By Marsha Kay Seff
September 19, 2013 (San Diego) -- My mom used to complain how difficult it was to make friends at her retirement home. Then one day, she stepped into the elevator and said hello to someone she had unsuccessfully been trying to befriend.
“I haven’t seen you in a while,” Mom told her. “It looks like you’ve put on some weight.”
The woman glared at her and left the elevator without even saying good-bye.
“See what I mean?” Mom said to me.
I suggested, between giggles, that next time, she tell the woman how great she looked.
Recently, a student in one of my writing classes at a senior center also mentioned the difficulty of making friends. He complained that not a single person had invited him to do something in the two years he’d been at the center.
I asked how many people he had invited to coffee or anything else. “None,” he answered, just beginning to understand.
Close relationships are vital to our physical, mental, and emotional health. According to the Mayo Clinic, friends “prevent loneliness, increase your sense of belonging and purpose, boost your happiness, reduce stress, improve your self-worth, help you cope with traumas….”
Friends provide us with companionship, conversation and caring. They give us a reason to do things we might otherwise determine isn’t worth the trouble.
Unfortunately, chances are that many of your parents’ long-time friends have moved or died or simply lost touch. And it’s definitely tough making new friends in later life. Let’s face it: Skills can get rusty after you’ve counted on the same people for decades and haven’t had to venture out to create new relationships.
If your parents sit at home watching TV, it’s time you stepped up and encouraged them to take action and help them plan how.
The first step is connecting with old friends. My sister and I went through Mom’s address book and turned to the Internet to track down some of them. She had a ball talking to the son of her once-best friend, although she never got a call back from her friend. Oh well, at least we tried.
To make new friends, your folks need to overcome the idea that everyone else their age already has enough friends. Nobody has enough good friends.
Your parents need to go somewhere they can meet people: a senior center, activities in their retirement facility, lectures, concerts and adult-education classes. If they’re up to it, getting a part-time or volunteer job can provide a great opportunity to meet others. Even taking the dog for a walk or the grandchildren to the park will put them in contact with others.
Sure, there are junior-high-type clicks in clubs, retirement homes and senior centers, even at the ripe old age of 80 and 90. Your parents need to learn to ignore them and graciously ask if they can join a group. If the group answers negatively, your parents need to learn to move on; they don’t need those people anyway.
Your folks need to learn not to wait for someone to make the first move. Waiting never got anyone anywhere. Again, they need to change direction if that person isn’t interested. Not everyone is willing to take a chance on a new relationship. Their loss!
But if someone invites your parents to do something, they need to say “yes,” even if they’re not particularly interested in that person or activity. Actually, they might surprise themselves and end up having fun. They might even meet other interesting people at the activity. Even if it’s a bust, it’s only a few hours out of their life and worth the gamble.
Once they meet people, they need to be prepared with a topic of conversation: “Where did you meet your spouse? What’s the best trip you even took? What do you think of the way kids dress today?”
Remind your folks that it’s important not to talk exclusively about themselves. Nobody wants to hear someone else’s whole life story or repeated stories of how great the grandchildren are. It’s also important to be upbeat; nobody wants to listen to complaints.
Like my mother never seemed to learn, it’s important what you say. A friend might be someone who knows your faults and still loves you, but you have to cultivate the friendship first. Saying the wrong thing – nobody wants their weight gain pointed out -- could cost them a potential friend.
Remind your folks to listen with compassion. Most people enjoy an attentive audience.
Offering to help a new acquaintance who is sick is a great way to spark a friendship. Just a simple phone call to check on them will endear your folks to someone they might barely know.
Your parents also need to understand that building a strong friendship requires time, effort and patience. They can’t just extend themselves once and expect the relationship to bloom.
If you can help your parents make just one or two good friends, you will have improved their lives – and your own as well.