Retirement Preview: Building a Friendship Network


August 7, 2013 by Jean

When I was in my twenties and thirties, I found it easy to make new friends. So, when I moved from Maine to Pennsylvania at age 40 to take up an exciting new job, the last thing I worried about was making friends. I was totally unprepared for how difficult it turned out to be. Somehow, none of my overtures of friendship were successful. I had many friendly work colleagues and a few people that I could go out to dinner or a movie with, but no one that I could pick up the phone and just call to chat.

I eventually adjusted to the situation. I bought my house in Maine, started to spend my time there when school wasn’t in session, and focused on maintaining and further developing the friendship network I had established there when I was in my thirties. I began to think that not having any close friends in Pennsylvania was my fault, a result of my decision to spend most of my leisure time in Maine. I was thus both surprised and relieved when a famous scholar, a woman my age who had recently made the move from a large research university to an endowed chair at a prestigious liberal arts college, came to give a talk sponsored by the academic program I was directing and asked me in a quiet moment, “Have you made any friends here?”  “Not really,” I admitted. “Neither have I,” she confessed. As we compared notes, I had one of those moments of revelation for which consciousness raising groups during the Women’s Liberation movement were famous – the sudden realization that what you thought was a personal problem is part of a larger social pattern.

I came to understand that my difficulty making new friends in my forties was a matter of life stage. When I was a young faculty member in my thirties, most of my colleagues were either single or married and childless. A group of us would go out to dinner for a lively post-mortem after faculty meetings. It was always easy to find someone (or several someones) who wanted to go to the movies, or cross-country skiing, or out to try that new restaurant. For several years, I spoke on the phone every evening with one friend, sharing notes on our days. By the time I took up my new position in Pennsylvania, however, my new peers were more settled in their lives and careers, most with spouses and children. They did not have room in their lives for socializing without their families or for long chats on the telephone. When they had time for an evening out, they tended to socialize with other couples. They looked for friendships with those who shared their particular struggles with juggling career and family life. As a single woman without children, I was an odd woman out.

As I transition to retirement, I have been wondering what this new life stage will bring in terms of friendships; and during this “retirement preview” summer, I have had an opportunity to find out. Several old friends from the friendship network I developed in my thirties are recently retired or are about to retire. As we let go of the demands of scholarly research and publishing, we have more time for friendship; and the experience of retirement gives us something in common that brings us closer together. We compare notes and share information on available resources (like that AARP older drivers’ course at the local senior center that will get you a discount on your auto insurance).

As I have been developing new non-work-related interests, I have also found new friends who share those interests. Blogging, particularly my garden blog, has been a surprising source of new friendships. Gardeners tend to be a gregarious bunch; they love to share their gardens, swap plants, and talk endlessly about botanical interests that make non-gardeners cross-eyed with boredom. The community of garden bloggers encourages turning “virtual friendships” into personal relationships; for example, there is an annual “garden bloggers’ fling” that provides an opportunity for garden bloggers to meet and indulge in non-stop garden talk for several days. Although I have never attended the fling, I have benefitted from the norm that encourages garden bloggers to meet in person. I now get together at least once a year with a blogging friend who, like me, divides her time between Pennsylvania and Maine. I have an understanding with another blogger who is on a similar retirement trajectory to my own that we will visit in person once we are both retired.

This summer, I made two new friends through my garden blog who are not themselves bloggers. Harriet has been subscribing to my blog for almost two years and occasionally leaving comments there. Last year, she commented that she doesn’t live far from me and suggested that I come and visit her garden sometime. This summer, I took her up on the invitation and discovered someone with whom I have a great deal in common. After a couple of hours together, we felt like old friends. Not long afterward, Niki got in touch with me using the contact form on my blog, introducing herself and asking me if I wanted to attend a garden tour with her. Like me, she is a transplant who has a seasonal home in Maine, but who is moving toward living here full time in retirement. I ended up having both Harriet and Niki to my house for a visit on the same day, which was followed a week later by the three of us getting together at Niki’s home and by plans for future socializing.

I have been amazed at how easy and effortless all this has been, how instantly comfortable Harriet, Niki and I have all felt with one another. This time, life stage is working in my favor. We are all at a stage in life where we understand ourselves and are comfortable with who we are. In addition, we are all gardeners, we are all in a process of transition, and we all find ourselves with time and energy for new friendships. At the beginning of the summer, I worried about my tendency to be a hermit and whether I would find myself socially isolated in retirement (see Retirement Preview: The Temptation to Be a Hermit). This summer’s experience with both old and new friends provides encouraging evidence that this won’t be the case.

7 thoughts on “Retirement Preview: Building a Friendship Network

  1. Jean says:

    As you know from reading my blog that finding new friends has been a reoccurring theme in my life as a widow. This blog entry makes me wish I was a gardener! What you’ve written here rings true of all the gardeners I know. But I can’t even keep a pot of panties living past the end of July…and I try every year.

    I also take comfort in something you wrote: “…the sudden realization that what you thought was a personal problem is part of a larger social pattern.” I know this to be true. A lot of people are looking for a circle of new friends as we move through the various stages of our lives. We just have to keep looking until we connect.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, I found myself thinking about you and your struggles with finding friends as I was writing this. It made me wonder if, as was true for me in my 40s, you are “out of sync” with the life stages of your age cohort. The women I’ve found so open to friendship this summer are in their early-mid 60s. Their kids are recently launched, they and their husbands are moving into retirement, and they want to create activities and interests for themselves that are somewhat independent of their husbands. This seems to be a life stage that makes people particularly open to making new friends. But, if I understand your history correctly, at this age, your life was dominated by the needs of a seriously ill husband. It makes me wonder if you might be more likely to find friends among women somewhat younger than you or in interest groups that are not strictly age related (e.g., a writing group). As I learned in my 40s and 50s, though, understanding the cause of the problem does not necessarily solve it.

      P.S. Your problem with pansies isn’t that you have a black thumb; it’s that they are cool weather plants. When they’re planted in the ground, they bloom profusely in spring, go dormant in the heat of summer, and then revive when cool weather returns in fall; the ones in your pots are behaving the same way. To have success with keeping flowers alive through July, just pick flowers that like to bloom all summer long — like petunias, or annual geranium, or New Guinea impatiens, or begonias.

      • Jean says:

        Thanks for the tips on growing pansies. I will keep trying as they give me such joy during the spring and early part of the summer. I am currently fascinated by the fact that one of the three lettuce plants I put in pots on my deck is three foot tall now! I can’t eat the lettuce as fast as it grows but the reddish foliage is beautiful to look at.

        You are right about my history. The last twelve years of my husband’s life our social life changed dramatically and I chalk that up to the wheelchair he used as much as anything else. We went from being able to visit a wide range of friends and family to only being able to get into ONE house other than our own. Invitations dry up and new disability related social networks formed. We belonged to a language disorders group for a long time but one by one members like my husband died off. So I am building a social network from scratch. The few close life-long friends that I have all live far away. When I think back through my life, I realize my husband and I always socialized with people 15-20 younger than we are so I might have better luck in groups that are held together by a common interest rather than age. Funny you should mention a local writers group. That was an idea I have tossed around for a long time. I’ve been in an on-line group before and loved it but face to face critics of my writing seem so scary! LOL

  2. Joene Hendry says:

    Jean, I love how you have shared your thoughts and feelings on your upcoming retirement and I’m sure you mirror the feelings of many women. I doubt you will have any trouble developing a strong and healthy friendship network in your retirement. As a long time reader of your gardening blog it’s clear that you have much to offer others and you love to learn. It will be enlightening to read how your network continues to develop.

    • Jean says:

      Joene, I was really heartened by my experiences this summer with both old and new friends. One of the things I’m hoping to do in my first year of retirement is take the Master Gardener course, so that should introduce me to still more like-minded people.

  3. Enjoyed reading this particular post. I moved cross country about ten years ago and have found making friends a challenge. I did choose to take the MG course and have met many wonderful people and would highly recommend taking the course. We also moved into a smaller retirement home here and it isn’t suitable for entertaining so that adds to my challenge as well. I am constantly on the look out for ways to meet other women with similar interests. It is a challenge because people have established their networks and it’s not so much that they aren’t willing to let you, in it seems to be more that they are busy and just don’t think of looking around to see others who’d like to join in. Maybe we’ll have to meet half way for lunch next sumer. 🙂

    • Jean says:

      Judy, I love this idea. My house is going to be a construction zone next summer, so I’ll be looking for places to go to get away from the noise and general chaos. Let’s be in touch in early summer to make a concrete plan.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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