How to make friends when you're older

Published on: 7 October 2020

No matter what age you are: friends are important. Not everyone is good at maintaining friendships or making new friends, however. The good news is: you can learn how. As long as you don’t believe in the fairytale of a “click”, after which the rest happens automatically, warns emeritus professor and friendship expert Nan Stevens. “People trend to romanticize friendships just like they sometimes romanticize love relationships.”


From October 1 through 8, we are observing the Week against Loneliness. To keep loneliness at bay, investing in friendships and social relationship is important. Strong social relationships provide not only enjoyment in life, but also a stronger sense of self-worth, better health and even a longer life, research has shown. Especially later in life, when major changes – for example due to the loss of loved ones or declining health – often have a big impact, friendships can help to increase wellbeing and keep feelings of loneliness at bay.


A social network is essential for everyone, young or old. As an emeritus professor of Applied Social Gerontology (VU Amsterdam) and associate professor of Psychogerontology at the Radboud University, Nan Stevens knows all about that. Although she retired in 2014, she is still active as a guest lecturer and as an expert in grief-processing, loneliness and friendship later in life. Over 25 years ago, she developed a successful friendship course with the objective of decreasing feelings of loneliness. In 2015, an online version was also developed, which is offered through the Free University.


What is the most stubborn misunderstanding about friendship?

“That it happens automatically. That friendship should happen spontaneously and that maintaining it should take very little effort. People tend to romanticize friendships just like they sometimes romanticize love relationships: there is just a sort of ‘click’ magically between people and the rest happens automatically. But the reality is often different.”


Why is that?

“First of all, not everyone is blessed with the same set of social skills.  Starting a conversation with a stranger is very easy for one person, while for someone else that is an enormous threshold to cross over. Some people are really good at assessing others, others have more difficulty with that.  By thinking that starting and maintaining friendships should be automatic, we sometimes forget that it actually takes quite a few skills. For example, the ability to be open, to understand others, to self-reflect, to manage each other’s expectations, maintaining contact, and so on. These are skills that not everyone has learned or maintained.”

And your friendship course offers a solution?

“Sometimes. Particularly if you’re in a phase of life where the opportunities for meeting new people are few and far between. I initially developed the friendship course for women age 55 and up, because we saw a great need for it in discussion groups for seniors and interviews with widows. Most of them had been married and had primarily stayed home while their husbands worked. And then, if their partner died, for example, there was suddenly a big gap in their social lives. They were not used to venturing out on their own and establishing new contacts. They also noticed that their needs regarding social relationships had changed. The objective of the course was to help women in this group with this. But we now know that there is a need for help in managing friendships beyond this target group. Making friends and maintaining friendships can be complicated in the later phases of life.”


What kinds of things do the participants of the course struggle with?

“That’s different for every participant. Some people have a hard time establishing new contacts. For example, we once had an 83-year old woman, who had always mainly spent her time with immediate family members. She had simply never learned to establish relationships outside the family circle. She didn’t really have any idea of how to go about it: go up to people, establish contact, develop a bond. But just the idea that you could learn how to do that was both a relief and a revelation for her.”


Is the course just about starting new friendships?

“No, we also have people taking the course, who, for example, are already good at meeting new people, but don’t know how to maintain long-term friendships. Or people whose friendships often end for one reason or another. Each person in the course develops a step-by-step plan based on their own goals. If you want to learn how to establish new contacts, you might practice initiating chats with people. If you want to deepen existing friendships, picking up the phone and calling that one dear friend from your youth may be a good first step. During the course, participants share their experiences, they give each other feedback and they encourage each other.”

What is an important lesson participants learn?

“That friendships and how you experience them are about expectations. Expectations you yourself have. Expectations that other people have. How happy you are in a friendship is often related to how the reality of the relationship compares to those expectations.”


Can you give an example?

“I sometimes see participants who have a hard time maintaining friendships, because they have unrealistically high expectations. Sooner or later, they are always disappointed. But sometimes someone develops a mismatch between their wishes and expectations and reality. For example, if someone has a lot of shallow friends, but would really prefer to have one close friend that they can share their inner life with. Or if someone has a few good friends from the past, but is missing a buddy to go out and have fun with. To be able to be happy with your social relationships, it helps if the reality of your relationships matches your wishes and expectations.”


So, how do you do that?

“First of all, it is important to ask yourself what your wishes and needs actually are, in terms of friendship. So that you can then take focused steps towards fulfilling those wishes.  One person wants to be able to have deep discussions; to someone else it is more important to go out and do fun things together. Yet another person is happiest to have friend to sit with in silence, each reading the newspaper.  The point is: friendship is something different for everyone. And if your idea of friendship is different from someone else’s, that’s fine. There is no objective measure for friendship.”


What should more people know about friendship?

“Most people know that friendship is very important for our sense of wellbeing. But what people should maybe hear more often is that it is not strange if that doesn’t just happen automatically. Friendship is great, but it can also be complex. It is about compromising, negotiating, being disappointed, and adjusting your expectations. It is getting out of your comfort zone and adjusting and moving your boundaries once in a while. So, if you have a hard time starting new friendships or maintaining them, know that it is not something to be embarrassed about. There are lots of other people that struggle with the same thing as you; probably more than you think.”