“Why is it hard to make friends over 30?” Alex Williams asked in The New York Times last month. There are, alas, many reasons, and they ring bleakly true for those of us who are over 30—way over 30—and experiencing a friendship gap.
But the greatest difficulty, gerontology professor Rebecca G. Adams told Williams, is that adults’ lives no longer provide the three conditions that people need in order to form close friendships: (1) proximity; (2) repeated, unplanned interactions; and (3) a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in one another.
And when do we all experience these bonding conditions? When we’re in high school, in college, and early in our careers. And not afterwards.
National Public Radio’s follow-up program on friendship triggered call-ins and Web comments that were poignant . . heartfelt . . . eloquent.
“Moving [to the suburbs] a few years ago, I have found it impossible to make new friends,” wrote Mary from Rockland County. “I’ve tried working part-time and have gotten involved with a local group that revolves around a common interest. I made acquaintances, but not strong friendships. Living in a community that relies on automobiles for transportation isolates people.”
“I read this article yesterday and said to myself, ‘Yes! So I’m not the only one struggling to find friends!’” wrote Mallory from Pittsburgh.
Paul from Long Island admitted to going through a midlife crisis at 51: “I feel like I’ve given the last dozen or more years of my life to my children and my career and lost sight of who I am—including losing touch with my friends. I am starting to remember who I was when . . . . Part of this is ‘doing things’ with friends that are not driven by my children’s schedule or to network my career.”
Kate from Rockland County commented on what it’s like to be a couple with no children: “When our friends began having theirs, we understood that much of their time/energy/effort would be devoted to their children, AS IT SHOULD BE. We worked very hard at maintaining the friendships. When the kids got older, all of us were able to nourish our friendships. However, now that we are in our 60′s, and our friends’ grandchildren have come along, we find that once again our friends’ responsibilities have shifted from pursuing and maintaining peer friendships to babysitting and being on call for last minute help. So, for those in the audience [without children] who think that it is difficult now . . . wait until you’re older and trying to make friends—it’s tough as well.”
The Solution . . . for Some of Us
Mercifully, neither Williams nor NPR offered the old-hat suggestions: taking a class, joining a church or synagogue, volunteering. Who hasn’t tried that?
Luckily for me, three years ago I found a genuine solution to the too-few-friends problem. The next year I would be retiring after a very rewarding 32-year career as a medical librarian for the federal government. And I was looking forward to it—then I’d have time to enjoy all that my city, Washington D.C., has to offer: museums, theater, biking, volunteer opportunities, book groups, and more. My husband was quite supportive—but since he planned to continue working at his government job, he wouldn’t be available to share my daytime adventures.
Then it came to me: I had one friend in the area who was no longer working full time. But most of my friends and acquaintances were librarians who were still on the job. How was I going to find new friends to spend time with during the day? So, as a good librarian, I began to research the ways in which career women were approaching retirement.
That’s how I came upon the website of the Transition Network and discovered its D.C. chapter. The mission of this organization is to nurture women “50 and forward” by connecting them with other accomplished women—to give them a sense of community, and to help them use their “knowledge and skills to build new social and professional networks, find volunteer opportunities, and savor life as they experience their individual transitions.” There was no such organization 11 years ago, when two high-level executives in New York, Charlotte Frank and Christine Millen, were facing retirement. So they started one.
TTN now has 11 chapters, located from Long Island to Santa Fe to Chicago to San Francisco (with more forming), each with a different flavor. The flagship chapter, in New York, has more than 550 members; they meet each other in intimate monthly gatherings (peer groups), monthly discussions with noted speakers, excursions around the city, workshops, travel groups (San Francisco is organizing an art study trip to Paris in the fall). As to the interest groups, they range from the typical (book clubs) to the unusual (Improvisation, Progressive Activists, All Things Jewish).
Some of the groups in D.C. (books, writing, dining, special-interest) appealed to me, so I paid the yearly dues and plunged in. Within six months I had met more than 25 smart, interesting, dynamic women, and some of them seemed to be developing into friends. Here were my retirement friends! And they weren’t all librarians! There was a refreshing diversity of personality and point of view, for I was meeting college professors, business executives, lawyers, writers, health-care administrators. I could hardly wait to retire so I could to spend more time with them.
The Second City
About four months before retirement day, my husband came home and told me he was looking at a new job. I said, “Yes, dear, that’s sounds good.” As long as I could retire, I didn’t mind what he did. But, to my surprise, he had his sights on a position in San Francisco. The job would be great for him, and San Francisco is everyone’s dream place to live; still, I actually thought, “But what about all my new friends?” I would have 25 people to say goodbye to, and in San Francisco I’d have to start all over.
I went to the computer to look at the TTN website—and was thrilled to see there was a chapter in San Francisco. “Okay,” I said, to my husband, “we can go.”
Within a month of arriving in San Francisco I went to a TTN-sponsored walk at the Presidio and immediately felt at home with the group. A member who lived near me offered to drive me home and invited me to join a walking group in the neighborhood. Soon I was in multiple groups again, meeting women as fabulous as the women in D.C.
These friendships go beyond just the meetings, discussions, and fun outings. A few months after we got to San Francisco, I needed foot surgery. I was quite moved when friends I’d met through TTN called, sent cards, and came by to visit.
My story may sound too good to be true, but it really happened—twice! The women who join this community are positive about exploring what’s next in their lives, interested in learning, and eager to meet other women. But I believe the key is that TTN provides the three vital-for-bonding conditions Williams noted in his article:
Proximity. TTN is national, but its heart and soul are the local chapters. This means that the women I meet will live close enough that I will see them regularly at our chapter and peer group meetings, and possibly even while shopping in my neighborhood.
Repeated, unplanned interactions. The frequency of peer-group meetings and monthly programs offers opportunities for repeated, unplanned interactions—a spontaneous decision, at a meeting, to go to the ballet with another member the next week, for instance. The peer groups meet on a monthly basis, so you can get to know each other over time. The chapter meetings and outings bring together women beyond your peer group. We always provide time for socializing, and it’s a great chance to meet new women and catch up with others.
Finding a safe place. The small (up to 12 members) peer groups meet monthly in one another’s homes, discussing topics they find meaningful. The peer groups value honesty and stress privacy, so over time the women do confide in each other about deeply meaningful and personal aspects of their lives. With this level of sharing, you feel the friendships deepen and grow. You don’t feel afraid to ask for help when you need it, even if it’s just a friend to talk to, because your peer group members are there, already knowing so much about you.
Making a close friend is something rare. But finding a pool of potentials is a very possible dream, in more than a dozen cities, for women of a certain age.