How to be old—we're all learning

Make two new friends every year and dodge the loneliness trap

Spartan girls with cithara. (Public domain image)

Long read, written in 2015. In which I accidentally make three new friends and thereby diminish my chances of suffering from loneliness in old age.


One goal of my boot camp for old age is to make at least two new friends this year and every year. Now why would I set myself such a goal? I think you know.

Loneliness is a scourge of the old. Loneliness is a killer, and I’m not exaggerating. Some research findings:

When you’re the last one standing

You probably know some very old people who have lost all their personal friends. Over the years, every friend has either moved away to Florida or the Gold Coast or Tauranga, or passed away. That’s a sad thing to see and an even sadder way to be.

So how can we avoid falling into the lonely trap? I didn’t set this goal because I am lonely. If anything, there are far too many wonderful people in my life for me to keep up with. But, you see, I’m just a spring chicken so far, and things change.

I assume that most people find it harder to make new friends as they get older, and I figure that making new friends—just like going to the gym—should become a solid habit, an expectation, an automatic behaviour. Then we’re more likely to stick with that habit to the very end.

When Mim, my grandmother, went to hospital for her final few weeks, she made friends left, right and centre. All the staff loved being with her because she was so interested in them, and of course such a fascinating person herself. So she died attended by new friends as well as old friends and family.

We can’t all be fascinating, but we can be interested in others.

A friend is a friend, no more, no less

By friend, I don’t mean a best buddy, necessarily. If when you think about a person, you pause, picture them and smile, that’s a friend.

The beauty of old friends is that they share memories and know each other inside out. They can reminisce together, see the shape of their lives whole, trust each other, communicate volumes with a single word or a raised eyebrow.

The beauty of new friends is that they do not share memories or know each other inside out. Every new friend is truly a wonder, for that very reason. There are brand new stories to hear and a chance to tell your own stories in a brand new way.

New friend mission for 2015: check!

This year I have exceeded my target without even trying. There’s Esther, new to our body corporate and a delightful ally in all matters financial and managerial. And Viv, who adorns, inspires and amuses our bumbling local group of Ukulaliens. And Jas, who provides spirited conversation over coffee every month or so.

Luckily, two of my three new friends are at least 20 years younger than me.

Big effort, no effort: both can win friends

Sometimes, you certainly do need to get out there, join a club, take the initiative. When I first came to live in Wellington, I religiously phoned one acquaintance every week to make a date for dinner or a movie or whatever: I had to push myself in their faces. It’s the same whenever you move to a new place. Then it’s not enough to say you’d like to join a book club: you have to get out there and find one or start one.

But I spy an anomaly. On the one hand, making two new friends every year is now my conscious, chosen, publicly documented goal. On the other hand, I forgot all about it until I revisited my boot camp list and realised this one was already done and dusted.

I have a hunch that this sneaky win was not a coincidence. Maybe the most successful friend-acquisition programmes are based on not-trying. Instead, to make friends, maybe we just need to keep our minds and eyes and doors open. Just do stuff and talk to people. Oops, you just made a friend!