“Have you gotten your vaccine yet?” has lately replaced “How are you?” among the people I text, talk to, see when I walk the dog or stay in touch with on social media. It’s even replaced the organ recital that sometimes constitutes conversation among people my age.
Now that I and many of them are answering affirmatively, we are emerging gingerly from lockdowns and isolation like survivors of a nuclear holocaust in one of those old movies like On the Beach. We are not being foolish; we’re not making any reservations we can’t cancel with no fee, we’re thinking of flying to visit the kids and the grands, but we haven’t booked the tickets yet. We’re not even celebrating the landmark birthday extravaganza we were supposed to have last year because we’ve already been that age for so long it’s old news now.
But we are stretching our pods a bit, having dinner with a friend or two while following the restaurant protocol, even visiting a museum or taking the youngest generation to a park or playground. We’re beginning to think about our social life, reflect on what and who we’ve let go of or held on to, whether those friendships satisfied our needs for relatedness and still do, whether we’ve pared them down to an essential few or become closer to some through circumstance, like the neighbor we used to just nod to, the aide at the nursing home who cared for our mother because we couldn’t, the young couple we met just before lockdown who checked in on us regularly thereafter.
For most seniors, friends and family were our only visitors, cohabiters or companions for a year or longer. Some of our lives didn’t change dramatically due to the pandemic: If single, we’d grown accustomed to living alone. Whether working remotely or retired from our careers, we’d arranged our social lives to see a few good friends for activities we both enjoy and more casual ones now and then.
And although we keep in close touch with the former often enough to keep the sense of isolation at bay, what we miss is the buzz of energy we get or feel from the social surround, the affirmation and recognition implicit in the “Hi, how are you?” from the people the psychotherapist Marvin Thomas, author of Personal Village, calls the familiar strangers we used to see almost daily—the barista who knows we like our lattes with skim milk, the dry cleaner whose kids graduated from high school with ours, the conductor on the train who always kibitzed his passengers’ crossword puzzle and usually knew the answer you didn’t.
Whatever our age, most of us have felt the psychological effects of losing all but our closest friends and most of our casual acquaintances this year. If our kids were living with us, we may be glad to see them go back to their own homes, their own pursuits, their own routines, and for quite a while we’ll be content with Skype visits. If our marriage survived the pandemic or even flourished, as many did, we’re grateful, and we tend our most intimate other friendships with lots and lots of phone calls. As a child I couldn’t understand my mother’s lengthy phone conversations with friends like that: “What do you talk about when you just saw her yesterday and there’s nothing new?” I asked once. “Nothing much,” she replied. “And I hope when you’re my age, you’ll have friends you can talk to about nothing, too.”
Fortunately I have a few. We all watched the same news, and it was too depressing to talk about so we tried not to and exchanged book and TV suggestions instead, but the conversations about nothing—or at least, nothing new—kept us going during lockdown. They sustained us even without actually being together and sharing actual rather than virtual experiences, impressions and events, which constituted our social lives before the pandemic.
Some friendships probably won’t endure; we won‘t travel with the hikers and bikers because our knees are a year older, and that was mostly what we did together. And others may have foundered because of disagreements that became intolerable, especially political, habits that became unbearable, or a difference in values that can’t be ignored any longer.
According to the data, age-related decreases in social network size appear to have more to do with a pruning process that begins in our 30s and 40s, long before age-related losses begin. Research suggests that as we age, we actively reduce our social networks into smaller, more intimate forms across adulthood that have high concentrations of emotionally close social partners who benefit our mental health.
Notably, the number of those remains highly stable across middle and late adulthood. We prefer familiar and emotionally close social partners, unlike younger adults, who chose novelty over familiarity. But even with close, old friends of long standing, decades or more, interpersonal tensions during this year, when we’re all at the ragged edge, have been inevitable, if not unavoidable. “There are times when my best friend says something insensitive or snarky and I keep obsessing about it,” says a client. “In the middle of the night I’m thinking of what I should have said, or wondering if it means our relationship is over and realizing how vulnerable that makes me feel.”
Research indicates that negative experiences with intimates are much stronger than positive ones, but as we age we navigate our relationships to reduce conflict and tension. We avoid certain topics and modify behaviors to prevent escalation, preferring passive strategies like doing nothing or letting the situation pass. Preserving good will in the interests of social harmony is more important to people my age than confronting the conflict or even attempting to resolve it as younger generations tend to do. “At some point, you recognize that you’re not going to change them, and if it’s not awful enough to make you reconsider the whole friendship, you give up trying,” says a 70-year-old friend. “After all, there are things about you that probably drive them crazy, too.”
Our whole history lives with and in our oldest friends. If we hadn’t excluded less meaningful, casual acquaintances before the pandemic, we’re likely to do so when it’s over. As my favorite meme has it, “What I’m thankful to the pandemic for are the people I can’t see and the places I can’t go.”