Much has been written in recent years about the importance of cultivating friendships as we enter the precarious territory beyond the borders of late middle age. Loneliness among the elderly has reached epidemic proportions, experts say, and it can lead to depression, cognitive decline, heart disease, and other debilitating conditions.
I have mostly dismissed this advice, figuring that the price of creating and maintaining social connections — calculated in units of stress — probably outweighs the benefits. But then my son decided to get married.
The wedding took place last weekend, but the planning occupied the better part of the three previous months and required that My Lovely Wife and I spend large blocks of time meeting with people we hardly knew — primarily our daughter-in-law’s mother and grandmother. I have chronicled some of the challenges those meetings entailed, but as time went on and I gradually lowered my defenses, something quite unexpected occurred: My stress levels dropped, my mood lightened, and we cheerfully began to accept each other as part of something resembling family.
By the time we’d made it through the ceremony and dinner, I was happily yakking away with perfect strangers at the reception. And at the New Year’s Eve gathering with the bride’s (very) extended family, where we watched the newlyweds open their gifts, I found myself almost as annoyingly garrulous — which is to say, comfortable — as I’d be at any Cox family get-together. The fact that nobody booted me out the door seemed to me to be a sign of progress.
Shrinking Social Circles
In a recent New York Times piece, writer Paula Span noted that “the circle shrinks” as we get older: Friends move away, disconnect, fall ill, die. And rather than seeking out new relationships, many of us are content to ease into a life of solitude. In the United States, about 25 percent of men and 46 percent of women over the age of 75 live alone. This can make it less likely they’ll seek out social interaction despite ample evidence that they may have accumulated some pretty sophisticated relationship skills over the years.
“They’re pretty tolerant of friends’ imperfections and idiosyncrasies, more than young adults,” Rosemary Blieszner, professor of human development at Virginia Tech, told Span. “You bring a lot more experience to your friendships when you’re older. You know what’s worth fighting about and not worth fighting about.”
My circle has suddenly grown quite a bit larger, and the events of the past few weeks seem to indicate that I’m not completely incapable of navigating through some social discomfort to forge new relationships. Or strengthen old ones.
For several weeks now, some of my old basketball buddies have been getting together once a week at our favorite postgame watering hole. I’ve been getting the emails, skimming them, and making some lame excuse for staying home. They’re gathering again tomorrow night. I’ll be there.