January 17, 2019
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Even if the aging and elderly tend to wind up confined to family circles, Argentine academics Laura Belli and Danila Suárez explore the often untapped benefits of friendship in our later years.
Updated Dec. 10, 2023 at 10:10 p.m.
BUENOS AIRES — What kind of friendship do people most talk about? Most often it is childhood or teenage friendships, while friendships between men and women are repeatedly analyzed. What about friendships among the elderly? How are they affected when friends disappear, at a stage when grieving is already more frequent?
Argentines Laura Belli and Danila Suárez Tomé, two friends with PhDs in philosophy, explore the challenges and benefits of friendship in their book Filosofía de la amistad (Friendship Philosophy).
They consider how friendships can emerge later in life, in profoundly altered circumstances from those of our youth, with people living through events like retirement, widowhood, reduced autonomy or to a greater or lesser degree, personal deterioration. All these can affect older people's ability to form and keep friendships, even if changes happen at any stage in life.
Filosofía de la amistadexplores the place of friendships amid daunting changes. These are not just the result of ageing itself but also of how one is perceived, nor will they affect everyone exactly the same way. Aging has firstly become a far more diverse experience, with increasing lifespans and better healthcare everywhere, and despite an inevitable restriction in life opportunities, a good many seniors enjoy far greater freedom and life choices than before.
The book explains that for many older people, friendships take on an inordinate importance that may even displace family ties. We might ordinarily associate this stage in life with fewer friendships and withdrawal into the family environment or in the worst cases, loneliness. For all age groups, isolation is increasingly seen as a healthcare epidemic in Western societies, precisely for its effects on physical and emotional wellbeing. It is not unusual of course for friendships to end if they rested on conditions that have disappeared (you are less mobile now, are dependent, or poorer). Only, the book suggests, it needn't be inevitable.
But death is indeed inevitable and the elderly are bound to see more of their peers die. These are difficult losses because they challenge our subjective view of life and remind us of our own mortality. But even without traumatic deaths, maintaining friendships becomes challenging as our interactions are reduced.
Many seniors are quite fit and active these days, but the social spaces that allow interactions may be fewer. Modern society barely focuses on creating social spaces for the elderly or on including them in the wider circuit, and options often barely go beyond neighborhood clubs or cultural centers that can be confining.
Two elderly men playing chess
The authors consider our society's view of the elderly as child-like, which creates pressures on them to abandon their social life and return to the close family circle. It's a mistake.
Old age is also seen as unfavorable to making friends
Family ties, while crucial to many, differ from friendship. People derive different things from their ties to friends than from children, siblings or cousins.
Old age is also seen as unfavorable to making friends: the idea is, the elderly like to stick to the friends they've known. But they can, and should, make new friends. And these are outside, not inside the family home. They may not be close initially, like a family member, but may be going through a similar experience. Without the school, college or workplace environments of previous years — which are places to interact and socialize — the elderly have a challenge then in finding the equivalent of those settings.
Society plays a role here, especially in changing its perceptions of this stage of our lives, and its requirements. That is where friendship becomes crucial, helping the elderly respect themselves, giving meaning to everyday life, and compensating for traumatic changes.
You might think children, or even a niece or nephew, could provide you with the trust and company you need should you find yourself alone at a later age.
* Belli and Suárez are lecturers at the philosophy department of the University of Buenos Aires.