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The Power of Friendship After 50

Carolyn Jacobs February 2, 2020

It’s not easy to make friends as we grow older, but the effort pays off in surprising ways—from greater joy to longer life.

“It blows you away, how this wonderful event ever happened—me in your life, you in mine,” Anne Lamott wrote in her 2014 bestselling collection of essays, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace. Sounds romantic, but she’s not describing a love affair. “It’s called having friends, choosing each other, getting found, being fished out of the rubble… Cold winds arrive and prick you: the rain falls down your neck: darkness comes. But now there are two of you: Holy Moly.”

While spouses or life partners and family members play a major role in our overall wellbeing as we grow older, studies show that friendships may hold the key to happiness. Our friendships after 50 might not look the same or come as easily to us as those we formed in our 20s, but they are more precious than at any other time in our lives. As 82-year-old superstar and activist Jane Fonda put it, “I have friends, therefore I am.” She proves why in her Netflix series “Grace and Frankie” for which she won an Emmy Award co-starring with 80-year-old Lily Tomlin as women who reluctantly become friends after their husbands (played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) leave them for each other.

Friendship With Sass

There hasn’t been a show about close friendships between women over 50 since “The Golden Girls” broke TV’s anti-aging-women ceiling back in 1985-1992. But clearly there’s an audience hungry for stories about late-life friendships crackling with humor, sex, heartbreak and other adventures. The 6th season of “Grace and Frankie” premiered this month, and in 2018, Netflix launched another “senior buddy comedy”—this time male buddies—titled “The Kominsky Method.” It co-stars two other legendary actors, Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, as lifelong friends who make each other laugh even when they fight, proving Ralph Waldo Emerson right that “It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.”

Acceptance of flaws, differences, time lapses between visits, and other twists that might have soured connections in our youth is essential to sustaining friendship as we grow older. According to William Rawlins, the Stocker Professor of Interpersonal Communication at Ohio University, we’ve always needed “Somebody to talk to, someone to depend on, and someone to enjoy.” But late in life, in order to find that in a new friendship or hold onto it in an old one, we learn to become much more forgiving.

As Shakespeare wrote, “A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.”  And besides, what’s the alternative? Loneliness is not only painful it can be deadly.

Friendship Saves Lives

“Loneliness kills,” says Harvard professor of psychiatry and director of one of Harvard’s longest studies of adult life Robert Waldinger. “It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.” A study sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, show that “lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50%.”

The antidote? Friendships. As we age, our friendships are as important to our physical and mental wellbeing as healthy eating and exercise. A Harvard Medical School article states, “Research has linked social bonding to longer lives, lower incidence of depression and anxiety, and reduced risk of disease” including dementia. Waldinger points out that “Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains.” And multiple studies indicate that friendships can even help boost our immune system by flooding our bodies with “feel-good hormones” such as oxytocin, which has a calming effect, reducing organ-damaging stress.

So friendships can literally save our sanity and our lives, and yet, as we age it becomes much harder to make new friends. If we’re lucky, we might be able to reconnect with old friends, but how to find new ones? As 85-year-old Alan Arkin points out with trademark dry wit, the first obstacle is getting out of the house. “I get up in the morning, I take my pills, that takes care of I think until about 10 a.m. If I drop one on the floor my morning is gone. I’m looking for the pill, and having somebody help me get up.”

But Where Are the Friends?

It’s easy for Arkin to joke while starring in a Golden Globe award-winning series as a wealthy agent who sleeps with Jane Seymour—but what about the rest of us? Some use social media to start groups like Finding Female Friends After 50 on Meetup launched by Dale Pollekoff (featured in a New York Times article) who moved to L.A. in her 70s and had trouble meeting people in her every day life. Many articles including one about “50 Ways to Make Friends After 50,” suggest volunteering, attending fitness classes, joining social activist groups and/or book clubs, attending city council meetings and just daring to say hello to a stranger with a smile.

Bottom line, it’s worth doing whatever it takes to make friends. Because, as poet Maya Angelou wrote, “A friend will stand for you when you are no longer able. … No one can take the place of a friend. No one.”

This story is part of the special editorial series “The Landscape of Love, Sex & Friendship As We Age.”

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Carolyn Jacobs

Carolyn Jacobs is a writer and video content creator for Bio.com, AMC, PBS, Discovery, Scholastic and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She co-founded Read It All Up® a children's media company currently developing a dramatic series.

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