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New Friends for Life

Mark Gale

Mark Gale

Author

Health & Wellbeing

Changing your life in retirement can bring opportunities to make new friends, bringing surprising benefits for your health as well as your social life

Aged 70, Sheila Pennell relishes the friends she’s made since downsizing six months ago. ‘Giving up a house was a huge effort, but it was definitely worth it,’ says Sheila. ‘It feels great to make a fresh start, and my new neighbours have been extremely welcoming – people my age are actually lots of fun!’

While leaving her five-bedroom home of 17 years wasn’t easy, Sheila, from Sutton Coldfield, found parts of the process therapeutic. ‘Getting rid of all the clutter and detritus of life was quite freeing – it made me want to open my mind. Perhaps that’s why I’ve found making new friends fairly easy.’

Moving into his McCarthy & Stone apartment in Kinross, Scotland, was also a chance for Ian Smith, 74, to make new friends – and he didn’t have to venture very far to meet Kenneth Ellacott, 69. ‘My neighbour Kenneth is one of the new friends I’ve made since moving into The Sycamores,’ says Ian. ‘One of the benefits of where I live now is enjoying the beautiful Scottish sunshine on the roof terrace with a coffee and having a chat with Kenneth.’

Many friendships are struck up in developments where McCarthy & Stone homeowners enjoy having the best of both worlds: independence with the opportunity for relaxed socialising when they feel like it. ‘It’s lovely to have made new friends like Ian,’ Kenneth agrees. ‘We often enjoy a chat in the morning or in the car park as we’re going off to our various activities.’

Getting involved with voluntary work or taking up new interests is a great way to meet people. Sheila has made some great friends during her eight years of voluntary work for Cats Protection. ‘Friendships with people who share the same passions are incredibly satisfying,’ she says. ‘My “cat friends” are very special – age is irrelevant.’

There’s no doubt friendships that have lasted a lifetime can be precious, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for others. Sally Spalgo, 61, had plenty of friends when she took early retirement, but her desire to step out of her comfort zone has led her to make many more. ‘I became a volunteer at Marwell Zoo in Winchester and even joined the zoo’s choir,’ says Sally. ‘I was convinced I couldn’t sing a note, but they’re a fabulous bunch of people – aged twenty-something to seventy-something – and I feel really energised when I’m around them. I’ve also found that learning harmonies and lyrics is incredibly good for the memory.’

Sally is happy to embrace new friends while cherishing old ones, but age can bring with it a re-evaluation of friendships. Sheila admits that her new social circle is so full and varied that she’s drifted away from some. ‘I’ve dropped a few old friends in favour of new ones – people with a passion for cats and for helping others,’ she says. ‘I just didn’t share the same interests any more. Now I have friends of all ages and backgrounds, which makes life very rich. It’s all about attitude and being open to new experiences.’

Expert Tips from Linda Blair

So, can friendships made in later life be just as good – or better – than those made decades ago? ‘They can certainly bring many benefits,’ says our expert, clinical psychologist Linda Blair. ‘When you meet someone new, you learn new things, and any new learning boosts your brain and keeps it active,’ she explains. ‘These people might introduce you to other new people and so your circle of friends keeps widening.’

Many scientific studies have shown that friendships can make you healthier, with benefits including lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of developing dementia. A review of 148 studies in the US, involving more than 300,000 people, found that those with strong social relationships are less likely to die prematurely than those who are isolated.

But it’s quality rather than quantity that matters. One study found that some people who seem to have plenty of friends still feel lonely because they don’t have a strong bond with any of them.

As Linda says, ‘Shared interests and good communication are vital friendship qualities regardless of age, but reliability – the need to know that your friend will be there for you no matter what – is far more important as we get older.

‘How many friends you need differs. Some people are happy with one or two close friends,’ says Linda, ‘while others need a whole party of people to feel good. Even so, you should try to make sure your friendship group includes people of all ages and with different interests. Then you have the best chance of feeling safe, secure and stimulated in your life.’

Photos: Chris Watt

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