- Pumping Irony -

Fumbled Friendships

Robust social connections are key to our well-being as we age, so should I worry that my circle of friends has been narrowing for years? Not so much.

A hand drawing stick figures on a chalkboard

It’s been about a month since I exited the social-media landscape, deleting my dusty Facebook and Twitter accounts, and it doesn’t appear as if I’ve suffered any ill effects. It took me a week or so to muster the courage to tell My Lovely Wife, who enjoys sharing cute cat videos and darling photos of newborn relatives. I feared she’d perceive my decision as a backhanded critique of anyone who remains trapped in Mr. Zuckerberg’s fond embrace, so rather than posting some stirring pro-privacy polemic on, say, Facebook, I simply mentioned it in an offhand way over dinner one evening.

She was unfazed, of course, and mentioned her own ongoing struggle with the vortex that is social media. She actually keeps up with real friends on Facebook (she doesn’t tweet) and generally finds the platform to be a useful connection tool, but she laments its ability to suck her in for longer periods of time than she intends. Because I rarely ventured down that wormhole, she was not at all surprised to hear that I’ve so far managed to escape unscathed.

A few days later, I confessed to cutting the cord when my longtime buddy, The King of Nordeast, stopped by for a beer. TKN is rather more engaged in social-media patter than most, but he too saw no downside to my abrupt departure, since I hadn’t “liked” one of his posts since 2015.

It’s all turning out to be eerily similar to abandoning our landline several years ago. We determined upon carefully tracking our incoming calls for a month or so that, aside from the occasional appeal for financial assistance from our offspring and the random request for our attendance at a family gathering, the vast majority of our telephone usage consisted of politely hanging up on telemarketers.

Not much has changed since then. Scrolling through the roster of recent calls on my ancient smartphone, I see that appeals from robotic salespeople outnumber salutations from my friends by about a 10-to-1 margin. At least I don’t have to answer the robocalls before I hang up on them.

There are a couple of ways to look at these particular markers of social connections: One is to celebrate the freedom of an empty calendar; the other is to wonder what happened to all my bosom buddies — and why it doesn’t seem to matter that much to me.

Just as there are plenty of studies suggesting that a robust social life is key to our mental, emotional, and physical health as we join the senior set, so too are there volumes of research explaining why folks my age often find their network of friends dwindling. As Julie Beck notes in the Atlantic, friendships never rise above romantic partners, parents, and children on the relationship hierarchy. We may acquire pals more effortlessly in the years before marriage, parenthood, and career begin to dominate our lives, but these relationships aren’t fixed.

“Friendships are always susceptible to circumstances,” explains William Rawlins, PhD, a professor of interpersonal communication at Ohio University. “If you think of all the things we have to do — we have to work, we have to take care of our kids, or our parents — friends choose to do things for each other, so we can put them off. They fall through the cracks.”

But even when your nest is empty, work obligations evaporate into retirement, and parents pass on, you have to make some effort to stay connected. Or do you?

Recent research from the University of Leeds suggests that geezers don’t really need a wide network of pals to enjoy a satisfying life. “Stereotypes of aging tend to paint older adults in many cultures as sad and lonely,” lead study author Wändi Bruine de Bruin, PhD, says in a statement. “But the research shows that older adults’ smaller networks didn’t undermine social satisfaction and well-being. In fact, older adults tend to report better well-being than younger adults.”

It’s close friendships that matter more in our later years, de Bruin argues. So I’m not worried that disconnecting from my 200 or so Facebook “friends” and a few dozen Twitter followers is going to trigger some death spiral of loneliness and despair. If I miss out on some meaningful event in TKN’s life, for example, I trust that he’ll fill me in the next time we get together for a cold one. I might even pick up the phone if he gives me a call.

is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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