Friendships with the elderly
June 27, 2016 9:36 AM   Subscribe

Are you friends with someone a lot older or younger than you?

I did some volunteer work at a senior center and there is an elderly lady, 92, who I am starting to recognize is interested in being friends. Though it happens rarely, I have been friends with much older folks before and think I will set up a time to have tea with her. A part of me feels awkward about this and I don't know why.

I never met my grandparents and am not close to any family members. This has made me wonder about other people's experiences. What have you gotten out of spending time with someone significantly older -- or younger -- who is not related to you?
posted by mild deer to Human Relations (32 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'm friends with someone who is about 20 years older than I am. She knows all the best repair and contractors, and where to go to buy flooring, etc. She also seems to be very tolerant and forgiving when I am less than considerate. She wishes I were more willing to drive everywhere, though...

Usually, older people seem better able to handle awkwardness, but they can't really help it if you feel so inhibited around them that you can't enjoy yourself at all. They are reluctant to "push" you to do or talk about more than you are comfortable doing -- they may sometimes seem to worry about being burdensome -- so it might be helpful if you were able to lead a little bit and take slight conversational risks.

One other thing I'd advise: you might be able to find activities that you both enjoy, but also be aware of setting boundaries so that you are _still_ enjoying your time with her. If she has the right set of clues, she'll want this too.
posted by amtho at 9:59 AM on June 27, 2016

I am friends with a woman 30 years older than myself. I met her at work and then she retired but we've kept in touch these past 3-4 years since. We go to play bingo once every other month as our schedules allow.

What I get out of it is what I get out of hanging out with any other of other friends who are similar in age to me (mid30s) - its fun to chat with her. She has a quick wit and dry sense of humor and we are both rather sarcastic. We sometimes even get shushed at bingo - some people take it so seriously! In fact I need to text her to see if she wants to play bingo this Friday...
posted by WinterSolstice at 10:00 AM on June 27, 2016 [9 favorites]

Also: every person is different. Please don't count on my gross generalizations above holding true for everyone. Treat her as an individual, of course.

Try to be open, and don't judge her too harshly if she says something casually that indicates old-fashioned values. Casual utterances may not reflect strongly-held beliefs, even if they reflect deep-seated value systems. Those value systems may sit lightly on the person, or not.
posted by amtho at 10:01 AM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

One of the people who is turning out to be one of the best friends of my life is 40ish years older than I am. We've been friends close to a decade, and she and her husband are some of the most important people in my daughter's life. We see her at least weekly, and I don't even remotely have words to explain the relationship, which I think is a deep flaw in our culture. We were officemates and now she's retired.

I've noticed that more than a few people in their 30s have at least one elderly friend that they deeply value as much as a same-age friend.

What do I get out of it? In my 20s, she was remarkably patient as I went through 20s things. (I might write this again in ten years ;) ) ... I have a better sense of the human life span. I get her perspectives on life as it is and as it was. It's useful to have a person to ask about things that happened before I was born, things that happen to you in your 70s, but I also just like hanging out with her so please don't think it's like "Q and A with the olds" time. She's unapologetically imperfect, great for me to see modeled when most of my friends are still very worried about keeping up with the neighbors. Sometimes she's completely impractical for the world as it is, and that's great too. Great, great, great. But I don't really think about it like "what do I get out of it" so much as "This is the list of my closest friends and why I like them."

We, like you, do not have geographically close family, and so this friend and her husband are not filling the grandparent role in my daughter's life - she's very clear on who her grandparents are, and who these friends are - but they *are* filling the "need to see people in all stages of life" and "need to have a village" role for her.

I also have several friends that are maybe 20 years older but I haven't actually seen any of them since my daughter was born. We're facebook friends now, and I keep that closeness up just because I like knowing different sorts of people who have different perspectives on things.

As I get older, I'm realizing just how important it is to build a community of people across the life span and that idea we have from gradeschool that we should only be friends with people our own age is silly. Go ahead, see about being friends with your person, it's worth it just like it's worth it to have good friends of any age.
posted by arabelladragon at 10:18 AM on June 27, 2016 [8 favorites]

I'm 44. Two of my closest friends are women aged 64 and 72. We met in a hiking club. They are smart, athletic, wise, fun, and are available to actually do things, which my friends with young children are not. I say be friends! You'll no doubt learn a lot from her experience and being around someone young will keep her young as well
posted by cecic at 10:24 AM on June 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

I have lots of senior friends and I'm in my 40s. The oldest are around 90. I know them through various avenues -- local history, volunteering at film festivals, and as neighbors.

These friendships are all as different as the friendships I have with people my own age and younger. Most of them are tech-savvy and write great emails and Facebook posts; in fact, one of my friends actually teaches computer literacy for seniors.

We go to the movies, dinner, sit around and chat, or visit museums and other cultural spots. And we talk, talk, talk about anything and everything under the sun.

Some of them have children and grandchildren and some of them don't. Some of them are lonelier than others and appreciate a sweet card in the mail, or a catch-up over coffee. Some of them are so busy that I have to schedule get-togethers weeks in advance.

I don't consider them honorary grandparents or even parents, but I do wish I'd been able to have this kind of adult friendship with my late grandparents. It's been really enriching to my life to know all of these people.
posted by vickyverky at 10:33 AM on June 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

These friendships are all as different as the friendships I have with people my own age and younger.

I think this is a really good point. A friendship with a 92 year old is probably going to be different than a friendship with someone close to your own age. Maybe that's why it feels a little awkward? Maybe you are used to thinking of friendships as, for example, going to movies together, going hiking together, going to a show, etc. Since these may not be something the 92 year old is going to do (and since it sounds like you don't have close relationships with various-aged family members) you need to figure out new activities/topics of conversation/habits to develop a friendship with her.
posted by Beti at 10:42 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

A preview of a stage of life I haven't been to yet.
posted by stoneweaver at 10:46 AM on June 27, 2016

A quick note from one of the "older" crowd (I'm about to turn 62). You will discover as you age that you don't actually feel all that different from your younger self—more experienced, of course, and hopefully a little wiser, but you're still you.

I'm always a little surprised when someone a generation or so younger* than me sees my "age" before the see me, which isn't really fair because I know I often did the same when I was the younger person.

Try to be the exception to what appears to be a general rule.

*Friends of my kids exempted, since they will always be "kids" to me.
posted by she's not there at 10:56 AM on June 27, 2016 [19 favorites]

One of the things I enjoy most about my church family is the chance for friendships between generations of women. I'm in my 40s, but have friends ranging from 92 to young teenagers. There's so much wisdom to be shared in both directions. I learn a lot from older women, what they've seen in history, how they cooked and worked and watched the world change. I like to stay connected with younger generations, telling insecure teens "it gets better" or watching funny youtubes with them, and it's awesome to support young women as they start new jobs, businesses and families. I say go for it - have tea with her, ask her about her youth, what her favorite books or hobbies are, see what happens. Good luck!
posted by jhope71 at 10:58 AM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh, and for the love of god, never act like it's "cute" when an older person does normal things, e.g., dance, date, ride a bicycle.
posted by she's not there at 10:59 AM on June 27, 2016 [16 favorites]

She is 92. How many 92 year olds are available for her to befriend? How many of them are in reasonable health where she can do stuff with them?

She has little choice but to befriend people younger than her. Her desire to still have friends is nothing weird. It is frustrating when you outlive all your friends. It is no doubt more frustrating if the people around you who are alive find it weird that you still want friends anyway.

I tend to have older friends, or sometimes much younger. I was the youngest of three kids and my dad was old enough to be my grandfather and 12 years older than my mother. I don't think much about age differences with friends. We are friends due to common interests or common values or a quirk of fate. Studies show that folks tend to become close to those where proximity happens to put them in regular contact -- the student assigned a seat next to you, the neighbor next door.

In adult life, opportunity to spend time together can be facilitated by less obvious details, like a coincidence of schedules lining up or because you spend time on the same forum.

My life has been prone to far too much actual drama. I often feel drawn to the quiet calm that some older people exude. I value their calmness and will often accommodate them to a significant degree to have access to their calming influence. I let them decide if I am someone of value to them in some way. They are somewhat more likely to be clear they have a choice and do not have to hang with me if they do not want to. Young people sometimes think they have no choice. Older people have had more time to think about such things. Not all have thought it through, but the ones who have can be a very healthy influence.
posted by Michele in California at 10:59 AM on June 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Try to be open, and don't judge her too harshly if she says something casually that indicates old-fashioned values.

I appreciate the sensitivity here, and of course you want to try to avoid being rude, but I'm 55 and I don't cut anyone of any age any slack on things like racism and sexism. People my age know racism isn't acceptable. People 30 years older than me know that too. Older men can be particularly sexist, but they know better.

Treat her like a person. An adult person. Anything else is condescending.

And what I get out of friendships with both older and younger people is that they have a different perspective on the world. I have friends who were concentration camp survivors, and friends who go to the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas. They see the world differently, and it's interesting to be exposed to that, and to hear about their experiences.
posted by MexicanYenta at 11:16 AM on June 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

Yes, go for it! What you're describing is a bit different rfom what I think most of us have experienced; I'm friends with several people 20-40 years older than I am (currently 40), but I met them when were were out doing a shared hobby, which is an active activity. I was shocked to find that my friend J had just turned 75; she's on my invite list for dinner parties because she's funny and has a life/job history that makes for interesting stories and she makes excellent appetizers. But my point is, I was somewhat surprised to find out how old she is, because she's still very active and very healthy. Most of my older friends are people who I love for who they are, and how old they were was neither a plus nor a minus, but somewhat ignorable.
For me, I think it would be harder to make friends with someone who didn't/couldn't go out and do things, who actually came across as being elderly. There are elderly people I care about deeply, but a lot of the housebound or low-active activities involve remembering old times and mutual friends and telling stories. I think it would be difficult for me to build a new friendship with an elderly person.

I don't say that to be discouraging in any way, but you seemed to be casting around for reasons that this felt different from your other friendships. I think it's great that the two of you are getting together, and I hope you have a good time.
posted by aimedwander at 11:18 AM on June 27, 2016

If you cut her slack, give it for being daft or grumpy. When you get old enough and your body is failing and you take medication daily, it can be hard to not be grumpy sometimes.
posted by Michele in California at 11:20 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I never bother to limit myself with age, race, or gender. Friends are friends.
posted by myselfasme at 12:27 PM on June 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm in my 30s. I have a friend who is nearly 70 and one who just turned 90. The 70-year-old, honestly, I forget is older than me. We are just friends, you know? It helps that we work in the same field and that we have a lot of the same interests outside of work. And also she's a misanthropic grump (which I love about her) so we tend to hang out just us two.

The friendship with the 90 year old does feel a bit different. We aren't as close, for one, but that might not be so much about age, but more because she has a lot of other people on her life too. We do share interests and experiences, but she has had a huge number of very significant experiences that I can't even imagine what it would be like to go through -being there at major world history events etc. So it's hard to look past a tendency to hero worship in a way sometimes and just be friends and talk about normal stuff. Also she has significant physical limitations that I have to keep in mind when planning to meet her or go somewhere together. No more so than another friend my age who uses a wheelchair, but in both cases it makes things feel a little different from hanging out with my other friends.

Finally, a friendship with someone in a different stage of life does feel different. My 70 year old friend is still working, in my field. She doesn't have kids. Our lives are very similar. My 90 year old friend doesn't work so much now, certainly not daily. She has family obligations to grandchildren and children. Those differences feel similar to the differences between me and friends my age who are doing life differently: having kids now, or unemployed, or still studying at uni.

There's nothing wrong with different.
posted by lollusc at 12:52 PM on June 27, 2016

I'm the OP and just wanted to give a little chirp:

What I'm not looking for are generic sayings about friendships (e.g., anyone can be a friend regardless of age, there's nothing wrong with age gap friendships, etc).

What I am looking for -- which has been the majority response -- are stories, personal insights, detail-laden observations.

I wish I clarified this in my original post, and hope this comment makes sense. Thanks to all the responses so far!
posted by mild deer at 1:05 PM on June 27, 2016

Ok, I've worked with lots of elderly people in a long term care nurse / patient relationship. This is much different than "friendship." Here's some idea spouting-
- 92 is old. 70s, eh not really old. 92 is a different ball game. Don't lump all people over 70 as the same cohort because they really are not, in a similar way that I as a 30 year old lived a much different life than a 50 year old. Example: a 92 year old was 20 when WW2 ended. A 75 year old was 3. The 92 year old prob was raising children in the late 1940s-50s, the 75 year old 60s-70s. etc, etc.
- Man have they seen some shit. Their coping mechanisms are forces to be reckoned with. When shit hits the fan - when a loved one does, or if their health takes a turn for the worse - you might be really surprised at how they incorporate that new reality into their lives. Just something to keep in mind because I think sometimes people get super judgey about very old people not responding "appropriately" to stressful events.
- Probably not great stamina. Keep the visit short, an hour or less.
- Have a blast. I have kept up friendships with some "old patients" when I switched jobs and they KILL ME. Their senses of humor are insane.
posted by pintapicasso at 1:26 PM on June 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'll be the voice of caution - I was friends with someone 40+ years older than me in my 20s and it turns out she just got off on my inexperience and thinking she knew better than me, as I grew up and made decisions she didn't agree with she was a totally different person. What I got out of it at the time was a pseudo grand parent but it wasn't as advertised in the end.
So I'd say just make sure it's an equal relationship. She has wisdom and experience from her life, sure, but take it as only one experience out of many especially if you have a tendency to look up to other people or want direction.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:30 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

are stories, personal insights, detail-laden observations.

There is an episode of Jake Long, American Dragon where there are two women who see the future. One is always happy and chirpy, one is constantly profoundly depressed. One of them sees only all the good stuff. One sees only all the bad stuff. And someone assumes that the depressed person is the one who sees all the bad stuff and the happy person is the one who sees only good stuff. They are surprised to find it is the opposite.

The person who sees only good future events is continuously depressed when life fails to live up to her expectations. The one who sees only bad future events only has happy surprises. When life turns out different from what she expected, it is a pleasant surprise, not a let-down.

Old people, like any people, are just people. If you go in with a fairly cynical view that this person is looking to meet their own needs and may have no concept that your needs matter here at all, then you won't likely get hurt and if they turn out to be better than that, bonus!

This is the secret to any friendship: Plan for the worst, hope for the best. Don't expect people to be good people. Expect every last one of them to be, fundamentally, an asshole. When they are an asshole to you in specific, you probably won't get too hurt because you won't have given them much of an opening to harm you. When they exceed your expectations, you get to have a little joyous moment.

Trust is earned, but leave room for people to surprise you in a good way. Even while "expecting" the worst, don't basically dare them to live down to your expectations. Keep your ugly personal opinion that they are probably an asshole to yourself. Don't accuse them of anything, but don't be all shocked when most people you meet aren't exactly stellar people with paladin-like character.

Old people can be slicker than you. This can be a growth experience as you can learn from them. It can also be a means to get taken advantage of. So do wonder what's in it for you. Friendship should not be charity. It should be symbiotic. If all you do is give and you don't see what's in it for you, it's okay to find yourself too busy to spend time with her.

Being old can be lonely. But if they are lonely because they are unremitting assholes to everyone every second, you don't owe them your pity and forbearance. Elderly relatives may merit that. Elderly "friends" don't. They need to earn their place in your life, just like any other friend.
posted by Michele in California at 1:49 PM on June 27, 2016

My first work BFF was a man several decades older than me. We were terrific friends for about a year before he retired. We spent our down time talking about our families, and life in general, and he'd send me encouraging emails when I'd have a bad day. I miss him terribly.
posted by Ruki at 2:27 PM on June 27, 2016

I grew up with one of my mother's good friends being much older. I can't recall how they met but they would go get burgers together and go pick berries together in summer and we'd all go over to her house for dinner sometimes. As an adult, I realized this woman ended up serving as a sort of surrogate grandmother for me, but their friendship was about them, not about finding a grandmotherly figure for our family.

She told hilarious stories, served pop out of teacups with strawberries and mice on them and taught me to play the bass line on her electric organ--always ragtime tunes. She taught me to crochet. I can still recall her great laugh.

Go for it! I deeply value the memories of my pseudo-grandma. It's clear to me that cross-generational friendships are usually a real gift, to both parties.
posted by purple_bird at 2:41 PM on June 27, 2016

I'm friends with a 98 year old. We ski together a couple times per year. Yeah, you read that right. He is an amazing guy and a real inspiration to me. He gets a kick that a guy almost 60 years younger than him likes to hang out with him.
posted by trbrts at 2:48 PM on June 27, 2016

What have you gotten out of spending time with someone significantly older -- or younger -- who is not related to you?

I am in my late 40s. I have a few friends who are in their eighties (as well as friends my own age and friends who are younger). It works great for me. My one friend is someone I met through my computer drop-in time and it turns out we both love to talk about Scrabble, go to free community lunches during the day (I freelance so can go out for a local lunch pretty easily) and read weird mystery novels. and watched a season of Downton Abbey together sort of a dinner-and-a-movie thing, usually at her house. She has a great dog and a wacky house full of stuff that is fin to look at.

She has two grown sons and some grandkids but none of them are local. I have a mom who is a little narcissistic and so not someone who shares in the joy of some of my little achievements so it's nice to have someone be like "Hey I saw you in the paper, nice going!" She often drops off tupperware containers of soup on my steps for me. She just learned how to text and has become a texting fiend. This is great because she's really hard of hearing (wears hearing aids, they don't help) and is pretty challenging to talk with on the phone. She's mobility impaired (walks using a cane, does ok) so often we're out and about or over at her place because my place is up two flights of stairs.

We get together about every other week and go to a community thing (we're both really civic-minded which is not as true with my other friends my own age) and she's always trying to help me scheme to get money for the various projects I run in town. She's got a great sense of humor, knows everyone in town and bought a Miata last year to drive around in the good weather. She's just basically one of those hyperconnected folks and I am one of her connections (I am also one of those folks) but our friendship has been a really great thing for me and (I think) for her.
posted by jessamyn at 2:54 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

One of my closest friends is almost 30 years older than me. We became friendly acquaintances gradually (we worked for organizations that collaborated on some big projects together) and then she rescued two puppies, one of which I adopted, and became actual friends over a year of weekly puppy play dates and me calling her at 7am in one panic or another over my puppy's health.

We now do dog play dates a few times a month or will get together to do something else. We always have a lot to talk about and have a good time together. It's definitely different from many of my friendships with people my age: I tend to ask her advice more than the other way around, though she asks me for advice too. She is very supportive and I'd say our relationship is somewhere between "BFF" and "aunt." I don't have much family close by geographically, so it's nice to have her. When I was sick a few months ago, for instance, she took my dog off my hands so I didn't have to worry about exercising him.

I used to feel somewhat like you - I have a good friend my age who has always, as long as I've known her, had lots of friends who were 15, 20, 30 years older. I never quite got it before, because I had a narrow idea of what friendship was about, but now I do. It's great to have friends who have seen a lot more than you have and have different perspectives.
posted by lunasol at 2:59 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Personally, I think the key to being friends (like actually friends, not just patronisingly nice) with older people is to stop thinking of them as "so much older" and recognise them as adult peers. These people are not vastly different than you; they got drunk and had hangovers and fucked on the kitchen table and cheated or were cheated on and worried about money and voted for candidates who in retrospect were hilarious and . She got television; you got the Internet. It's not really all that different, in the context of great historical divides!
posted by DarlingBri at 4:07 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I am friends with a woman 20 years older than me. We would have tea in her apartment or go to a diner for breakfast. We talked about our kids, our lives, current politics, our travels, recipes, how we celebrated holidays, church... We borrowed each other's books and if her or my car broke down we would exchange rides. I valued her life experiences very much. She grew up in the Maritimes, worked in Occupational therapy, married a priest who died of ALS, her son was a farmer and her other son a priest. It helped me get a better perspective on my own mother. I'm not sure what she valued of me beyond the listening ear.
She got married to a great guy and I moved away and I miss her.
That's my story.
posted by SyraCarol at 4:34 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

This past year I've hung out weekly with a small group of women ranging from my own age/early-30's to mid-80's, and it's been a blast. We're a very international group, and I think there have been more challenges bridging cultural divides than generational ones, but I've found it pretty rewarding. We talk about most things, and while there's been some "back in the old days" reminiscing involved, but nothing particularly extravagant. I think we learn a lot from one another, but it's mostly just fun and normal relationship sharing/building. Admittedly, I try not to drop casual references to internet memes when I'm around the older ones, and there's a lot more detailed discussion of medical issues from them than with friends my own age, but there's also never been a lack of topics to engage everyone.

I also grew up with a huge extended family in a reasonably close-knit minority community, and I spent much of my childhood hanging out with adults, both related and unrelated to me, so this may play into why multi-generational friendships don't faze me much.
posted by Diagonalize at 5:41 PM on June 27, 2016

I'm 48. I've got a fairly good friend, of the "get together every few weeks" sort, who's in his late 70s. So three decades. We're both square dance callers, so we talk a lot about that. He mentors my square dance abilities, I help him with technology. We found lots of stuff to talk about, a stroke some years ago had put a damper on some of his activities, flying powered parachutes and SCUBA and such, but I'm just getting into the latter and know a little bit about aviation.

I know other 70-something's who can give me a run for my money bicycling, former school teachers who have surprised me with knowing winks when I've let some kink reference slip through, square dancers who hobble in and then somehow manage to be in the right place at 130BPM. My father in law just cleared 90, and though he's dying of throat cancer (with grace and aplomb) and had a very different outlook and set of goals in life than I do, has plenty of great things to talk about.

Don't know if those are the sorts of examples you were hoping for?
posted by straw at 6:09 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's totally possible. Here are some friend dates I've enjoyed in the past with various friends who were 30+ years my senior:

-Went to the natural museum and then an awesome izakaya buffet
-Had them over to my house for dinner and drinks (I made ratatouille!)
-Went picnicking and rode on a pontoon
-Went on a historic prison tour
-Visited the Palace of Gold in West Virginia (too cool!)
-Hiked around their grounds, which had a pond, orchard, carnivorous plants bog, and large garden
-Went to a plum blossom festival
-Went out for delicious Italian food/sandwiches/Japanese food
-Played some Bingo (but of course!)
-Poker Night
-and many more!

I think part of that weird feeling is because of the circumstances under which you met her, which was volunteering at the senior care center where she lives. But from what it sounds like, if you're both excited to talk to each other and catch up, you should totally go for it!

Like others have said before, she's an individual with whom you feel like you could be friends, and she just happens to be much older and not particularly mobile (it sounds like). I think tea and quality hang time sounds like an awesome way to spend time with her, and maybe you could also play some card or board games if you're both into it. Have fun!
posted by helloimjennsco at 7:39 AM on June 28, 2016

My wife and I have friends who are 45 years older than we are. They seem just like normal friends. Never felt weird, never felt like we couldn't connect, never talked about anything nor learned anything we wouldn't talk about or learn from friends our own age. The only cross-generational thing was when we shared a hotel room with them--they are at the stage of age of "don't give a crap" and dressed and walked around totally naked in front of us a lot, while we were the "take all your clothes into the bathroom when you shower" stage of age. Other than that, age difference was never noticed, and it's kind of a fun/cute story to always have with us.
posted by TinWhistle at 12:31 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

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