Sharilene Rowland wasn’t used to flying solo. She’d married young and had her first child when she was 25. But after she divorced and her two sons decamped from the nest, the 53-year-old caterer discovered that the only real social events she attended were the ones where she was hired to cook the food. She had maintained a few close friendships over the years, but the majority of her pals lived in other cities. Her typical evening went something like this: head home after work, make dinner, and … sit around. “I was in my 50s, single, and very lonely,” she says.
Unfortunately, Rowland has plenty of company when it comes to the solitary life. Midlife is when strong ties become both most important to our health and most difficult to maintain. The 2010 census found that the older Americans are, the more likely they are to live alone; 18.6 percent of women and 15.4 percent of men ages 55 to 64 lived alone, for instance, but 47.6 percent of women and 27.2 percent of men ages 85 to 95 did. A 2012 study estimated that anywhere from 10 percent to 43 percent of adults 65 and older were socially isolated—that is, they didn’t have many “fulfilling and quality relationships.”
That is not good for our collective well-being. Studies have shown that friendships can protect older adults from depression, cognitive decline, and heart disease. People with sturdy interpersonal connections tend to eat and sleep better and exercise more.
Yet, while many adults crave new friendships, building those links can feel daunting. “We’re much more self-conscious than children. We’re afraid we’ll be rejected,” says Irene S. Levine, a New York–based clinical psychologist who has written extensively about aging and friendship.
The process can be especially difficult for men, who are often taught that emotional vulnerability—key in forming close relationships—is a form of weakness. “We’re told we’re supposed to act in a stereotypically masculine way: not to share our feelings,” says Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. “We’re raised to compete with other guys, and that makes it hard to learn to trust them.”
People with sturdy social connections eat and sleep better and exercise more.
Robert Johnson, 52, has noticed the pressure on men to act “masculine.” When the accountant moved to a new city for work, he was single and knew few locals. He was apprehensive about going out to meet new people. “We’re not supposed to admit we can be as anxious and nervous as the next person,” he says.
Instead of sitting at home, Johnson cofounded a social group that hosts various kinds of outings, such as trivia nights and yoga classes. He has met hundreds of new people, especially women, who regularly outnumber men at the events he organizes.
Over time, Sharilene Rowland has also managed to build an enviable social life. In a typical week, she spends four evenings attending street festivals, wine tastings, and more. She has made a number of close friends, and they’ve become travel buddies, cheerleaders, and confidantes. Last year, when Rowland was considering surgery to alleviate back pain, these friends were her sounding boards. Then they kept her company during her recovery. “My friends have made my life more full,” she says.
How did her success story and that of Robert Johnson come about? What do experts advise when you feel unsure about reaching out? We’ve collected seven simple tips:
Many of us fall victim to catastrophic thinking before we ever leave the house, says Janna Koretz, a Boston-based psychologist who specializes in relationships. “You might say, ‘I could say something stupid, and I’ll never make any friends,’” she explains.
To overcome self-doubt, Koretz suggests assessing whether your fears are realistic and thinking through how you might recover if you do get tongue-tied. Being prepared will give you a measure of security.
Just do it
The more you try to socialize, the easier it may become. That was true for Rowland. After months of feeling inadequate, she signed up for an art class and later joined a “50 and Fabulous” group.
As she connected with people, her depression lifted. “You realize you’re not the only person without a big circle of friends,” she says. “And suddenly you’re not blaming yourself.”
Use the internet
When Johnson decided he needed to make new friends, he tried meetup.com, where people connect to participate in local activities. He loved the experience. In fact, his current social group started on meetup.com.
Look for sites geared toward adults seeking platonic relationships, such as girlfriendsocial.com, which connects women searching for friends and has 500,000 users across North America. “Having friendships gives you reassurance that you matter,” Johnson says.
Look for shared interests
This gives you a simple point of connection, Levine says. Join a book club, a church group, or a cooking class. You can find local options online and through libraries and community centers. Pick an activity that involves spending time, week after week, with the same people. Just as scheduled classes made developing friendships easier back in school, Levine says, the continuity increases your chances of forming bonds.
Be a pal
Of course, hangouts don’t automatically lead to lasting friendship. One-on-one time is necessary for a relationship to grow, but asking for it can feel awkward.
The solution is easier than it seems: Listen carefully. If your new acquaintance mentions a love of biking, suggest going for a ride. If you learn of an impending birthday, follow up with a greeting or a card. When Rowland wanted to get to know someone she’d met at an event better, she’d offer the person a lift home.
As Johnson discovered, holding your own get-togethers and gatherings can be the best way to meet new people. You might feel more comfortable on your own turf.
When Rowland took her art course, she had trouble connecting with her classmates, many of whom were retired and older. When she eventually got to know other women in their 50s through meetup.com, they bonded.
“It’s like shopping,” Koretz says. “Sometimes you look at 100 shirts, and the 98th one is perfect.”