How Friendships Change—and What You Can Do to Strengthen Them
A lot changes as we get older, and our friendships are no exception. Here’s how to keep your friendships strong, even if they look different than before.
Maybe you’ve been pals since kindergarten. Or maybe you connected at your first job, or when you kids were toddlers. No matter how your friendship began, you’ve been together through thick and thin—and you always figured you’d be friends forever.
But now that you’ve reached retirement age, you may have noticed that some of your friendships have changed.
Maybe Pat has always been more outgoing than you, but it never mattered much. As the years have gone by, though, you’re having trouble keeping up with her always-on-the-go pace.
Perhaps Tom stopped accompanying you on your afternoon bike rides because he’s too busy caring for his partner. Now you’re not sure where you fit into the picture.
Or maybe Linda has moved across the country to help with her grandchildren. You’re missing her a lot and wondering if you’ll ever find a new best friend.
Friendships evolve. Social networks shrink. “It’s an unavoidable part of life,” says Gary Kennedy, M.D. He’s the director of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.
“That means that the friendships that remain are more important than ever,” Dr. Kennedy says. “You can make the best of what is, right now. Just because your relationship has changed doesn’t mean that it’s not valuable.”
Friendship, after all, is a superpower. A recent review of studies found that it can lower your risk of chronic illness, boost your immune system, and even help you sleep well, stay more active, and have a healthier diet.
Most of all, friendships just make your life better, no matter how old you are. Here are strategies for keeping your friendships strong—even when they’re a little different than they used to be.
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Start a Conversation
As life circumstances change and health issues pop up, don’t be afraid to talk about it. After all, you’ve been friends for a long time, so be open about your concerns.
Don’t shy away from difficult conversations with people you love. Friendships take work, just like relationships do,” says Padraic Stanley, LCSW. He’s the coordinator of health promotion programs at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
“I’ve heard people say things like, ’My friend did this or that, so I just stopped reaching out to them. Now, years later, I regret that so much.’”
Say what’s on your mind, says Stanley. A few honest words over a cup of coffee can get your friendship back on track.
Adjust Your Expectations
“If one part of your friendship falls away, focus on the other parts,” says Dr. Kennedy.
Can’t go for weekend hikes anymore? Is your bowling league in the gutter? Talk to your friend about other activities you can do together.
“Maybe you’re both avid readers or interested in politics. Find something else to connect on,” he says.
Meet up at your place (or theirs) to talk about the latest book you’re reading or make calls for the library fundraising campaign. Trying new things can enrich your friendship and make it even stronger.
There’s even a way to tap into SilverSneakers for a friendship assist. After all, group fitness classes make for a great friend outing. Line Dancing and Zumba Gold are two popular, high-energy options. Or if you’re both feeling mellow, consider something like SilverSneakers Yoga or EnerChi. You can browse the SilverSneakers LIVE schedule and RSVP here.
Recommended reading: 11 Best Ways to Spend an Hour with a Friend
Tap Into Technology
If your friend has moved away, you can still stay connected through technology. FaceTime and Zoom calls (and plain old-fashioned phone conversations and letters) mean that your friendship can withstand the distance.
“You can play checkers or cards on a video call,” says Dr. Kennedy. “And if you have a problem with technology, just ask one of the kids.” (Find our helpful guide to Zoom Tips and Tricks for Older Adults here.)
Other resources: Your local library or your Area Agency on Aging may be able to help you get set up. So schedule a weekly chat with your far-away friend. It’s almost as good as being together in person.
Lend a Hand
Has your friend dropped your get-togethers because of caregiving duties? It’s easy to understand why your friendship may be on the back burner now. But they may need you more than ever.
“If your friend is overburdened, they might not have much time to spare,” says Dr. Kennedy. “But they don’t need you any less. They need the sense of constancy that your friendship can provide. Don’t abandon a friendship just because they don’t have as much time for you as you want.”
Check in on them with a weekly phone call or offer to stay with their loved one for an hour while your friend gets a haircut or runs errands.
“Just asking, ’What can I do for you?’ is a pretty good definition of friendship,” says Dr. Kennedy.
Recommended reading: 5 Ways to Support Someone Dealing With a Health Crisis
Make New Friends
You’re never too old to form a new friendship, says Stanley.
“I’ve seen so many friendships flourish in senior centers—at meals and exercise rooms, social activities and classes. It helps to open your mind to who you can establish a friendship with,” he says.
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Your potential new friend could be the person in front of you in line at the coffee shop. They could be looking for a new library book in the same section as you. They could be anywhere — you just have to keep an open mind.
“A new friend can support you and keep you motivated on your goals,” says Stanley. “After all, they just want the best for you.”
Some ideas to get started:
Take a SilverSneakers class at a participating gym or community center. You’ll meet local, like-minded peers who may very well become new friends.
Contact your local Area Agency on Aging. They can put you in touch with local group events for older adults.
Attend workshops and support groups for chronic conditions. If you have diabetes, for instance, nobody understands your challenges better than people in the same boat. And these can be great places to meet new friends. A recent study of chronic pain support groups found that participants formed new friendships in addition to learning effective ways to cope with pain.
The big takeaway: When friendships change and shift, that can be stressful. And feeling bummed out is totally normal.
“Try to accept that friendships will look different as you grow older,” says Stanley. “You may not be going out, having mimosas on Sunday with the girls. But try not to get held up on the nostalgia of what things used to be. Try to accept what is now.”
And with a little effort, and a couple of friends, that can be pretty good, too.
See our sources:
Health risks of loneliness and social isolation: American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine
How peer support groups strengthen social connections: Pain Medicine
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