Friends can be a blessing during our whole life span. As we age, do we still need to count how many friends we have? What are the social connections that could benefit us? Do we need close relationships or simple acquaintances to see us through the day, asks Charlotte Stafrace.

When young kids start school, one of the most important milestones is being able to forge friendships. I remember asking my daughter, “Did you make friends?” Based on common likes, friendships can even be strengthened and maintained well into our adulthood. When we move through our formative years and into the working world, besides manoeuvring the office politics, we find a new place where we can establish new friendships and acquaintances – even if it is someone to have a drink with at the pub down the road at the end of a week.

Throughout the years, one can form part of many community groups, from those which offer a myriad of sports, to choirs, crochet groups, drama groups, day care centres and so on. Besides being often educational and informative hub centres, they intrinsically provide opportunities for social interactions. For me, theatre has made me connect with so many people who shared the same passion, many of whom are still friends 25 years on.

I will never forget a 90-year-old I met at a day care centre who told me: “I have no family left, but this is my family here.” I asked, “How come?” She answered, “They look out for me, they call if I don’t turn up Wednesdays and Fridays, and everyone is willing to share a word with me.” That is sometimes enough to stave off the otherwise loneliness that faces us from time to time.

Recently I came across a report based on research conducted by Mather Institute in the US which studied what kind of friendships we need when we age. The research used data from a group of participants who at the time were at least 40 years old, from 1992, 2005, and 2015 to try to determine the long-term association between different types of social ties and emotional well-being.

Perhaps those early days making friends in kindergarten unknowingly taught us a thing or two about the benefits of friendships

They identified two types of social ties: close ties being made up of people to whom you feel so close that it is hard to imagine life without them; and weaker ties which includes people who are not so close but who are still important in your life.

The researchers assumed that over time, maintaining a large number of close social connections would result in low levels of depression. They also theorised that over a long period, having a large number of weaker ties would affect mood positively more than a larger number of close ties.

What the data found was that having a greater number of weaker ties earlier in life was linked to the possibility of fostering closer ties later in life. Perhaps those early days making friends in kindergarten unknowingly taught us a thing or two about the benefits of friendships.

Researchers believe that investing in weaker ties may compensate for the loss of close ties later. These same weaker ties also resulted in a more positive attitude later in life. So what this means is that, although the research acknowledges the importance of close ties, weaker ties can also offer important benefits for older adults.

I see this many times in day care centres, when one joins the group especially after a family bereavement, usually of a lifetime partner, and how one tries to make new acquaintances. These new acquaintances are the said ‘weaker ties’ but they can also become real life changers. They can help you find someone to talk to about common things you have gone through, jobs you have loved and hated, family, holidays, and hobbies.

Making connections is the first path onto making friends and, although when we get older our idea of friendships is somewhat different to when we were kids and we needed to share everything with our best friend, the idea behind it remains the same. We need friendships because we are social beings.

Developing friendships late in life, whether it’s in your town and village, at a day care centre or in a home for the elderly, can mean having someone look in on you, provide a word of comfort, laughter and joy, join you for lunch, have someone to reminisce with and to agree with you about the opportunities of a life well lived – made better by the shared connection.

Friendships, even the so-called ‘weaker ties’, can ultimately stave off loneliness and newfound friends can tap to your tune or even continue the tune which you started and forgot. So the next time someone smiles and says ‘Hello’, remember to smile back. It could be the start of something new, powerful and refreshing in your daily life.

This article was first published in the November issue of Senior Times

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