The Art of Aging – Part V: Friends

A Friend In Need
Cassius Marcellus Coolidge 1903

Friends come, they go, and they stay. There are instant friends—you know, the ones you click with on first meeting. There are passing friends—the ones you connect with on an overseas trip or special work project, and even though you stay in touch via technology, the friendship link soon dissipates. Maintaining long-distance friendships is difficult at the best of times. One also can’t ignore that with aging comes changes in our friendships.

Friendship … is born at the moment when one says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .”  C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves

And, there are the friends that some people have that become part of their forever life.

My sister has ‘forever’ friends—friends she met as a kid in elementary school, friends she made in high school, and friends she got to know in university. There are work colleagues from decades ago that she frequently visits with IN PERSON. There are neighbours and scrap-booking friends, culinary party friends, and my sister maintains friendly connections with aunts, uncles, and cousins. On top of all this, she is actively involved with her children and their friends, AND, she holds down a full-time career that often demands long days, short nights, and lost weekends.

So, what is it about my sister that friendships come easily, and how does she manage to remain ‘friendly’ with them all? A more important question might be, what does she get out of having these friends and the nurturing of bonds with them?

What is a friend?

In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit. ― Albert Schweitzer

Finding definitions of ‘friend’ was easy. After sifting through both brief and lengthy explanations of the term, what they all agree upon is that:

  • Friends are those we want to have as companions;
  • Friends are those we like a lot;
  • Friends are those who are most likely not a family member.

A friend knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you whenever you have forgotten how it goes. Unknown

We've weathered the storm together M. Donat 2012
We Weathered The Storm Together – M. Donat 2012

Types of Friendships

Aristotle wrote in 350 BC that there are three types of friendships—friendships of pleasure, of utility, and of virtue. Aristotle’s identification of friendship remains rudimentary to concepts and scientific studies about relationships. Concern for a friend for his/her sake rather than one’s own is a common factor universally agreed upon for each type of friendship.

21st Century psychologist Robert Wicks* purports that we need four types of friends in life, namely:

  • The Prophet – the friend who helps us question what or who is guiding/influencing our behaviour. There is no hiding from the prophet.
  • The Harasser – This friend “has a great sense of humour that helps us regain perspective when we take ourselves too seriously.” The harasser enables us to remain flexible when disaster strikes or when the winds of change blow.
  • The Cheerleader – this friend’s voice is the one we want to hear when disaster does strike, for s/he is supportive and calming.
  • The Inspirational/Spiritual friend strives with us to be all that we can be, without caring at what point we’ve started at.

Wicks’ friendship types align nicely with Aristotle’s in that the four categories include pleasure, virtue, and utility.

Gathering of Friends for WordPress April 2020
A Gathering of FriendsEustache Le Sueur 1640-1642

The Nature of Friendship

Friendships begin and evolve as a result of certain characteristics, those characteristics to include:

  • Mutual Caring – “Friends each care about the other, and do so for her/his sake.”

Caring about something or someone indicates that we place value on the object/person. Often, this caring is considered to be love.

  • Shared Activity – Relationships can morph into various types of friendships when it is mutually agreed upon as to the nature of the friendship. For example, is a friend someone who you can count on to go snowshoeing with you, or is this someone you see as a future parent for your children? Or, both?

Integral to friendships is that we share the same expectation(s) of each other.

Friendships Take Work

Friendships require investments of time, emotion, empathy, compassion, intelligence, forgiveness, discretion. The caring nature of friendship and the investment of time and emotion often gets translated into the language of love. It is common to share love with friends along the way, this not to be confused with a sexual or romantic love. The love that binds in friendship can be powerful and fulfilling.

Did you Get My Text M. Donat 2011
Did You Get My Text – M. Donat 2011

Friendship and Love

It’s all love or sex these days. Friendship is almost as quaint and outdated a notion as chastity. Soon friends will be like the elves and the pixies – fabulous mythical creatures from a distant past. ― C. S. Lewis

Speaking of love in friendship, when one marries a best friend, romance and sexual intimacy typically play a significant role in the relationship. However, beyond that, the marital relationship can include a depth of understanding, respect, and unselfish giving and caring that nourishes the relationship over decades.

Significant long-time relationships often require quality dedication and commitment beyond what one might normally invest in other types of friendships. It is the commitment and dedication to caring about your spouse/best friend beyond expectation of having your effort reciprocated, that takes energy and strategy.

Anger is the fluid love bleeds when cut. ― C. S. Lewis

This type of commitment is especially apparent when your BFF becomes ill, for example, and is unable to reciprocate your investment of time and effort. A former friend springs to mind who, at the beginning of his marriage, contracted a rare brain infection that required a year of hospitalization and recovery. His bride immediately flew the coop, determined not to invest time into a spouse that might end up disabled.

Reactions like this certainly raise multiple questions about the type of friendship and level of commitment that the married couple had. More so, it is a reminder that how we assess friends both transient and enduring is at the root of forming friendships.

I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend. ― Thomas Jefferson

Visiting a Sick Friend with border
Visiting A Sick Friend – Charles-Désiré Hue 1830-1880

Making Friends

As we age, it can be more difficult to make friends. There are psychologists who attribute this to our becoming more particular with respect to the investment of time and effort that friendships take, especially as we understand that time is precious, that life isn’t going to last forever. Perhaps we recognize that our friendship needs are changing, so we seek out relationships that meet those needs. And, there’s research that says that as we age, our interest in group activity wanes. Is it possible that the reason for this is that we’ve reached the point in our evolution of not needing or wanting to procreate, so looking for a mate in social settings is less important?

Wishing to be friends is quick work, But friendship is a slow ripening fruit. ― Aristotle

So, what happens if you are the older adult/senior and you want to make friends? Following is a summary based on what experts have to say:

  • Make a list of what you want in a friend.
  • When meeting someone new, the goal is to build trust.

Smile and make eye contact to let them know you are interested in interacting with them. ― Jeremy Nicholson PhD

  • Assess how they make you feel.
  • Ask the potential friend to do an activity with you, setting a date on the calendar. Then assess your responses to the person when out together.
    • Do you truly want the best for him/her?
    • Is s/he toxic—not supportive, jealous, judgmental, controlling?
  • Care / Love – If you end up caring for the person, a friendship is launched.

People who bore one another should meet seldom; People who interest one another, often. ― C. S. Lewis

May I have this dance framed
Can I Have This Dance For The Rest Of My Life – M. Donat 2011

Losing Friends

We lose friends, and we step away from friendships as we age. Common reasons for friendships not surviving include:

  1. Time – When there’s less of it, we become more selective as to how we’re going to spend it;
  2. Intolerance – More importance is placed on substantial conversation and activity that benefit, with less tolerance for those who speak about or do things that don’t support wellbeing;
  3. Life has changed – a move, divorce, children, job change, death…
  4. One is wiser when investing in friendships that take a lot of energy; When time is valuable, when distance relationships are demanding, when a relationship is severed, we may be forced to let go;
  5. Some we considered friends weren’t really friends at all.

A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out. Walter Winchell

So How Far is Eternity with frame
So How Far is Eternity – M. Donat

Friends with Family Members

Friendship with a parent or sibling is a topic well researched with articles abundant, and a subject that the jury remains out on because of the many factors involved in these particular types of relationships. One such factor that permeates literature on the matter is that the history one brings to a familial relationship is paramount to how the relationship is cultivated.

Sisters Donat framed
Never Too Old – M. Donat

Of all my siblings, I consider the sister mentioned at the beginning of this article as a BFF! The others show minimal interest in friendships overall. Even their offspring don’t seem to be particularly close with each other, with their parents, or as cousins. Yet, my other siblings know tremendous financial and career success, so perhaps they are examples of how time management and prioritizing can limit one’s investment in caring for others, especially as we age.


Friends are God’s way of apologizing to us for our families. ― Tennessee Williams

Facebook Friends (FB)

Since the launch of Facebook in 2004, nearly 25 billion users dailybefriendothers. Enough time has passed since FB’s launch that scientists are able to collect substantial data as to FB’s impact on individuals and on social behaviour globally. Psychologist and cognitive scientist at Yale University, Laurie Santos, says, “We spend hours on Facebook or Twitter, even though research suggests being on social media is associated with depression and anxiety.” Meanwhile, others argue that social messaging leads to real-life empathy.

I Hear Your Whisper in the Wind M. Donat

Whether pro or anti FB, one thing is clear, our befriending activity with those afar is made possible with technology, a connection that would otherwise be less likely to occur.

Furry Friends

Matisse with frame
Henri Matisse and his cat, Minouche

Friendships with pets remains touted as one of the healthiest relationships for people of all ages, going so far as to claim benefits such as decreased blood pressure, decreased cholesterol levels, and decreased triglyceride levels.Is it accurate to call our relationship with a pet a friendship?

If one were to consider the characteristics of friendship with a pet to that of a humanoid, certainly our relationship with our pet(s) is a match. My question instead might be, do our human friendships lower our blood pressure and decrease our cholesterol and triglyceride levels?

Finishing Up

Quality, not quantity, seems to be the theme of friendships as we age. I don’t know how my sister manages to beat the odds and maintain quality friendships for decades with numerous people, but she does, and as she ages, she continues to do so with aplomb! What I do know is that her being an honest, transparent, generous, compassionate, empathetic person with a moral and ethical code has attracted to her people that show up for her whenever life goes sideways. She is loved.

Unconditional love triangle

My own experience with friendships both near and far is that the holding power in these relationships, as varied in their Aristotelian types, is:

Misfortune tests the sincerity of friends. ― Aesop

It’s said there’s a fine line between love and hate, so even though I might feel love for a friend, it’s easier not to frame the relationship in that way, or hold the relationship ransom because of love, a word that continues to elude scholars for millennia. Simply put, friendship often boils down to whether or not a person makes us happy.

I’ve learned that we seldom have enough information about someone to accurately make final decisions about a relationship. In this vein, I’ve seen gossip destroy friendships that otherwise might have been beneficial – gossip based on a lack of information or misinformation.

3 Birds in hats framed
Three Birds in Hats – C. Shores Wright

I’ve learned that giving without the expectation of receiving can be rewarding, but seldom results in forever friendships. We bring our needs to every relationship with the expectation of having them met or fulfilled at some level. This need goes deeper than what can be had by accessing a professional caregiver.

I’ve learned that not having a friendship quality list/criteria often left me disappointed when a friendship ended or never took off as I thought it might. I’d assume full responsibility for the severance, wondering what it was that I might have said or done to cause someone to no longer invest in our relationship. In other words, I bore guilt for that which was out of my control. One’s words or actions are easily misinterpreted by another, and for a variety of reasons, even if our words and actions are delivered with the best of intentions. The social filters and personal codes we construct in life play an active role in our interactions with others. I’m learning to lose the guilt!

A more difficult thing to learn was that close connections with someone in a particular situation does not necessarily provide roots for a lasting friendship. There are those we come in contact with that provide a deep, meaningful relationship experience that is strictly governed by time, situation, and so on.

Broken Trust Isaac Maimon
BROKEN TRUST – Isaac Maimon

And finally, I’ve learned that it is difficult, if not impossible, to salvage a relationship when trust is severed, chipped away at, broken. Betrayal is a lethal poison in any relationship.

Friendship is… one of those things that give value to survival. ― C. S. Lewis

We’re told that having friends is essential to our wellbeing. As older adults, the quality of our friendships is what will keep the sparkle in life!


Contemporary artists featured herein — Margaret Donat | Isaac Maimon | Carolyn Shores Wright


What others have to say . . .

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