The Importance of Having Friends Who Are Different Than You
Befriending older women can go a long way toward busting ageist beliefs and lessen anxieties about aging as a woman
In her new book Huddle: How Women Unlock Their Collective Power, exiting CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin emphasizes the importance of having a “huddle” — women you can lean on for support, inspiration and strength, and who can lean on you for the same.
One of her tips is to welcome women in your huddle who are different than you are:
“I’ll never forget the sage advice from rapper and activist Killer Mike when I was first interviewing him in the wake of Ferguson: “Make sure you have plenty of friends who don’t look like you.” It is so important to form real relationships with people of different races, religions, ages, abilities, cultures, classes, and backgrounds. Yes, America is riddled with injustice and we are deeply divided, but I’ve seen with my own eyes — through thousands of conversations on my show — how people can grow and learn by listening to perspectives that are vastly different from their own. Look around at your huddle: If everyone in your friend group looks like you and believes like you, ask yourself how you can open up your circle.”
I call my “huddle” The Lovelies, a handful of women I’m close with, some of whom I’ve known for more than 25 years. Sadly, they are not all that different from me —most of us are in our early 60s as well as hetero and abled, some are single like I am, and all but one is White (the county we call home is more than 85 percent White).
But I’ve been lucky to make two “accidental friends” in recent years who are expanding my rather homogenous huddle.
I almost always start my mornings at the dog park near my house. There’s a senior living home nearby and so many residents stroll around the dog park, which fronts an estuary and has magnificent views of our tallest peak. I would often see a white-haired woman walking in the park. She always stopped at a certain tree and touched it for a few minutes.
One day, my curiosity got the best of me.
“I hope I’m not being rude, but you always stop at this tree. Is it a special tree?”
“Yes,” she said. “This is the tree I would climb if I could.”
And that’s how Jan and I became friends. She was in her early 80s at the time.
We’d chat whenever she was at the park and even met a few times at a local coffee shop. When the pandemic hit and she couldn’t leave the senior living home or have visitors, we emailed each other. I dropped off flowers from time to time; she’d mail me sachets she fashioned using the lavender I gathered from my garden. I got to see the world through her eyes, the world of an older woman that I will be one day — if I’m lucky enough to live to my 80s.
Laura is another friend I’ve gotten to know at the dog park (hint: if you want to make friends, get a dog — really). Laura is 71, a few years older than I am, and a lesbian. Our conversations have been varied, intimate, enlightening, and entertaining, often about our romantic escapades past and present.
These two women, these accidental friendships, have greatly enriched me. Having friends of different ages and life experiences will do that.
Not everyone sees it that way, unfortunately.
When Rachel Bertsche moved to Chicago with her then-boyfriend-now-husband, she knew no one. She humorously describes her search for female friends in her 2012 book, MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend. She sets up lunch dates with several women, including a 40-something single mom of two tweens. But Bertsche’s coworkers teased her for considering making friends with a woman more than a decade older than she is. Bertsche quickly dismissed her:
“What kind of a friendship is really possible with a mom of puberty-crazed children? I’m almost embarrassed — how are we going to look, me and the mom? … I’m not exactly sure why I’m hung up on the age and kids thing. Maybe I’m trying to hold onto my youth. Like being best friends with a woman about 13 years closer to middle age would make me seem closer to middle age. … While friends with babies seems doable, friends with teenagers seems, well, old.”
What a missed opportunity! Because if Bertsche is lucky, she, too, will live to be old (and 40-something is hardly old!). That’s a privilege not everyone gets to experience.
Intergenerational friendships offer big perks for both older and younger women, according to an AARP study. Both can benefit by seeing things from a different perspective, as I have with Jan and Laura. Older friends can inspire younger women and act as role models; having younger friends offers older women a chance to share the wisdom of their years. Perhaps most importantly, intergenerational friendships could go a long way toward busting ageist beliefs, and even offer younger women a more positive attitude about aging.
And it works in reverse. Another study indicates that having more positive expectations about growing older makes it easier for women to make new friends and feel like they can count on them for support.
Who wouldn’t want that?
According to Anna Kudak, coauthor of What Happy Women Do:
“Bridging the generation gap not only increases the friend pool, but it also expands and supports mental well-being. Friendships with older and younger people help broaden your perspective, which in turn allows you to have compassion and empathy in your day-to-day life.”
That said, most of us tend to make friends with women who are like us, not only in age, but also in race and class. They’re the women we meet at work, in our religious and civic activities, in our neighborhoods, schools and local eateries or coffee shops. That restricts making friends with women whose experiences of aging might be different than our own.
Of course we also live in a society that views non-romantic relationships as being “less than” romantic relationships, so there are no policies or structures to encourage and support them. There’s no status update on Facebook to announce, “I just met my new BFF,” no way to have a friendship that has lasted decades be honored, no showers to celebrate making a new friend or parties to mark the anniversary of a long friendship.
And all of us are worse off because of that.
Hey, I’m working on a book on changing the narrative about middle-aged and older women. Interested? Follow me here, on Medium, and on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. I also coauthored a book on transforming “traditional” marriage, The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore (please do) or order it on Amazon. And we’re now on Audible.