One of the many things we are learning, as we live through this pandemic, is the importance of our time with friends to our overall health and well-being. COVID-19 is an equal opportunity agent that has disrupted the social lives of people of all ages by requiring that we mask up, limit or avoid our gatherings, and stay six feet apart. None of these are helpful to making and keeping friendships. In particular, adults in the second half of life can feel defeated by the sense of isolation, loneliness, and the challenges of finding ways to connect with others.
Surprisingly, many people are succeeding in spite of the barriers to connecting. What’s critical seems to boil down to two things: our intention, and our willingness to be open to making connections.
Setting an intention is different than wishing for things to be changed. When you set an intention, it is like stating a commitment to a desire and holding yourself accountable for the results. This year, for example, I did not bother making any New Year’s resolutions, but I did set my intention to create an opportunity to learn and deepen my spiritual growth, while connecting with new like-minded people for companionship. In January I began a one-year course with 200 people who come from all over the world, and it’s already been exciting and empowering.
When you set an intention to make a new friend this year, you have to ask yourself, “Is there someone new I want to connect to? Or is there someone I used to know that I would like to reconnect to?“ Sometimes reconnecting is easier than starting anew because you already trust each other and have a shared history. You could consider reaching out to someone that you have lost touch with, such as a former college friend or a co-worker you enjoyed a few years ago. Revive that acquaintance and turn it into a renewed friendship.
Another source of new friendships are neighbors, co-workers, or fellow members of a virtual book club, or a Zoom group of fellow hobbyists. These casual connections with strangers over a shared pastime can blossom into a friendship. Don’t brace yourself for disappointment or rejection, but, instead, stay open to having a positive experience. People are so hungry for human connection, you may be surprised how genuinely happy they are to being contacted by you to get better acquainted.
Even though keeping in touch is not done in person these days, it does not have to be impersonal. We can write letters, send voice mails, and meet on Zoom or Facetime to trade ideas and tips on mutual hobbies and interests. I have an older friend who loves to watch football with her grandkids, even though they live far apart; they tune in, connect via text messages as the game proceeds, and trade comments and reactions as if they were in the same room. It is always mutually enjoyable, and they maintain their warm hearted relationship with a commitment to one another and to their shared love of the game.
Whatever way you choose to stay in touch, keep your efforts consistent over time. Send regular postcards, letters or weekly phone calls; send small gifts that remind you of your friend, such as baked goods, small items of art; handmade gifts are especially fun to give and to receive. You are limited only by your creativity! When I moved to Japan and lived there for four years, I stayed in touch with both of my young adult sons with monthly phone calls that kept us up to date with one another’s lives, and helped us maintain our warm loving relationships. It strengthened us and we look back with fond memories of those calls.
When we make friends in adulthood (regardless of our ages) we need to give thought to how we fit into that person’s life, and we need to take some time to talk candidly with each other about the friendship itself. What we want and need from it, what we appreciate in our friend, and how open we are to the way the friendship may evolve over time – these are all considerations worthy of our time to discuss. One of my dearest friends is a woman in her seventies that I worked with many years ago, and we are continuously adapting to how her husband’s Alzheimer’s is impacting her life; she is no longer able to spontaneously go out for lunch, or chat on the phone, because of the daily schedule she maintains in his care and because of COVID restrictions. With planning, we still occasionally meet in her home wearing our masks and sitting six feet apart; we treasure those times as if they were made of precious gold.
None of us are ever too old to make a new friend; we are social creatures and we need other people. None of us can stop time, but unless we have lost our capacity to think and cope, we have the potential to make a happy connection that will mutually brighten our days, add joy to our lives, and help us respond to the challenges of living in skillful ways.
If being a Pen Pal appeals to you, and you enjoy letter writing, you will find it of interest that Rachel Syme, a New Yorker staff writer, in the spring of 2020 started PENPALOOZA, a pen pal exchange that now has more than 10,000 people from 75 different countries participating in it. To learn more, go to http://www.penpalooza.com