Getting By With a Little Help From Our Friends


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.

13 thoughts on “Getting By With a Little Help From Our Friends

  1. Our personal community is so important Jean. With my family so far away we do rely on friends and neighbors. On our street we do help each other and it is so wonderful. I have friends that I would drop and dropped everything to help them.

    My mom is 82 and relying on friends and neighbors herself right now….great informative post!

    • Jean says:

      Donna, It sounds as though you live in a real neighborhood where neighbors know and rely on one another. Sometimes I have to resist my independent streak and remind myself that mutual help is at the heart of community.

  2. Wouldn’t it be nice if the process of making new friends in your senior years was just a little bit easier? 🙂 I see a lot more, long standing friendships in smaller towns where there are real communities. There isn’t that particular network in the bigger towns/cities so it requires a little more effort. We have neighbors that have lived there for years but we do not even know their names. It sounds like you are off to a good start to add to your already well established list of friends.

    • Jean says:

      Judy, I am lucky in moved to a place where I already have a network of friends, and I’m trying to pursue opportunities to add to that network. Is there a Senior Center or senior college where you live that might provide an opportunity to meet like-minded peers?

  3. Jean says:

    This is an area that I worry about the most and am pro-active in trying to change. It’s just not easy!

    • Jean says:

      Jean, I’ve been very impressed by all your efforts to develop a new friendship network. In some ways, I think the task is more difficult for married and widowed women. Those of us who are long-time singles are more likely to have a network of single women friends that provide a core we can build around.

  4. Diana Studer says:

    that is one of the bits that daunts me when we move. We’ve met 2 neighbours, one is lovely, the other hmm OK.

    • Jean says:

      Diana, I think this is a daunting aspect of relocating in retirement. One lovely neighbor is a good starting point! If that neighbor has lived in the community for a while, they presumably will be able to connect you with others in their friendship network. Is False Bay the type of community that has a community center or organized activities that provide a place to meet like-minded neighbors?

      • Diana Studer says:

        there’s U3A (University of the Third Age) and a garden club, an enthusiatic library with activities, hiking and conservation groups. Plenty of opportunities, and other retirees.

  5. Honey Bee says:

    Hello Jean,

    This is a topic very near to my heart. I am recently widowed and retired and a cancer survivor. Because of my very limited energy, due to treatments for cancer and subsequent side effects, I have to be very intentional about being out with people.

    On weaker days, the best I can do is to visit my neighbourhood Starbucks, where I know all the staff and even some of the regular customers. I’ve had wonderful conversations there. I also meet friends for lunch or a musical event at least once a week.

    I work at building community and friendships at the places I go routinely for services or treatments or shopping. A kind word, a warm smile, a sincere interest all begin the process. My cancer support group is very nourishing and sustaining.

    I don’t mind going places on my own. I’m venturing farther in driving tours. I meet wonderful people on bus tours and have made several lovely friendships as I travelled.

    I too have a wonderful group of people I can call if I need help getting to appointments or in emergencies. I try not to lean on one person, but to have many friends. But, as I have learned, autonomy and independence are also necessary to thrive.

    This is my transition year in many ways so I’m following your blog with the keenest interest. Thanks for addressing these important issues.

    Enjoy your retirement,
    Honey Bee

    • Jean says:

      Honey Bee, Thanks for this long thoughtful comment. When I was in treatment for cancer many years ago, I sent out an email to colleagues asking for people to help drive me to and from chemotherapy treatments and got so many volunteers that I couldn’t accommodate them all. I asked two different people to provide transportation for each of my 6 treatments (one for dropping me off at 8 a.m. and one for picking me up to drive me home at mid-day). This strategy made me feel more independent, and I discovered that others loved the fact that they all got to feel helpful.

  6. Bernie says:

    I have a question. Retired one year and loving it, I am unmarried with a BF who works away from home half of the month. I do have a handful of friends and feel good about that. However, I would really love more. My problem is that I’m hearing impaired to the point where Meetup don’t work, nor volunteering because I can only understand in a quiet area one to one. This really limits me and I don’t know how to make new friends without a group activity which initiates that. I also can’t use a phone…only texting. Any suggestions?

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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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