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June 16, 2009

Friends Are More Important Than Money

For years I've been making the point that a strong friendship network is key to leading a successful life after retirement. After years of having this subject largely ignored as a huge element of successful aging, it was great to read the New York Times' recent article, "What Are Friends For? A Longer Life".

Mentioned in this article is an Australian study that found that older people with a large circle of friends were 22% less likely to die (during the study period) than those who were more socially isolated -- and an even more fascinating 2007 study that reported a 60% increase in obesity among people whose friends gained weight.

But one key thing about the value of strong friendship ties that most studies and commentators have missed so far is that the age of your friends is at least as important as the number. Or, put another way, if your friends are predominantly older than you are, or of the same age, then the more you have, the more funerals you'll attend.

Watching friends decline and die is obviously no fun -- so little that each time you go through this, you'll be at high risk of being sad and depressed for weeks, if not months.

So if having lots of friends will enrich your later years and may even contribute to your longevity, but experiencing the death of a friend will obviously be a bummer, what course of action will be best? The answer is to make and keep a good number of younger friends. Obvious, you may be thinking, but a lot easier said than done. Not so! As I'll explore in my next post, there are many ways to make true friends of all ages.
June 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.
September 9, 2008

Engage in Online Social Networking

Your social network need not be defined by the people who can ring your doorbell. Many potential retirees have created friendships via the Internet that have proven rewarding and satisfying. Although never a complete replacement for flesh and blood contacts, online friendships can do much to banish loneliness and a feeling of isolation. One great thing about virtual social networking is that it doesn't require getting dressed (or even getting out of bed). In fact, you can do it in the middle of the night when you're having trouble sleeping. Get up and post a few thoughts at the Rock from the Sixties webring. Or make some comments at the Boston Terrier Blog, one of hundreds of thousands of websites detailing the activities of favorite canines. Or, you could check out what happened to one of your high school friends at Classmates.com.

The possibilities for social interaction online are endless. Once you enter discussion groups, engage in chat-room banter, or begin serious email threads with like-minded souls, you may find that virtual socializing is what you've wanted all your life -- honest communications without having to comb your hair.

A computer and Internet connection can liberate shy and isolated people with easy-to-use email, chat rooms, and blogs. Many people contemplating retirement -- or already retired -- have established their own websites or blogs (Blogger lets you set one up easily, for free), sharing their opinions or knowledge about a particular subject, like hiking the Grand Canyon, helping new businesses get off the ground, or playing better tennis after 50. Others facilitate communication about a particular interest -- for example, staying healthy while traveling to difficult places or coping with Parkinson's disease.

And best of all, you don't need your own computer to explore the online world. Many public libraries and other public institutions offer free Internet access. If you're new to networking, one site that's a good portal for midlifers is ThirdAge, which says it's "rewriting the rules for getting older."

Posting a profile at a social networking site may also be your cup of tea. Sites such as MySpace and Facebook began as networking tools for youth but have quickly grown to accomodate all ages. Generally, you post a profile, invite and attract friends, and communicate within the network about shared subjects of interest. Another possibility is Gather, a social networking site geared to adults and the exchange of ideas about culture and politics. There are also social networking sites for living green; strengthening and establishing business contacts; finding old friends, family, or classmates; and even social bookmarking sites for those who enjoy surfing the web.

People who will retire in the next few years can expect to find more and more networking sites. Silicon Valley has realized that Baby Boomers -- who outnumber teens three to one -- are more "sticky" than their younger counterparts, meaning they're more loyal to particular social networking sites. If you'd like to join a network of your peers, check out sites such as Eons, Rezoom, Multiply, Boomj, and Boomertown.
August 16, 2008

Create a Strong Friendship Network

Whether you retire rich, poor, or somewhere in the middle, you will almost surely be poor in spirit during your retirement years, unless you have both good friends and the skill to make more. And this is likely to be true even if after an over-busy life your dream is to avoid the chattering masses while looking for happiness in splendid isolation.

The reason we all need friends later in life is simple -- retirement can last a long time, and as we age, our old friends tend to die or disappear, just as we ourselves tend to get increasingly shy and intolerant. Thus, while at 25 we probably included all sorts of people in our broad friendship network, by 75. chances are we have become less trusting, less open, and more likely to give up on the possibility of making new friends.

And don't just assume that your old friends will see you through. Especially if you live a long time, your friends will move away and die. And friends who are closely linked to work, sports, or some other activity are likely to disappear when you change your routine. Add to this the possibility that, should your spouse die before you, many of your "couple friends" are likely to drift away, and it's easy to see why it's so important to be able to renew your friendship networks.

So ask yourself, when is the last time you made a real friend -- someone not connected with work or your raising kids? If the answer is "it's been a while," you have some work to do. That's because if you're already losing the knack of social networking in mid-life, you are highly unlikely to rediscover it when you are older and less sure of yourself.

To counter the real threat of spending a lonely retirement, commit yourself to making new friends now. And make sure that at least some of these friends are younger than you are. Think of it this way: If most of your friends are about your age or older, and you live into your eighties, 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, and 15% of the females will be dead. 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.