July 9, 2014 by Jean
One of the important tasks for retirement is to build a community of friends. Many people enter retirement with friendship networks based primarily in the workplace and founded on shared work experiences; and research indicates that these friendships often don’t survive retirement. Those of us who have friendships that are not based in the workplace may have a better foundation for our retirement friendship community, but we will still need to solidify and expand that community.
Building a community of friends is especially important for women. Married women sometimes have friendship networks that are part of a couples social scene; and, in some cases, what links those couples together is that the husbands work together. Two things happen for these friendship networks in retirement: First the husbands retire and the bonds that linked them grow weaker. Second, the husbands die and the widows discover that the couples network does not easily absorb single women.
Data from the 2010 U.S. Census show that more than half of all women 65 and older are unmarried. Some of these unmarried older women (4% of women 65 and older) have never been married, and a larger percentage (13%) are divorced or separated. But most older unmarried women (37% of all women 65 and older) are widows. Because women usually marry men who are older than they are and because women have longer life expectancy than men, the average married woman will outlive her husband by 7-10 years.
Friends are an important source of both emotional and practical support for unmarried older women, and women friends are usually at the core of the friendship networks we rely on. When my car died on a Friday evening 15 miles from home, the tow truck driver asked if there was someone I’d like him to call to meet me at the dealership where the car was being towed and give me a ride home. I started running through my list of nearby friends to see if I could find someone at home and available. First I tried a married couple who are old friends; they live halfway between my house and the dealership, giving them the least distance to travel to pick me up and take me home. I also reasoned that, since there were two of them, the odds of one being available were greater. However, no one answered the phone at their house and I went on to the next person on my list, my friend Anne, who immediately agreed to meet me at the dealership. (Later I learned that she simply left the dinner she had been cooking on top of the stove when she got this call asking for help.) At some point, the tow truck driver, bemused by my list of friends to call for a ride, asked, “What, do you live alone or something?” “Yes,” I said, “I live alone.” Actually, lots of people do!
Most unmarried women 65 and older live alone. According to the U.S.Census, 45% of households headed by a person age 65 or older are one-person households, and the proportion of one-person households rises to 66% for those who are 85 or older (mostly women living alone). Sooner or later, most of us will end up living alone. And when we do, we will get by with a little help from our friends. In Supercharged Retirement, Mary Lloyd talks about building a community of support as a form of networking. She argues that
Networking isn’t about who you know. It isn’t even about who knows you. It’s about who you help. Because that’s what effective networks are based on. (p. 137)
So to build a community of friends, you need to look for opportunities to help others, even when it isn’t convenient.
This ethic of mutual assistance is particularly strong among my single women friends. Anne didn’t hesitate to drop what she was doing to come rescue me when I needed help. A few days later, when my friend Sharon learned that I was without transportation, she offered to let me use her car during the day while she was at work. Several years ago, when I was scheduled for a colonoscopy at a hospital 8 miles from my house and would not be allowed to drive myself home after the procedure, I simply sent out an email call to my women friends asking for help. One friend came out to my house early in the morning to drive me to the hospital; another friend came to pick me up and drive me home later in the day. And I try to provide the same kind of help to others. When Sharon bought a new house several years ago, I spent time helping her strip off old wallpaper. Recently, I’ve been making the 90-minute round-trip drive to Portland once or twice a week to provide both transportation and hand-holding for a friend there who is having serious health issues and cannot drive herself to her many medical appointments.
Part of the planning for and transition to retirement should include building a community of non-work friends. We can have long, vital and socially active retirements, but we will do it with a little help from our friends.