Photo: Shutterstock.

I moved from Montreal to Toronto at age 71 because I wanted to live closer to my daughters and their families. We love spending time together and I enjoy being part of their lives. However, I missed having a few intimate female friends my age to share life experiences and to do things with as I explored my new city.

I know the value of having peer group friends because I have it with two long time childhood friends. We’ve supported each other through marriages, the birth of our children and their marriages and the joys of becoming grandparents. We’ve also comforted each other during losses: divorce, widowhood, and death of parents and friends.

Healthy female friendships require nurturing and care. Photo: Shutterstock.

Now we support and encourage each other through our challenges and triumphs as we grow older. Even though we live in different cities now, we’ve maintained our deep connection for over 50 years, as we assist and validate our emotional and spiritual growth.

My career as a social worker taught me the importance of making new friends and not depending on children and grandchildren for all social needs. At times I was asked to intervene with adult children who wanted their parents to move closer to them as they aged so they could care for them as the need arose.

However, in my discussions with these families, I learned that the parents would be spending most of the week alone in a strange city because their adult children were busy working and attending to their own families. The parents began to realize they needed their own circle of friends among their peers who could fulfill their social needs. These experiences taught me the importance of developing my own social circles outside of family.

friendships are vital to a person’s well-being, and this is especially true for older women.”

My work in gerontology also motivated me to actively build a social network. As I reviewed the literature, it affirmed that “friendships are vital to a person’s well-being, and this is especially true for older women.” Many studies conclude that “female friendships can be the key to happiness in older women.” These friendships also counteract the stress response.

A landmark UCLA study on friendship among women, suggests that during stressful times, women release oxytocin, the hormone which buffers the fight-or-flight response and encourages them to nurture others and seek out and bond with other women.

As they “tend and befriend,” an ancient survival mechanism, more oxytocin is released, further reducing stress and producing a calming effect. This calming effect does not occur in men, says Dr. Laura Cousin Klein, one of the study’s authors, because they produce high levels of testosterone under stress which reduces the calming effects of oxytocin. This causes men to feel the effects of the fight-or-flight response more intensely.

In the article,“A Compelling Argument About Why Women Need Friendships,” Dr. Randy Kamen, psychologist discusses the benefits of good friendships and social support:

  • Enhances quality of life
  • Boosts the immune system
  • Fortifies physical and psychological health
  • Increases longevity
  • Strengthens resiliency
  • Promotes optimism and positive moods
  • Helps manage trauma and loss
  • Provides a sense of belonging, security and community

Dr. Andrea Brandt, author of “Mindful Aging,” suggests that close female friendships don’t happen by accident and require nurturing. She explains that it “begins with having a friendship-focused mindset and intentions” and should extend to our daily priorities, choices and interactions.

Friendships over 50 help us navigate the challenges and joys of getting older. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, esimpraim.

After I settled into my new home and neighbourhood, I focused on developing the friendship mindset suggested by Dr. Brandt. I put out the intention that I was ready to meet new people and became proactive in finding ways to do it. I initiated contact and reached out to old friends and new acquaintances. This took me out of my comfort zone because I tend to be more of an introvert than an extrovert.

Previously, I didn’t need to find ways to meet people because it happened naturally throughout my career. Now I found myself in a new city, starting over, and needing to develop new relationships. I remember realizing  the choice was mine – to remain dissatisfied with my lack of friendships or take charge and do something to improve it. I decided to take a risk and prioritized finding female friends.

I started by reaching out to several former friends who had previously moved to Toronto and invited them to my home for lunch. Today it’s easier to find old friends online through sites like Facebook. My efforts led to renewing a rewarding relationship with an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in years. I find there can be a rich, sustaining quality about old friendships – no matter how much time passes, we pick up where we left off and continue the dialogue.

I was also introduced to a “friend of a friend” which evolved into another meaningful relationship. In addition, I visited community centers in my neighborhood and found social groups and local events through the library, flyers on bulletin boards, Internet and word of mouth. I checked out these groups and events and initiated conversations in my pursuit of new friendships. Eventually I joined a spiritual discussion group and attended local events with my new connections. I focused on putting myself into situations and activities where I could meet like-minded people.

When I moved to Toronto, I wanted to live in a 50+ building and was fortunate to find one with an active social committee. I attend a reading club, exercise program, building get-togethers and play bingo. I never imagined myself playing bingo before but I find I enjoy the social aspect of it. We laugh, tell jokes and enjoy each other’s company.

In less than a year, I’ve developed a wide circle of friends of different ages and from different backgrounds and abilities. While some are acquaintances, others have evolved into more meaningful friendships with deeper conversations. Still others consist of going for walks, sharing a meal and going to events together. I have more friends now than I ever did and I am grateful for these healthy connections.

How to expand your network of friends

  • Prioritize finding and nourishing friendships.
  • Be proactive and initiate contact with old friends and new acquaintances.
  • Explore a wide range of social opportunities and activities and then narrow it down to those that interest you.
  • Seek out new friends in places that match your interests. Go to plays, art classes, lectures, exercise programs, etc.
  • Take yourself out of your comfort zone and have the courage and go to activities and events alone where you can reach out to new people. Don’t be afraid to initiate contact!
  • Invite and make specific plans (activity, date and time) with someone you’re interested in getting to know.
  • Check out local community centres in your neighbourhood. Review their program booklets for activities that appeal to you. Some booklets are available online.
  • Read “up and coming events” in local newspapers.
  • Explore online resources such as Meet-up, Facebook, and Google.
  • Check out social groups and local events listed through the library, flyers on bulletin boards and word of mouth.
  • Volunteer for an organization where you can participate as part of a group.

Myra Giberovitch is an educator, consultant, author and professional speaker. She is adjunct professor, McGill University School of Social Work, specializing in gerontology and author of Recovering from Genocidal Trauma. Watch her speak at TedxMontreal – Genocide Survivors: Contributors Not Victims.

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