As a human resources executive, Carole Leskin traveled around the world and worked with a diverse group of interesting people. She never married and never had children, but life was full. Then a recession ended her career at age 65. Leskin floundered.
“I was out of work, without purpose, bored and desperately lonely,” she said. “Sometimes my only human interaction was with someone in line at the supermarket.”
To meet people, Leskin took a class at the Jewish Community Center near her home in Moorestown, NJ. Initial attempts to connect failed; she introduced herself but got nowhere. Finally, she met four women who welcomed her into their group. For years, the group shared countless hours of conversation, lunches and road trips.
Then, one by one, all the other women in the group died. Leskin developed health problems that left her homebound. Once again, she was lonely and desperate for connection.
Leskin’s struggle is not only common, it has massive societal implications. A growing body of research points to the importance of social connections for the health and well-being of older adults.
“Isolation can be as deadly as obesity and smoking,” said Kasley Killam, MPH, a social scientist and the executive director of Social Health Labs, a nonprofit working to address loneliness and social connection. “In fact, its health consequences cost Medicare an estimated $6.7 billion each year. We need to take better care of older adults’ social well-being.”
Social connections were the key predictor of a long, healthy and happy life in the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which began in 1938 and closely followed hundreds of men over the course of their lives. Those in the study who were more socially connected to family, friends and community were happier, physically healthier and lived longer than those who were less connected. Other research links loneliness with greater sensitivity to pain, suppression of the immune system, diminished brain function and less effective sleep. The evidence is so compelling that one expert called loneliness a public health emergency.
Since the pandemic, American men are in the middle of a “friendship recession.”
“Loneliness kills,” said Robert Waldinger, MD, the Harvard study’s director. “And the sad fact is that at any given time, more than one in five Americans will report that they’re lonely.”
Lane McCullough, 61, was one of those lonely people. After his divorce last year, he found himself spending his evenings alone at home, bingeing Netflix or staring at the walls. He tried going to a few bars; that proved expensive and fruitless. He tried a singles group; people in the group didn’t seem friendly.
“It’s difficult to get and keep friends,” he said. “Where do you go? What do you do? There’s no guide for this.”
While that’s not strictly the case—books and resources on friendship abound—it’s true that loneliness affects men more than women, according to Killam. One study of over 46,000 people in more than 200 countries found that loneliness was more common among men. Post-pandemic, American men are in the middle of a “friendship recession.” Men’s social circles have shrunk since 1990, and the percentage of men without any close friends has risen.
Friendships are especially critical for older adults who don’t have adult children or close family members. Wendl Kornfeld, 74, and her husband have no children. Having cared for their aging mothers, she saw how vulnerable people can become later in life. That inspired her to start Community as Family, an education model for older adults who don’t have children or family, at her synagogue in New York. As participants met weekly to learn to navigate their older years, they naturally formed supportive relationships. After eight years as a group, the members sit shiva together, hold house keys for each other or pick each other up from the hospital. Now Kornfeld advises other nonprofits as they adopt the approach.
Making the first move may be daunting or awkward. That’s inevitable. “If you really want friends, you have to be motivated,” said Kornfeld. “You’re going to have to get outside your comfort zone. It won’t come naturally. Friends need to be replenished, because life takes them away from you.”
Challenging at Any Age
Making friends is hard for adults of any age. As a young mother in the 1990s, Marla Paul remembers filling out an emergency card for her daughter’s school shortly after a move to a Chicago suburb. There were spaces for three neighborhood contacts; she didn’t have a single name to write. That inspired Paul to write an essay for the Chicago Tribune, which sparked a flurry of letters from readers who shared her struggle, and ultimately led Paul to write a book, The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore (2005).
Almost 30 years later, Paul says it’s still challenging to make friends but in different ways. Her daughter is grown; social connections through her daughter’s school or activities have long disappeared.
Sometimes the best way to make friends is to get involved in local groups that are doing things that interest you.
“When you’re older, you have to be more proactive,” she said. “If you’re retired, you are not organically seeing people every day on a job. You have to work harder to find people. Virtually every new life chapter has the potential to disrupt friendships: moving, leaving an office to stay home, divorce, the death of a spouse, retirement, illness.”
That was the case for Mina Gupta, 82, a retired microbiologist. She had no trouble making friends until she and her husband moved from the Dallas area to a suburb of Seattle in 2013. The new home was closer to grandchildren, but their social network was thousands of miles away in Texas.
“It was horrible,” she said. “I knew almost everyone in the Indian community in the Dallas area. Here, I just couldn’t seem to connect with people.”
For Gupta, the solution was getting involved. She began volunteering at a hospital nursery, snuggling the babies of mothers with substance addictions, which led to friendships with the staff and fellow volunteers. Later, to meet fellow gardeners, she put an invitation on NextDoor (a neighborhood-based social media platform) and started a garden club.
Getting involved also helped Donna Bearden, 75, after she and her husband relocated to Loveland, CO, 10 years ago. She found friends by joining and teaching classes in photography, art and writing. It wasn’t hard to meet people, given that those in the classes shared her passions. Bearden adds that she also learned to advocate for herself in group situations to make sure she was connecting. She wears a hearing aid; if she can’t hear well, she’ll ask people at her book club to speak up.
“Hearing loss can make you feel so isolated and left out,” she said. “It didn’t come easy, but I’ve learned to be a little bit assertive.”
Fishing for Friends
Showing up—whether for a singles group, a volunteer job or a community college class —is a first step but doesn’t automatically lead to friendships. Converting acquaintances into friends requires intentional effort.
“Friend-finding is like fishing,” writes Hope Kelaher, LCSW, in Here to Make Friends: How to Make Friends as an Adult (2020). “Casting out the line and, several reels and hooks in, waiting for a bite. And some days … you don’t catch anything at all.”
“Fishing” for friends is more effective when approached with intentionality and positivity. Research shows that people who think friendships happen organically—based on luck—are lonelier, according to Marisa Franco, author of Platonic: How Understanding Your Attachment Style Can Help You Make and Keep Friends (2022). She advises friend-seekers to beware the “liking gap.” Research shows that, when strangers interact, they’re often more liked by the other person than they assume. By contrast, thinking positively becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“When people do assume others will like them, they tend to become warmer, friendlier and more open,” Franco writes.
Developing friendships takes time and effort. One study estimates it takes 50 hours of interaction just to make a casual friend, and 200 hours of time together to create a close friendship.
Persistence, along with trial and error, finally paid off for Lane McCullough. He found another singles group, Phase 2 Singles 50+, aimed at fostering friendships, not dating. The group boasts a busy calendar of outings and several subgroups based on different interests. Now McCullough goes out at least twice a week, one night playing pickleball and the other socializing.
“It’s a great group,” he said. “We just clicked.”
If you’re open to friendships with people who aren’t your age, you’ll have more potential friends to connect with.
Social scientist Killam urges older adults to cultivate habits that strengthen “social muscles.” Studies show that people feel happier when they spend at least 10 minutes on the phone a few times a week or connect with people five times a day, whether in person, with a text or an email.
Kelaher also advises older adults to look beyond their peers for their pool of possible new friends. She cites an acquaintance in her 70s who chatted with younger neighbors and occasionally babysat; now there’s a steady stream of visitors of all ages in her home.
When people are open to friendships of any age, “it really expands the universe of potential friends,” adds Irene Levine, a former clinical psychologist and the author of Best Friends Forever (2009). Intergenerational friendships also offer extra benefits; younger friends may have different perspectives and may appreciate the wisdom and experience of an older person.
In addition, be open to places to find connections: join an exercise class, alumni group, group travel, volunteer project, or local fan groups for sports teams. If possible, select activities that meet several times or on a regular basis, advises Franco. Faces will grow familiar, increasing the chances of connection.
Happily, the Internet opened options for connecting, virtually and in person. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many older adults learned to use new technology platforms, like Zoom and FaceTime. Apps like Meetup, Friender and BarkHappy (for dog lovers) help connect people with common interests. Neighborhood platforms also offer a place to start.
A word of caution: take care when venturing online to meet people, says Thomas Preininger, LCSW, a counselor at the Ecumenical Center, a mental health agency in San Antonio, TX. Online scammers target lonely older adults: he knows several who lost tens of thousands of dollars to fraudsters who posed as empathetic friends, gained their trust and then asked for money.
“If someone asks you for money, cut them off right away,” he advises.
For Carole Leskin, now 77, virtual connections became her lifeline after her friends died. She’s housebound due to a stroke and heart failure but has new friends all over the world. She connects via Facebook and through her blog posts on sites like Jewish Sacred Aging. Virtual acquaintances gradually evolved into close friends; she keeps in touch regularly via Zoom, texts and email. Recently, Leskin talked for hours on the phone with a friend in Melbourne, Australia. They’ve never met in person but share common interests in nature and in wetlands, in particular.
“There is something about this kind of communication that allows for greater sharing,” she said. “It is more thoughtful, uninterrupted and open. In a way, I am closer to these people than I was to my now deceased friends.”
Freelance writer Mary Jacobs lives in Plano, TX, and covers health and fitness, spirituality, and issues relating to older adults. She writes for the Dallas Morning News, the Senior Voice, Religion News Service and other publications; her work has been honored by the Religion Communicators Council, the Associated Church Press and the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Visit www.MaryJacobs.com for more.