An accepted pillar of healthy aging involves fostering nurturing affiliations with others. Former Beatle John Lennon counseled, "Count your age by friends, not years."
One of the ruthless risks of aging is social isolation. Career contacts disappear. Older family members pass away. Nearby friends retire elsewhere. Children relocate to pursue blossoming careers.
A "third age" without rewarding friendships can make us sicker faster and even contribute to an early demise. A recent article in Nature reported on the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences," which concluded that "limited contact with family, friends and community groups predicts illness and earlier death, regardless of whether it is accompanied by feelings of loneliness." Feeling lonely may be an existential truth of living that we can survive; being socially isolated, however, may be a death sentence. It follows that one key to a robust old age comes from real friends.
Yet, some friendships gathered over a lifetime, we learn, are not real. They become frustrating and exhausting. Those reticent friends don't have time or desire to burden themselves with our problems. Some want social activities to be all fun, all the time, and others need friendships to be all about them.
As we age we benefit by learning to discern real friendships from relationship baggage, to think more critically about quality of friendships, not merely quantity.
Many friendships germinate because of circumstances. Research from the field of social psychology validates that the most significant factor contributing to relationships of substance is physical proximity. The proximity principle suggests that we form close relationships with those who are geographically near us. People who encounter each other develop stronger bonds.
Thus, we pick up convenient friendships as we travel through life: school classmates, people we work with early in our careers, and associates we meet through professional and civic organizations. Some of these friendships become enduring and lifelong. One durable relationship may earn the championship title of "Best Friend."
And while convenience friendships can be miracles in our lives, knitting together decades of shared experiences, sometimes these relationships survive as tired habits. Friendship based on convenience can fall out of balance, even growth restricting.
One of my relatives is disturbed by a convenient friendship that began when they were young, having met through a professional organization. This friend is emotionally needy, calls every day, and rambles about her problems with a difficult child, career troubles, dating issues, and so on. My family member has stage IV cancer and could benefit from greater emotional support. This friend is simply too neurotic or narcissistic to focus beyond herself. She's too busy receiving to give.
While my relative loves to support others -- and helping friends in need can be health-promoting -- she gives away depressing doses of psychological energy to her convenient friend, shouldering her friend's persistent crises as ongoing burdens.
Earlier in my career I was responsible for managing significant advertising budgets. I was popular with media sales representatives, and one of them charmed me with his wit. He became a fun friend, and we would often meet for cocktails after work. He escorted me to the Colorado ski slopes and helped me quickly become a proficient downhill skier, a personal triumph, much appreciated. My fondness for him grew, and he seemed genuine in his positive regard for me.
Eventually I left the job with oversight of substantial ad budgets that benefited this friend, who worked as a sales rep for a radio station. He soon became scarce and unavailable. And finally an insight came to me: He was not my friend because of positive feelings for our relationship; he acted as my friend because I could benefit him financially and status-wise within a cloistered media community.
With decades of accumulated life experiences, most Boomers have had cosmetic friends similar to my example. Our status made them feel more important while providing access to our social networks. We could help them achieve a goal, financial or otherwise. When our status changed because of job changes or other circumstances, they abandoned the friendship. Gone and forgotten.
Interdependent relationships are the healthiest. Both parties contribute and receive. Both are available to share the joys of closeness and help shoulder the burdens that come with aging. They give and take. They are committed to mutual growth and positive adaptation along the uncharted journey through life.
One of my closest friends, who I met during college, was this kind of person. Sometimes our contact would be infrequent because of geographical distance, but we would periodically reach out to each other and be available for support as needed. I helped him through a divorce as a sympathetic adviser, and he helped me embrace a wellness lifestyle that eluded me when I was a cigarette smoker.
Many years later I helped him manage the injustices of cancer, becoming a stalwart reminder of his innate strength and wisdom. I helped convince him to accept hospice care when it became clear that further heroic medicine would not extend his life. He showed me how to die with grace.
Not all friendships are created equal. Convenience friendships may benefit from permanence, but sometimes these attachments were never truly appropriate in the first place. Cosmetic friendships are often fleeting: when our value to the other person diminishes, they depart without even saying goodbye.
Interdependent friendships can be one gift of maturity. They include the extraordinary friends we can count on when we become distraught or disillusioned. They are people who lift our spirits and in return welcome our nurturing care during their tough times.
Charles Caleb Colton, a popular nineteenth century English cleric, advised, "Books, like friends, should be few and well chosen."