Male loneliness: practical ways to help men who are struggling
Have you ever thought you could do with a few more friends?
Most of us have that feeling at some point in our lives, whether that’s because we’ve shed some along the way, moved to a new area or simply have more time on our hands. While it might have been easy to meet new people when you had young children or were going into an office every day, if you’re older and home-based it can feel like a tough ask.
There’s no shame in looking for new friends: indeed, with relationships the bedrock of a life that’s healthy both physically and emotionally, it’s actually a sign of a well-balanced individual to identify when there’s room for a few more. But how do you go about it?
“Think about what’s meaningful and important to you – it’s the key to finding people you’re likely to get on with.”
Don’t rule out simply asking, even if it makes you feel like being in the playground again. Catherine, a recently retired teacher, made a great new friend when she clicked with Antonia at an allotment party and asked her if she fancied a coffee sometime.
“It felt like asking someone on a date – I was a bit nervous about it,” recalls Catherine. “But Antonia’s face lit up when I suggested it, so I knew she was up for making a new friend too, and was pleased I’d made the first move. We now meet every week at a coffee shop, getting to know each other gradually.”
Her advice is not to rush things, just as you wouldn’t in a romantic relationship.
“You don’t want to suggest weekly meetings straight away,” she says. “It helps to pay your new friend a compliment. Telling someone you love their outfit is a great way to break the ice.”
In the dating world it’s perfectly acceptable to use apps to make new connections – and there are now digital ways to make new friends too, with a huge surge in digital buddy finding in recent months. The website Meetup, for example, has more than 4.3 million members and around 16,500 UK groups. “While you get introductions online, the whole idea is to use technology to get off technology,” says CEO David Siegel.
Unlike dating apps, people don’t usually start by meeting one to one; they’re more likely to join a group of like-minded individuals – people who share a passion or interest, or those who live nearby and just want to go to the pub on Fridays.
That’s very much how it was for Liam Mycroft, who moved to Dublin in 2013.
“I was in my fifties and new to socialising in Dublin,” he says. “I was keen on running but I didn’t have anyone to go with. I thought, ‘What if there are people out there who’d like to go for a run once a week, then to the pub for a drink?’” Liam posted his group, ‘Run and Beers’, on Meetup and within a few hours he had his first would-be friend getting in touch. Since then, 1,865 people have come at least once to the Wednesday get-togethers.
“If the weather is cold there might just be one or two people,” says Liam, who is now 65. “But on a fine evening we might have 20 people, across a good age range – some are in their forties, others sixtysomethings.” What that’s meant, he says, is he has good pals in their twenties and thirties – “genuine friends who don’t see me as an old guy but as a mate”.
When Liam was being treated for cancer last year and wasn’t able to run, his spirits were raised when 20 or so members of the group visited him. “There’s been some real bonding, and two or three of the people have become close friends,” he adds.
How to make friends:
Veronica Hatton, 70, had a similar experience when she moved back to her native Manchester ten years ago.
“I came back because my mother was unwell, but that coincided with me ending a 20-year relationship and stopping work,” she says. Via Meetup she found a book group called Literature and Laughter for Ladies.
“I thought a book club would be an easy way to meet people: I like reading, and this group has monthly get-togethers in a pub.” There were around 30 women at the first session. “You get into smaller groups to discuss the book, so it’s not daunting,” says Veronica. “Now, if I want to go to a movie I’ll buy myself a ticket and put a shoutout on the members-only website saying, if you fancy it, do come along. And people always do.” A few weeks earlier she tried out another group but felt it wasn’t for her. “You have to go with your instincts; if it doesn’t feel right, try something else,” she advises.
The benefits of a good social life are well documented: friends keep you happier and healthier, and even help you live longer.
“Good relationships are the bedrock of everything else, and you need to focus on them in the same way you’d focus on a career or hobby,” says Robin Hewings of the Campaign to End Loneliness.
He advises what Liam and Veronica’s experiences prove: start with your own interests. “Think what’s meaningful and important to you, as that’s the key to finding people you’re likely to get on with,” he says. “Issues you’re drawn to are where you’ll find people you want to befriend.”
Making friends can be easier than you think, he says, but there are some caveats: “If your life is a bit rocky right now, for whatever reason, it can be intimidating and scary to put yourself out there with new people. Be aware you might need to push yourself in ways that might not feel easy, but will pay off.
“For example, my 84-year-old mother, who has just moved into sheltered housing in a new town, tells me she always sits next to someone new at social events in the lounge. She says, ‘It’s easy to sit next to the person you sat with last week, but you’ll get to know more people if you choose someone new.’”
“Be open to different sorts of friendships. When you’ve got life experience you can be a terrific friend to a younger person.”
Psychologist Dr Becci Dow, who chairs a British Psychological Society group on older people, says what matters most when you’re looking for friends is being receptive to them.
“Be open to different sorts of friendships,” she says. “When you’ve got life experience and time, you can be a terrific friend to a younger person.” And don’t dismiss the importance of peripheral friendships with people like the postman or the person who delivers your parcels. “We need friends across a broad spectrum, and it’s having social contact that matters most,” she says.
For Veronica, Literature and Laughter for Ladies has been a godsend. “Knowing them has really enhanced my life,” she says. “As we always say, we’re fluid about the literature and the ladies elements, but the laughter is compulsory.”
Finding buddies after bereavement
Sally Green, 76, lost her two closest friends of the same age last year. “We had been close for 40 years, and I was devastated to lose them,” she says. “It made me realise I’d never have such close friends again as there isn’t enough life left to build those sort of connections.”
“This is a really tough situation, and as you get older you’re unfortunately more likely to lose friends,” says Robin Hewings. But, he adds, remember there are others out there who have also lost a best friend and are open to a close friendship.
Julia Samuel, author of This Too Shall Pass, about how to cope with change, suggests joining groups that are connected to something you enjoy and have a structure, such as a choir or walking group: “These are such good ways to find friends because you have the framework for getting out there, and you’re more likely to do it even if you’re not feeling great,” says Julia. Her 28-day app from bereavement service Cruse can help in dealing with the loss of a close friend.