Baby boomers have trouble making new friends in retirement, research shows
Research from the Stanford Center on Longevity shows that of all the age groups, baby boomers show the most signs of disengaging from traditional modes of social relationships.
Debbie Carlson Chicago Tribune, 8/19/2016
The older people get, the more challenging it can be to make friends, and that's especially true after retirement as work is one of the most common ways to meet people.
Research from the Stanford Center on Longevity shows of all the age groups, baby boomers show the most signs of disengaging from traditional modes of social relationships, said Laura Carstensen, founding director of the center and a psychology professor at Stanford University.
For people who move far distances after retirement, making new friends can be doubly difficult because they may not know anyone in their new town.
"When people pick up and relocate, there's a social risk to doing that," Carstensen said.
A 2015 retiree survey by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies aligns with the Stanford Center's findings. When Transamerica asked people over the age of 50 about their experiences in retirement, 18 percent of respondents ages 50 to 59 said they felt isolated and lonely, versus 11 percent overall. Poor finances and health played a part in that experience, but of those who said they felt lonely, 49 percent said they had moved to a new home.
Social networks changing
How people form social networks is changing too, which may make it harder to establish friendships.
"We're seeing changes in the tendencies to engage in places where people have made friends," Carstensen said.
Across the board, she said, fewer Americans are attending religious services or engaging in community organizations, two areas where people tended to congregate and meet like-minded people.
"It is a challenge (because) superimposed on those secular trends is a developmental tendency for people to prune social networks as they get older … and get rid of those people not particularly emotionally close or meaningful," Carstensen said, which makes it difficult for a new person to break in and establish a fresh social network.
Given these unique challenges, retirees may have to work a bit harder to make friends, but it's not impossible.
Tap into passion
Dr. Elizabeth Landsverk, geriatric medicine and dementia specialist and an adjunct clinical professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, said that when building a social network, people should ask what makes them happy.
"What do you want out of life? What do you want out of a friendship?" she said.
Volunteering is one way to tap into that passion, said Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of the AARP Foundation.
"Building social connection or meaning around that passion is a really great way to meet people," she said.
Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center, said volunteering is a free activity that can also help people build skills and perhaps translate that into part-time paid work. A lack of finances can sometimes lead to isolation, their survey found, so work may alleviate some of the financial pressure and build a bigger pool of people to meet.
"(Volunteering) can lead to greater sense of purpose and enjoyment of life," Collinson said.
Give it time
Often relationships go through the superficial stage before they become meaningful, but Carstensen said with age, some people are less interested in superficial relationships. That means people seeking new friends might have to keep at it, which is why creating a routine, such as going to the same place at the same time each week, can help.
"Go out there, be proactive and don't be discouraged right away," Carstensen said.
For people who haven't made new friends in a while, it may be intimidating. People shouldn't discount what their wisdom and skills can offer others, Landsverk said.
"The biggest issue I see is folks have this negative self-talk. 'Oh they wouldn't want me. Or I can't do that,'" she said.
Technology is changing how we interact and can be good, all the experts said, even though there is very little data to prove how social media can help. Some of the real advantages of technology is it's easier for people to find values-based places, even if they aren't local, Carstensen said, who added that the Stanford Center is starting to study the effects of technology on relationships.
Phone calls, social media and even email can help people communicate with distant friends, and for people struggling to make new acquaintances, they should use all available technology to stay current, Marsh Ryerson said.
"Staying connected with friends and family from your former location, and knowing you can (make friends) might help translate to, 'OK, I can do this, I can join a group and meet people in my new location,'" she said, adding, "when you talk to your connections, you're reminded and they remind you of the contributions you make to that friendship or that social group, which is and of itself, confidence boosting, from my point of view."
Debbie Carlson is a freelancer.