The importance of variety in our friendships

With more than 3 million older people in the UK living alone, Rachel Parker examines the value of varied cross generational friendships and how they can help r…
variety in our friendships

Have you heard of homophily? It literally means the ‘love of sameness’ and is a sociological theory that similar individuals will move toward each other and act in a similar manner. Birds of a feather flocking together, basically. The term was first used in the 1950s by social scientists Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton and I think it’s something that can become more apparent as we get older.

I was reading an article recently which talked about how our social groups shrink with age. There are a number of reasons – we have less time, we have different priorities, our interests change. This all makes sense. People in their 50s have quite the juggle going on with work, families and friends. But it’s important to keep bringing new people into your life, people who are from different backgrounds or generations – they can introduce whole new experiences.

I’ve had this, thanks to my time with a company called Good Life Sorted, which uses tech to connect elderly or vulnerable people with ‘Helpers’ in their local community for companionship and support.

Good Life Sorted was inspired by one of the founders’ elderly grandmother. She lived happily in her own home in a remote Greek village, alone, until her late 90s, thanks to the support of her local community. In the UK it’s sometimes easier to miss the people who need us. We stick to our own demographics and don’t ‘pop in’ to those in need so much – but my social circle has grown over the past few months, as I’ve become one of those Helpers, popping into see others to keep them company on a regular basis.  

I have a customer in her late 50s.  I see her once a week and provide transport as she is unable to drive herself due to disabilities.  It’s a formal, regular arrangement, but very rewarding for both her and me.  We spend the entire time chatting.  I also look after a gentleman who is in his early 40s and has MS. I see him twice a week for 2 hours and apart from helping with various jobs around the bungalow, we chat and have found a common interest in playing scrabble.  I would have never met him had I not started being a helper.  He is a great character, with lots of interesting stories and it makes a change.  It’s good for both of us.  I know whatever happens we’ll always be friends.

Homophily is understandable: from birth, we socialise with people our own age – through parenting groups, nursery, school and then further education. Social contact with older people is often limited to family members, until we enter the world of work, while travel and higher education introduce us to people from different demographics. But work and education have now changed.

Half of British employees are now working from home, which is great for flexibility but does mean less collaboration and socialising. Learning is often carried out online.  Social media is shaping our relationships for us – hidden algorithms mean that our interactions remain within the scope of things we have already clicked and watched.

Twitter now provides a For You stream, clearly picking out accounts and content based on our previous activity. We are being funnelled into social groups that reflect us. We are watching and learning from people that we already agree with.

Does that mean that we are missing out on new influences and different perspectives?

I think so. Having friendships with people in different age groups and demographics can be really enriching. I loved the idea of helping others but had no idea just how rewarding it would be for me when I first signed up to do it. Different people have lived different experiences, so taking the time to listen to their stories provides a new outlook and perspective on things – sometimes needed in this isolated world of social media bubbles.

There is a mindfulness to being a Helper: it slows the pace down a little – taking tea, listening to stories, watering plants or washing dishes. It doesn’t sound terribly exciting but in a chaotic, quite stressful world it actually benefits me just as much as my customers. And by welcoming new outlooks, I feel my own has become better.

There are more than 3.5m older people living alone in the UK and it is estimated close to 2 million of them experience social isolation. The reasons for this vary, for some it is a loss of health or mobility, for others it could be bereavement, relationship breakdown or loss of a friendship group after retirement.

It’s up to younger, stronger people to provide the company that might help alleviate loneliness and the confidence to get out or at least stay in their own homes a little longer, with independence and dignity. And those younger people can get so much out of it!

Research by Age UK found that having at least one older friend helps us to feel more empathy while sociologist Miller McPherson, points out that homophily limits people’s social worlds. By mixing with others from different generations and backgrounds, you meet new types of people and gain new points of view, making your world more interesting and full of varied ideas.

That’s what I’ve found.  We should all mix it up a little.

Tags: , , , Last modified: March 8, 2023

Written by 8:20 am Relationships and dating