Today I was speaking to a close friend that I have known for several years. Her name is Louise, she is a retired woman, sixty-nine years of age. It struck me as we were talking, how much I value our friendship. I only became acquainted with Louise because I used to stop her so that I could pet her dog which she took for walks near my home. Over the years we have continued to bump into each other and I have gotten to know her pretty well.
When I was talking to her today, I began to realize that the most meaningful and worthwhile friendships that I have had during my life have been with people who would be considered ‘elderly’. Aside from Louise, two other elderly people come to mind as being people with whom I share a particularly close friendship; my mother and my grandmother.
When I began to think about this peculiarity — of how I have gained so much from friendships with the elderly, and comparatively little from friendships with people closer to my own age — I felt that it would be worthwhile to share my experiences and explain why I find such friendships to be so beneficial.
Hopefully, after reading this article you too might be inspired to pursue a friendship with an individual in the older generation, my own experiences tell me that it will change your life for the better.
You will be elderly one day
If you spend any length of time with someone who is elderly you will come to a realization that one day that will be you. The space between that future time and this moment now won’t seem all that large when you are in the presence of someone who is already there.
It’s easy to pretend that you will be young forever when you are only surrounded by people, things, events that revolve around youth. When you are confronted with the aging process it’s impossible to ignore the commonality between yourself and that future moment when you too will be at the latter stages of that process.
I have found this recognition of the aging process to be a very humbling experience. It puts the importance of my current life into perspective and leads me to value what my elderly friend has to say because s/he’s already been through it all and came out the other end, a smile still on their face.
You will learn about real struggles
I have found that the struggles of my elderly friends cannot simply be overcome through the achievement of a material goal, like a new job or a windfall of money. Maybe sometimes it could, but more often than not things like this wouldn’t help.
Most elderly people have long since stopped caring about all of that materialistic baggage that we value in our youth. Their struggles tend to be rooted in more existential matters; life, death, illness, loneliness.
When I am with Louise I realize that a lot of the problems that she has — chronic joint issues, loneliness due to a lack of social and close familial contacts — she will have to struggle with them for the rest of her life, they are to a certain extent unavoidable for her. In contrast, a lot of my worries are avoidable, they’re usually to do with my own egotistical goals. These kinds of problems would not exist if I chose to be a little bit more humble about what I hoped to gain from life.
When I bear witness to the struggles of my elderly friends, I have found that my problems and worries begin to seem arbitrary, even irrelevant. I firmly believe that these kinds of experiences have helped me to become a less self-absorbed person.
You will get in touch with your emotions
When I am with my grandmother and she is struggling with the confusion of her dementia, I can’t help but feel compassion and melancholy in the deepest sense. My eyes well up, my heart is pulled.
These are emotions that I rarely if ever experience when I am with people my own age who are talking about things such as career goals, relationships, their plan for a successful life, etc. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with talking about such things, only that it is to the detriment of your emotional maturity if you only expose yourself to friendships and conversations that are solely based around such issues.
When someone is upset because they aren’t getting as many followers on Instagram as their marketing strategy planned for, there is no real depth of emotional reaction on my part. I might feel sympathy for their unhappiness, but it is a very shallow feeling in comparison to the deep emotions I feel when I am with someone who is experiencing true struggles.
You will be heard and with a lack of judgment
I have found that my elderly friends will listen to me like I am the only other person in the world at that moment.
How often do you talk to people who you would consider close friends, but they are never truly present when you are speaking. Their mind is always somewhere else, drifting towards their next goal, with little genuine concern for how you are feeling at that moment and what you have to say.
Maybe it is because a lot of elderly people are uninterested in the materialistic things that normally distract us in our youth, or maybe it is because they have reached a point in their life where they realize that there is more happiness to be found connecting with another human being rather than staying locked up in your head with only your own ego-driven goals for company. Either way, I have found that my elderly friends are truly there for me when I speak.
I have also found that I feel no sense of being judged when I am talking to someone who is elderly. I have told Louise some things about my life that other people have made me feel embarrassed for admitting (e.g. that I have struggled with clinical depression in the past). Louise has never judged me, she is just there to listen, to try to understand me and offer her love.
The elderly have lived a life and heard a life’s worth of stories, little you can say will surprise them.
You will be exposed to love
My elderly friends compliment me and make me feel good about myself, in a way radically different from when I am with people my own age.
The other day Louise told me I was a “kind person.”
When I was at university people would tell me I was “smart” or “a really good track athlete.”
What do you think felt better?
My elderly friends make me believe that my kindness is enough — that I don’t need to be a financial success, a sporting success or even have a good job for this person to want to be my friend. This feels liberating, calming, and joyful.
I believe that what I am feeling from my elderly friends is unconditional love.
It is rare for me to meet people from my own age group that are as willing to demonstrate a loving nature in their platonic relationships. Men seem particularly reluctant, perhaps for fear of embarrassment or being perceived as weak — reasoning that I have been guilty of myself on numerous occasions.
It is refreshing to have a friendship with someone who is not afraid to show you love. It has definitely helped me to not be afraid to do the same.
It will improve your ability to be loving
My elderly friends respond well to the simple things; a smile, a laugh, someone who genuinely listens to them. This encourages me to expose more of this loving side of myself, an effect that has spilled over into how I treat other people more generally. I am definitely a more loving person for having been friends with the elderly.
We can all be loving, but sometimes life doesn’t seem to let us. I certainly found it hard to be a loving person when I was working in the ego-fuelled environment of a busy retail bank, any signs of care or love were treated as a weakness and you would be ridiculed for it.
It is a great feeling to have a friendship the entire worth of which rests on love. A friendship with no caveats to it. Type of friendship that would be of benefit to anyone.
How to befriend the elderly
The most obvious and easiest place to look for an elderly friend would be in your home. Maybe it could be one of your parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles. Try to get to know them on a deeper level, share more about yourself with this person and let them share more about themselves with you.
I’m always surprised to find out how little that friends my own age know about their elderly family members. They will often have lived with or visited these family members their whole life, they will say they “love” them, yet they know very little about them. I think that we can sometimes take our relationships with such family members for granted and treat our blood connection as an automatic gateway to friendship. Try not to rely on these blood ties alone, spend some time with the elder generations of your family and you might be surprised at the meaningful connections that develop.
Another way of befriending an elderly person would be to volunteer for a local befriending service. There are are a lot of these services in England; Age UK and Friends of the Elderly are two such organizations that facilitate this kind of volunteering in England. I am not certain of the prevalence of this kind of volunteering in America or elsewhere in the world, but you could try to find out if any charities local to you organized this kind of befriending, or whether any volunteering services are advertising for these kinds of roles.
In the Netherlands they have created a very unique befriending scheme; there are homes for the elderly in which students can live rent-free on the condition that they spend at least thirty hours per week with their elderly house-mates. The scheme seems to have benefited the younger students as much as the older residents according to the article linked above. The author of the article also mentions a similar scheme that she helped to organize in affiliation with the University of Exeter in England. In this scheme students of the university spent a certain amount of time per week befriending and reading to elderly residents in local care homes. She was encouraged by the results and seems to share my own belief in the benefits of inter-generational friendships:
“Our reading project in care homes shows how both young and old can benefit from this type of arrangement. So just like the Dutch, it would be great if universities in the UK could also look to reduce the cost of tuition fees or accommodation in exchange for meaningful social investment to get more people young and old spending time together.” Johanna Harris, Senior Lecturer in English, University of Exeter.
I hope that more people begin to share a view similar to Johanna in the above quote. I am pretty certain that it would have benefited me if I were to have shared my living quarters with elderly residents whilst I was at university.
Hopefully, I have managed to convey to you why friendships with the elderly can be so valuable and maybe I have persuaded you to try and create one such friendship for yourself. In addition to the tips that I have given above about initiating such friendships, sometimes, just like with any friendships, they can come about in the most simple and unexpected ways; remember my story at the beginning of this article — Louise was merely walking her dog near my house, I went to pet her dog, we got chatting and the rest is history.
Thanks for reading,