As We Get Older, the Importance of Friendship Grows

July 25, 2023

There’s no denying the vital roles friendship plays at all stages of life. We learn from our friends, have fun with them, confide in them, celebrate our successes and victories with them and rely on them for emotional support when life challenges us.

Friendship also benefits us mentally and physically, research shows. Friends help us enjoy better health, improve our quality of life and may even extend how long we live. Of note, it appears these benefits are particularly pronounced in older adults.

With the International Day of Friendship coming up on July 30, why not take the opportunity to thank your friends for all they do?

Why Is Friendship Important for Older Adults?

For seniors, friendship can quite literally be a lifeline.

According to results from the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging conducted in January 2023, over the past year, one in three adults ages 50 to 80 reported feeling isolated from others at least some of the time, and a similar proportion reported having contact with people from outside of their home once a week or less often. A slightly higher percentage (37%) reported feeling a lack of companionship at least some of the time.

Research cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows loneliness and social isolation significantly increase the risk of premature death and are associated with:

  • Approximately a 50% greater risk of dementia
  • A 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke
  • Higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide

Connecting with others on a regular basis can prevent older adults from feeling lonely and cut off from the rest of the world. And while relationships with family members are vital, friendships are “a stronger predictor of health and happiness” as people get older, according to research led by William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University.

“Friendships become even more important as we age,” Chopik says. “Keeping a few really good friends around can make a world of difference for our health and well-being.”

Why do friendships seem to have more of an impact on health and happiness for older adults than relationships with family members? Chopik says it’s because family members often become caregivers for older adults, and those relationships may be associated with a sense of obligation. Senior friendships, on the other hand, are valued for the joy they bring.

Having Good Friends Can Lead to Better Health — and a Longer Life

Older adults who maintain social connections reap the emotional rewards of friendship, and studies indicate they experience better physical and mental health as well.

Spending time with friends can lower the risk of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, while preventing harmful effects social isolation can have on the immune system.

Friends can lower our stress by adding fun to our days and supporting us during difficult times. They encourage us to stay active, physically and mentally. They might also encourage us to be open to trying new things and considering other points of view.

These benefits may help to explain why seniors with good social relationships tend to have better cognitive function. Research led by Ruixue Zhaoyang at Pennsylvania State University demonstrated that having more frequent daily social interactions, and particularly having more pleasant social interactions, is associated with better cognitive performance not just on the day of the interaction(s) but also for two days afterward.

It’s not surprising that the positive effects strong social relationships have on both physical and mental health appear to increase longevity.

“Over the past few decades now, growing evidence shows people who are more socially connected live longer, and people who are more isolated or lonely are at increased risk for early mortality,” Brigham Young University psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad told Deseret News.

Getting Together Is Better in Person

While all forms of connecting are beneficial, developmental psychologist Susan Pinker emphasizes the importance of in-person interactions in a 2017 TED Talk:

“Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters. And like a vaccine, they protect you now in the present and well into the future. Shaking hands, giving somebody a high-five is enough to release oxytocin, which increases your level of trust, and it lowers your stress. And dopamine is generated, which gives us a little high. And it kills pain. It’s like a naturally produced morphine.”

Circumstances such as lack of transportation and mobility or health issues can make it difficult for older adults to connect with friends and family in person. In those instances, relying on virtual connections via Zoom, FaceTime and other digital platforms can still have a decidedly positive impact.

Even receiving a handwritten letter or a greeting card is enough to brighten someone’s day and sustain a healthy connection.

How Seniors Can Cultivate New Relationships

It’s not unusual for older adults to see their social circle grow smaller with the passing of time. They may lose close friends, and long-time neighbors may move away. Their adult children and grandchildren may live in another state. They may stop engaging with others because their hearing, eyesight or mobility isn’t what it used to be.

Ironically, at a time of life when social interactions take on even greater significance, seniors may find it more challenging than ever to form new connections. Fortunately, with a little effort and the right mindset, forging new friendships is possible.

Here are several suggestions for meeting people and increasing your pool of potential new friends:

  • Explore groups and clubs in your area, or start one of your own. If you like to read or play cards or mahjong, join a book club or find a group that plays your favorite games. Would you like to learn more about photography, bird watching or painting with watercolors? Or do you have skills you could teach others?
  • Take classes to improve your physical or intellectual health. Is there a fitness facility nearby that offers classes you’d enjoy taking? Have you tried yoga, tai chi or water aerobics? Have you looked into courses available at the community college nearest you?
  • Volunteer at a church, school, food pantry or animal shelter. Along with doing some good for your community, you’ll come into contact with people you might not meet through your usual routine. Volunteering can also give you a renewed sense of purpose.
  • See what’s going on at the senior center in your community. If your area doesn’t have a center specifically for older adults, check out the “regular” community center. It may offer classes, activities and events for seniors. At the very least, you may discover interesting options that are open to the general public.

You might need to nudge yourself to step outside of your comfort zone, but keep your eye on the prize. Gaining a new friend will make it worth your while.

If the thought of going somewhere alone isn’t appealing, ask someone you trust to go with you. Think of it as an adventure. Most of all, be yourself.

Endless Opportunities to Make Friends Await You at The Variel

In any senior living community, the early residents play a key role in defining the community’s culture, and that has certainly been true here at The Variel. Friendship flows throughout The Variel because those who’ve chosen to be with us in our first year are a sociable, fun-loving bunch.

You’ll find countless ways to meet people here and be part of the social fabric that weaves new friendships together, including an abundance of social activities, classes at our Zenergy fitness center and the area’s “most happening happy hours.”

We invite you to visit us and see how well you’ll fit in as a member of our community. While you’re here, you can chat with those who’ve already made The Variel their home. They’re eager to meet you, and so are we.

To arrange a personal visit, please complete this short form or call (818) 651-0168. We hope to see you soon!

Featured Image: Shutterstock / Prostock Studio