one another’s children. Each of these friendships has brought a new and valued dimension to my life. Since I have been a widow for the past 19 years, these relationships have become even more important. 

Let’s now dig a little deeper regarding what “younger” means. At age 76, you are among the leading edge of the boomer generation. A younger friend might be 60, which is of the same generation, although at the latter end. We know that individuals from the baby boom generation generally share some core values such as valuing equal rights and opportunities, personal growth, wanting to make a difference, optimism and more. These values may be the basis of making new connections. In contrast, having friends from a different generation may be the attraction.

That brings us to the second word which needs a little more exploration. And that is the term “friendship.” The question is, “What is one looking for in late-life friendships?” Here is a perspective from a chapter I contributed on friendships to the book “Getting Good at Getting Older” by the late Richard Siegel and Rabbi Laura Geller (Behrman House, 2019). Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher and physician described three kinds of friendships. “One that is of mutual benefit to one another, one that involves pleasure and trust, and one that each feels responsibility for one another.” We can look at these descriptors in the form of questions. Are we looking for mutual benefits, enjoyment and trust or mutual responsibility – or all of these? 

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A New York Times article from Oct. 1, 2022 headlined “How to Make and Keep Friends in Adulthood” focused on a conversation with Marisa Franco, author of “Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2022). As a psychologist who studies friendships, particularly in adulthood, Franco offers some suggestions. Assume strangers will like you; mindset matters. With that assumption, according to Franco, you will become warmer, friendlier and more open. She suggests joining something that meets regularly. That could be participating in a book group, attending religious services, volunteering on a regular basis or joining a walking or hiking group. She notes that we like people more when they are familiar to us. We also should let friends know that we value them; friends want to feel they matter. Just texting a friend can be more meaningful than we think. 

One final consideration. That is making the time in a busy professional and social life to explore new venues that may lead to new connections and ultimately new friends. 

B.D., Kudos to you for thinking ahead about the possibility of being without a partner in later life and acknowledging the importance of friendships. Stay well and know that kindness is everything. 

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity