Recently, as I sat in a local restaurant at lunchtime, waiting for my friend, I looked around and saw a large room filled with women doing exactly the same thing. We were all gathering to commiserate, share, expound and take or offer encouragement and advice – woman to woman, beet salad to beet salad – no topic too large or too trivial to take on.
Women, it seems, simply must get together.
There’s no direct research that women are more compelled than men to seek fellowship with the like sex, but anecdotally many women agree.
Often, our seeking and learning comes during times of transition and change, according to experts, because we’re looking for help in letting go of the past and embracing the new.
I conducted an informal survey recently of women in the Washington, D.C., chapter of The Transition Network, a U.S.-based non-profit organization and community of women who “empower each other to thrive as we travel through transitions from familiar old life experiences to challenging and inspiring new ones.”
I joined TTN during retirement; other motivators include relocation, career changes, divorce and/or any need to connect.
“I think women definitely feel the need to gather,” said Susie Lazaroff, 61, who started a TTN peer group for informal gatherings in members’ homes in the nation’s capital. “It’s the idea of togetherness, of community and being able to share. I think women are kind of communal beings and I’ve always thought how great it would be to live with all my women friends in one place as we all get older.”
Another member said she joined to “connect with women on issues and life-changing events to share insights, support each other and engage in joint learnings.”
Jane DiCosimo, 64, of Silver Spring, MD, said she was about to retire and realized she mostly had “work friends” and wanted to meet like-minded professional women.
All agreed there are special challenges to meeting people later in life.
“It is uncommon to find opportunities to explore issues that directly affect older women,” said Susan Lilly, 71, a Maryland peer group leader.
Another member said she was going through a divorce, the death of a parent and her children going off to college – all at the same time – and “I wanted to connect with other women at my stage of life – sisterhood!”
Women also find other women, according to the survey, at Meetups, on the Ethel Circle Facebook page (sponsored by AARP), doing volunteer work, in book and hobby clubs and classes, religious meetings, at community and senior centers, and in privately cultivated groups through friends and family.
According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest scientific study of happiness ever conducted, the answer to what makes life fulfilling and meaningful is relationships. Connecting with others is key to our mental and also physical health, yet loneliness is said to be at epidemic proportions.
Research indicates men may have a harder time making and maintaining friendships, with one TTN survey respondent attributing that at least in part to the socializing of men to avoid being vulnerable – a theory some experts support.
But everything I read and everyone I talked to agreed there is one element we all must employ if we are to find and keep friends – effort. It’s probably not something we’re used to. In fact, when I was working full-time, going to graduate school, teaching and raising a family, I took all the people I interacted and conversed with on a daily basis for granted. I often just wanted to be left alone.
Sometimes now I don’t want to admit that what I need to do to improve my social life on any given day or week is work at it a little harder. But joining a group, reaching out to old friends, making that phone call or sending that text usually pays off. And, if you think about it, that’s a good thing. That means you can make things happen. TTN welcomes everyone, and I have seen plenty of friendships develop.
As one TTN member pointed out, the dear friends her 90+-year-old mother had around her when she was in hospice recently had been formed when her mother was in her 70s. So, if you have felt you’re running out of time to make friends, I would dispute that.
English Professor Paula Cohen’s new book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation, makes the case that sharing our stories with others, simply having a conversation with no fixed agenda or goals, feeds our souls and provides what one writer called “a kind of sanctuary.”
The challenging news as we grow older is that we will experience loss, and that can mean struggling to replace relationships and find new people open to such conversations. Those we lose aren’t replaceable, of course, but it hit me recently that I enjoyed the polite camaraderie of new friends and the quiet understanding that we navigated life in different ways and could share those insights on the ups and downs of aging.
The good news is that as we age, we gain resilience, so don’t wait too long before reaching out. The longer you go without social interaction, the harder it can be to start to engage again, according to experts.
I particularly like Susie Lazaroff’s idea about striving to have all your friends living around you as you gain maturity and wisdom.
Some friends and I even fantasized about our later-in-life sanctuary being a lovely, remote island somewhere off the coast, perhaps of the Carolinas, a place we named, to uproarious laughter – Hags Head.
Do you make it a point to gather with other women to share and commiserate? Do you especially feel this urge during times of transition? How much “work” goes into your relationships as you grow older? What are the best ways to overcome loneliness for your own health and well-being?