Jun 10, 2009

Make Younger Friends

If most of your friends are about your age or older and you live into your 80s, many, if not most, will die or become mentally incapacitated before you do. Not only will this deprive you of their companionship and increase the likelihood that you will spend many hours and days alone, but losing a friend is always a painful event. This is true even though you still have other friends or the ability to make new ones. Here is how my friends Michael Phillips and Catherine Campbell, authors of Simple Living Investments for Old Age (Clear Glass Publishing) -- a small book I highly recommend -- put it:

The death of friends, including lovers and family, will be a powerful and debilitating force. As we age, the names listed in our personal phone books will slowly be crossed out. To sense the extent of the problem, we can imagine a party to which a large number of long-time friends are invited. Now picture the same guest list when we are 65: One out of four, 25% of our male friends, will have died. By the time we are 85, only one out of five men who were our friends at age 35 will still be alive, and only two out of five women.

When we travel to a city where we once had many friends, it will be painful to try to reconnect with them. Too often the person on the other end of the phone will say, "He died in March, didn't you hear?"

To clearly understand how death will rob us of our friends as we age, consider that a person who had 200 friends, close associates and relatives in his/her life-circle at age 35 will -- at age 75 -- be losing to death one male friend every two months and one female friend every four months. Ten years later, when that person is 85, the rate of loss will have doubled, with a male friend dying every month and a female friend dying every other month. The death rate difference between males and females means that those of us still alive at age 85 will have twice as many women friends as men, assuming we started with an equal number of each in our earlier days.
Fortunately, there is a simple way to plan ahead to cope with this unhappy eventuality: Consciously make and keep younger friends throughout your life--people who, statistically at least, are unlikely to die before you do. At first, this may sound calculating, or even selfish--after all, since authentic friendship comes from the heart, not the head, deliberately deciding to cultivate younger friends would seem to contradict friendship's most basic premise. I don't buy this argument, for two reasons:

  • First, in the larger context of the inevitability of human aging and death, each of us must find a way to live out our final years with dignity and, hopefully, a little joy. Cross-generational friendships are simply one commonsensical and traditional way to do this.
  • Second, and probably more importantly, making good friends with anyone -- young or old -- is never a one-way street. You can't force someone to become or stay your friend. Bridges of affection are built and maintained between people only to the degree that there is both a mutual attraction and sharing, which usually means that each person has something to offer the other. Younger people, for example, are often attracted to the knowledge and experience of a person who has resided on this planet a little longer. And older people are commonly drawn to the energy, fresh ideas, and vivacity of people who are many years younger.
Just in case you are still concerned that deliberately setting out to make younger friends is a mite selfish, it's easy to even the score by making an effort to befriend several people who are older than you are. My experience of doing the interviews for the book Get A Life: You Don't Need A Million to Retire Well has again forcefully reminded me that people who have lived a few years more than I have often have the experience and wisdom to teach me a great deal about how to live a more fulfilling life. I suspect that if you take the time to talk about aging with the older people in your life, you will have a similar experience. We all need good role models when confronting the big transitions in our life, be it leaving home and establishing our independence, establishing our first intimate relationship outside our family, finding and succeeding in our work, or learning how to grow old gracefully.