December 11, 2021
Few people would dispute the value of having good friends, people you can count on to be there for you, engage in good conversations and yes, even laugh at your jokes! According to a new study published August 16, 2021 in the journal JAMA Network Open, the benefits of friendship may even prevent cognitive decline in your later years. But there is a catch. Those friends need to be good listeners.
The study found that people who had friends who were good listeners had something known as cognitive resilience. As you age, your brain tends to shrink in volume and this shrinkage can sometimes also point to the development of dementia. In the study, participants who had good listeners as friends had better retention of their thinking skills than their brain volume would have predicted. In other words, these participants had developed cognitive reserve as a result of having friends who listened to them!
Other studies have also shown powerful benefits that come from having friends, such as easing anxiety, increasing one’s self-esteem and even improving one’s general health. The converse is also true, as social isolation and loneliness carry with them an increased risk of mental health problems as well as an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and even dementia.
But how do you make new friends once you have become an adult? This may be especially difficult for older adults, who are not as likely as younger folks to be in environments that are conducive to meeting new people and making friends, such as school or work. For many older adults, the friends they had when they were younger may have drifted away due to moving, growing apart or even through death.
One of the most effective ways to make new friends is through shared interests and hobbies. If you already have a hobby, such as painting or pottery, then join a community class or club. If you don’t have a hobby, choose something you have some interest in and sign up for a class. It doesn’t have to be art related either. A computer class, dancing, exercise groups, yoga, a book club...there are countless possibilities.
But just going to a class or a group meeting isn’t enough. You have to be willing to reach out to those people who seem like they are good candidates for friendship. Take a chance and start a conversation to see where it leads. Invite the person out for a coffee or tea. But also be aware that not everyone will be a good fit and you might be rejected at first. That’s ok! Sooner or later you will find someone (or two!) who will be willing to explore a friendship relationship with you.
Another way to make friends is to join a volunteer group. There are always great non-profit causes looking for help. If you love animals, there are almost always dog or cat rescue organizations who would be grateful for your help and you are sure to meet like-minded volunteers there as you go about your duties. Food pantries and women’s shelters are also places to inquire, and churches or other religious organizations often have programs that welcome volunteers.
So yes, it’s indeed possible to make new friends, even as an older adult. And yes, you’ll have to put out a bit of effort to find the right environment in which to cultivate new friendships. But your effort will be so worth it, not only for you but for the people you befriend. Friendship has two sides, and it’s easy to slip into the habit of always being the “taker” in the relationship. Consciously examine your friendships and ask yourself how you can be a better friend. Actively listening to your friends as they pour their hearts out to you will give them the same benefits you experience when they listen to you.