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When we were in our early 30s, my husband Daryl and I had few friends. We lived on an isolated tract of land in the north Georgia mountains and had quit our jobs to start businesses. We weren’t parents, members of any group or religiously affiliated. We desperately wanted to find friends who shared our interests in art, writing, food and good conversation.
One night, at a poetry reading, we met a married couple with whom we felt an instant connection. Soon after, Daryl joined a men’s discussion group, where he met two other married men. Thirty years later, the eight of us, all childless, have celebrated nearly every milestone birthday and major holiday together. We have supported each other through health challenges and mourned the loss of pets, parents, siblings and jobs.
These friendships have enriched and grounded our lives immeasurably.
Research consistently shows that friendships benefit us in many ways, as cited in a 2023 report issued by the American Psychological Association titled “The Science of Why Friendships Keep Us Healthy.”
In this compilation of studies, the report concluded: “People who have friends and close confidants are more satisfied with their lives and less likely to suffer from depression. They’re also less likely to die from all causes, including heart problems and a range of chronic diseases.”
There are many ways to have — and be — a friend, says Deborah J. Cohan, professor at the University of South Carolina Beaufort and author of Welcome to Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregiving, and Redemption (Rutgers 2020) and The Big Book of College (New World Library 2024).
“Broadly speaking, there are lifelong friends, best friends, good/close friends and acquaintance-type friends,” says Cohan. Some friendships are best suited for lighthearted social activities, and some for helping us deal with major decisions and difficult issues. Other friendships, particularly long-term ones, are anchors as we go through life transitions, such as the loss of loved ones, moving to a new home and illnesses.
“Our oldest friends serve as our memory banks, providing us with information about our past selves, dreams and desires,” adds Cohan, who stresses that all friendships, regardless of type or duration, nourish and sustain us. Being close with another human being we trust teaches us a great deal about ourselves, which helps serve us in other relationships as well.
For all these reasons, it’s more important than ever to sustain long relationships, our memory banks, as we advance in years.
“Friendships can help counter some of the loneliness and fear that often accompany aging,” Cohan says. “For those living alone, they can help counter isolation, and remind us that someone else in the world is looking out for us, is concerned about us, and will be there in a time of need.”
Anna Carll, 58, an artist in Chattanooga, Tennessee, describes her friend Matthew as her “brother of the heart.” They felt an “instant connection” when they met in 1987. Although Matthew lives in Atlanta, their friendship continues to grow stronger year after year.
Carll says of the relationship: “If I lost this friendship, either through circumstance or death, there would be a hole in my life that could not be filled by anyone else." She adds that they are each other’s “family of choice” and are committed to being there for each other for the rest of their lives.
My core friend group ranges in age from 52 to 74. About 10 years ago, we added another couple to the mix, bringing our number to 10. Then, a few years ago, one woman opted out of the group after she and her husband divorced. And this past summer, one friend died of a heart attack. Always united in our shared joys, we are deeply united as well in our shared grief.
This kind of friendship was not modeled for me growing up. Time after time, I watched as my mother cut friends from her life for infringements that seemed, to me, minor. When she became a widow at 59, I lived in another town, and she had few friends to counter her loneliness. This is in part why, when my husband and I found ourselves in our 30s without a strong cache of friends, I took action.
“We need other people in our lives,” I can remember telling him. Sure enough, when he joined the men’s group, I felt a window blow open, releasing the steam of our pent-up togetherness. Soon enough we and his friends and their wives started having dinner together regularly, and then having parties and celebrating holidays together, and renting cabins in the mountains to hike and cook and play.
We have traveled together and have spent countless evenings in each other’s dens and dining rooms, talking deep into the night: about losing parents, our businesses, our surgeries, our dogs — about everything. The years, these talks and these shared experiences have woven a thread of compassion through and around us that feels, in the best sense of the word, like family.
As with a true family, there have been times of misunderstanding, of pushing away for a while. But the lapses and trespasses are not so serious that we don’t come back to each other. Simply put, we crave the simple act of all of us being together.
According to a 2020 study published by the National Academic of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine titled “Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults”, … "nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated. Older adults are at increased risk for loneliness and social isolation because they are more likely to face factors such as living alone, the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and hearing loss.”
Additionally, the report says that living alone, death or divorce, children leaving home, and chronic illness or sensory impairments can contribute to or exacerbate feelings of loneliness or isolation. Over the years, we have warded off loneliness together.
When I think back to us as isolated 30-somethings, I realize anew how finding this group of friends with whom we can grow up and grow older was like finding a lighthouse in a storm. At a time when we all needed to feel more grounded, there we all were. Decades later, here we still are.
Are any of you fortunate enough to have a close circle of friends? Let us know in the comments below.