Why everyone benefits from having friends of all ages

Why is it that our friends are often around the same age as us? It might seem easier to stick with your own generation but, says Eleanor Tucker, there’s a lot to be gained from friendships across the gap


Why everyone benefits from having friends of all ages

Tonight, I’m going out with a close friend. I can’t wait; we always have those conversations that make you feel you’ve got things off your chest, but also learnt something new. That sounds serious. It’s not; we also invariably drink too much wine and have those big belly laughs that mean you wake up the next day smiling, wondering where that strange pain in your ribs came from.

But there are a few things that Katie and I don’t talk about. We never reminisce about the awful make-up we wore in the 1990s (brown lip liner? I went there). We don’t chat about gigs we went to as students (D-Ream, anyone?). And we won’t discuss how chunky our first mobile phone was (mine was the size of a breeze block). Because for Katie and I, there’s one thing that we don’t have in common at all: our age. Katie is 15 years younger than me. She was born the year I was doing my GSCEs and learning the lyrics to ‘Buffalo Stance’. When I was losing my virginity, she was moving onto solids. And when I was leaving home, she was learning to walk.

This got me thinking. Most of my friends are the same age as me, and at a similar life stage – which has obvious advantages. But when I see Katie, I get a completely different view on life, and it’s refreshing. As much as I like talking about my children and their teachers/head lice/ refusal to eat cauliflower, I also like that fact that Katie, who’s in her twenties and single, would find these topics dull. So we end up discussing broader subjects. Fewer head lice, more politics. Less cauliflower, more mindfulness.

A different perspective

I asked life coach Sloan Sheridan-Williams about it, and she explained to me that we tend to gravitate towards certain types of personalities within our own age group who we’ve grown to feel comfortable with over time. ‘But the benefit of shifting focus and cultivating friends from different generations is that they can help you to see situations from a different perspective. Older friends can contribute their experience, whereas younger friends can be more curious and confident in their approach.’

i wonder how much experience I bring to my friendship with Katie. Rosemary, a Bowen therapist in her early fifties who has a friend, Angela, 31, is confident of that role. ‘I met Angela at just the right time, when I was helping her children with the Bowen Technique therapy that I practise. I’d drifted away from some of my friends of the same age when they’d had children and I hadn’t. I was busy with my career and travelling, while they had young families and were occupied with nappies and school runs.

‘Now, with Angela, I find that our lives are so different that we marvel at each other’s blessings. She lives for her family; I love my work and my freedom. Her children are the age my grandchildren would be if I’d had children of my own, so I am aware that she is filling a gap in my life, but I think I’m doing the same with her. I bring some sanity; a voice of reason and experience.’

But what is it like to be on the receiving end of that kind of experience? Gemma is 25 and one of her best friends, Delia, is 52. They met initially when Gemma became friends with Delia’s son at university. ‘I met Delia the day I moved into halls – she was helping her son move in. To start with, we’d chat when she visited him, but gradually, we started spending time together. Seven years on, we’re close friends – we’ve even been on holiday together. Obviously there are things I wouldn’t do with her, like go clubbing, but that doesn’t bother me, as I can do that kind of thing with other friends.

‘Delia is young in her mindset – I never feel like I’m talking to someone more than twice my age. She’s been welcomed into my family, and has even been with me to Ireland to visit them. All my younger friends love her, too. But there’s no denying people think our situation is weird and don’t understand it. I’ve given up trying to explain it now. It just works for us.’

Age difference stigma

Not everyone gets it. It seems strange for there to be a stigma attached to the age of our friends, but it does exist. Sheridan-Williams explains that in Eastern culture, the practice of having a mentor or guru is historically more prevalent, especially spiritually, as is the expectation on young family members to look after older relatives often in the same family home.

‘But in the West, from a young age, we are encouraged to make friends with those we go to school with and friendships in modern society stick to this template as we get older,’ she points out. ‘This can mean that younger people can miss out on the ability older people often have to put things in perspective and shift the focus away from sweating the small stuff to concentrate on satisfying more meaningful emotional needs, like contribution, significance and connection.’

My friend Carol understands better than most how rewarding a friendship with someone older can be: she's 39 and Ian's 83. He lives next door to her and they became friends in the winter of 2009 when she was stuck in with a newborn baby, and he was housebound because of snowy weather. ‘I would do a bit of shopping for him, take him round homemade cakes and just hang out in his cosy back room. Gradually, he stopped being my “elderly neighbour” and became a friend.’

Carol is aware that people assume Ian is her grandfather when they go out together. ‘I haven’t had grandparents around for a while, and nor has my husband, so in a way Ian does fill that gap – he’s like family, but without the baggage. But we aren’t friends through duty. I genuinely love spending time with him and there is a good balance – I help him out and he helps us out.

‘I love knowing that Ian is there. He is thoughtful and generous and if I give myself a hard time about something, he always sticks up for me. He is funny and sharp, and passionate about music, which I am too. A lot of my friends are mums with young children, so I suppose Ian and I just talk about different things. But in essence, the friendship is the same – we enjoy each other’s company. I can’t think of any disadvantages, only that he probably won’t be in my life as long as I would like.’

In a society that needs, urgently, to break down barriers between ages, I reckon our friendships might be a good place to start. I can recommend getting a Katie in your life – and I’m trying to work out how I can get myself an Ian.

Photograph: GalleryStock

More inspiration:

Read New friends my own age by Diane Priestley on LifeLabs