No, this is not a whine about how I’m losing a friend a minute to illness or death or spend my days wondering when the Grim Reaper will come tapping at my own window.
Quite the contrary, I am a healthy, physically active, intellectually engaged soon-to-be 70-year-old with just one thing wrong: I don’t know how to make friends anymore.
I was chugging along just fine, surrounded by interesting and delightful people, and then woke up to an emptiness that I’m struggling to fill.
I know I’m not alone in feeling friendless. Much has been written about how and why older people get to this place. Those same writings also offer a lot of obvious advice about how to rectify it — go volunteer, join a book club, get a dog and walk it, they say.
The problem with that advice, of course, is that it doesn’t address the root cause of older people feeling friendless: Post-retirement is the only life stage where, with the sole exception of living in an age-segregated retirement community, there is no organic way to meet new friends.
At every other stage of my life, I’ve been able to build a tight circle of close friends and a broader sphere of acquaintances based on shared interests. My phone rang constantly; my dinner table rarely had an empty seat; my calendar burst at the seams with people who enjoyed my company and valued my presence in their lives.
Mind you, I’m still the same person with the same values and interests, the same sense of humor and the same appetite for adventure that I’ve always had. I’m just an older version of me now, and older people today don’t actually have a structure in place to meet and make friends.
Remember how easy it was to make friends in college? We lived in a bubble of our peers who were ripe for the picking as friends. After school, most of us slipped easily into finding friends at our jobs. We bonded deeply with our work colleagues, plotting to dethrone the boss over lunch and celebrating our career advancements over happy hour.
When we moved from being single to being part of a pair, it was another opportunity to make even more friends — couple friends, this time. And if we had children, we quickly made a slew of new friends through them — Mommy and Me moms, swim-lesson pals, carpool friends, fiendish club soccer moms, PTA men and women.
Beyond that, we had the structures of our communities, neighborhoods and houses of worship. Our friendship cup runneth over, so to speak, during all those years — thanks to the structures of our lives.
And then we send our kids packing, set our retirement dates and bam! We hit the friendship wall. Why? Because being older lacks a structure to connect us with potential friends and we hit it at the same time all our old structures are collapsing. You can no longer rely on your office to be a place to go friend-fishing, and most of the friends you had through your kids will evaporate if you no longer can produce a kid as an admission ticket.
Have you ever seen the parents of last year’s high school quarterback show up at the next season’s opener? At first, they may be welcomed. But after awhile it becomes clear that they are no longer part of the team parent structure. What had previously filled their social calendar — the pasta feeds, homecoming planning, spending weekends out-of-town with all the other families — boom! That door slams shut and they are left out in the cold, all by their lonesome.
A guy I know retired from my newsroom a few years before me. At first, he stopped by the office regularly for lunch and would gloat about not having to rise to an alarm clock anymore. But somewhat quickly, those lunch visits waned. When I asked him why he had fallen out of touch, he said he had lost interest in catching up with the gossip and realized there was very little else to talk about. He had no place in the workplace structure anymore.
So far, the best anyone has come up with as a structure for making friends when you are older are retirement villages. Personally, those places give me a bad case of the hives. I don’t want to live in a segregated community of any kind, least of all an age-segregated one where my friends’ pool is limited to just people my age. I love being around people of different generations too much.
I also think the plethora of activities offered by many retirement communities is unnatural. I want a fully enriched life, not one that resembles a camp schedule that someone else plans for me.
So what’s my plan for making friends without such a structure?
I’m starting by accepting that real friendships can be made online. Yes, with people who I don’t know in real life.
Facebook has a niche group for pretty much everything. When I took care of my terminally ill husband, a Facebook group for family caregivers was the lifeline to my sanity. After his death, I joined a group for widows and widowers, and then a group for widows and widowers who were ready to date.
I already have good friends in groups for parents of adopted kids from China, a group for parents at my kids’ university, and a group based on our shared contempt for one of America’s largest furniture dealers — a company that has no concept of what customer service should look like.
Before you knock the idea of online friends, think of it like this: If a friend is someone to spend time with, all of the people I meet in these groups are real friends. Plus they come with the bonus of being available at all hours, all time zones. It’s never too late for an insomniac like me to find someone free to “talk.”
I also plan to get more hands-on involved in politics and rescuing dogs. As a journalist, the creed of my profession precluded my involvement for decades. But now the gloves are coming off. It’s time for me to practice what I preach. I care deeply about our democracy and want to stop sitting idly by. If you get a call from me, please don’t hang up. We could wind up being friends. Or you could wind up with a dog.
And lastly, I’m devoting more time to being my own best friend. I will exercise more, eat healthier and dust off my computer keyboard because writing is my salve. After all, if I don’t take care of myself, what kind of a friend can I even be?
Ann Brenoff was a staff writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Times, where she won a shared Pulitzer for coverage of the Northridge Earthquake. Most recently, she was a senior writer and columnist for HuffPost based in Los Angeles.