"I Will Never Be Able To Thank Her Enough": The Joys Of Female Friendship Over 50

Illustrated by Assa Ariyoshi.
This week on Refinery29, we’re filling your screens and consciousness with inspiring women over 50. Why? Because living in a culture obsessed with youth is exhausting for everyone. Ageing is a privilege, not something to dread. Welcome to Life Begins At...
Nosing through my daughter’s cards on her recent birthday, I came across one that made me catch a breath. This particular card was from one of my daughter’s closest friends. Inside she’d written: "I just love you so much." I felt moved by these simple, thoughtful words and delighted that my girl possessed such a caring pal.
Friends, the very best kind, are marvellous beings. They pop up in our lives in a random kind of order and spark from an assortment of situations and places. An anxious stare across a playground, a shared joke at the workplace printer or that spontaneous bonding over a glass or three at a party.
Our friends are instrumental in supporting, easing and brightening our way. They influence (without always meaning to) our thoughts, our ideas and our lifestyle choices. And they help shape us into the people we are or aim to be.
They are not the only important people enriching lives, of course. In my world I count on an awesome husband, wonderful kids, amazing sisters and a damn fine brother to also have my back.
Navigating my way through these later years, though, I do feel particularly gifted and lifted by the female friends who surround me. Few pals have been with me since my beginning, although a couple are still along for the ride. The friends I look to most now give me real joy. They listen to and support me and they pull me up when necessary. They offer wise counsel and the positive spin. And they make me laugh. A lot.
Examining the nature of friendships is nothing new. Aristotle pretty much nailed it with his take, which is still considered valid today. He divided friendship into three distinct types: utility, pleasure and virtue. The utility friendship is the one you find in a work-style setting, where alliances are based on mutual benefit, while the pleasure friendship springs from its participants bonding over shared activities or pursuits.
So far, so good. These types of friendship come and go as our lives change and move on. Aristotle didn’t see them as a bad thing; he just pointed out that they could be limited in depth and quality.
The third kind of friendship he outlined is the virtue friendship, a relationship based on the goodness we find in each other. This friendship, looked after, will grow, strengthen and endure. In short, it’s the friendship most of us chase and aspire to.
The virtue relationship may exist and flourish at every life stage, but as relationship counsellor Karen Apperley explains, it’s often significantly present in friendships between older women.
"The virtue friendship encompasses the values many of us want to be able to give to and receive from our closest friends," she says. "These include respect, honesty, trust, empathy, warmth, humour, shared experience, compassion and love."
"As we get older and the quality of friendships becomes more important to many women, it’s the values of the virtue friendship we’re looking for from those friendships."
This emphasis on seeking quality of friendships as we age is touched on constantly when seeking out the thoughts and opinions of my own friendship group.
Ali, 57, says: "As an older woman I may have more spare time. But at the same time I really value that time. I don’t waste it on the wrong people anymore."
"I think that now, in my mid 50s, I’ve reached a stage where I don’t actively seek to make new friends," muses Niccy, 55. "That doesn’t mean I’m not open to meeting new people or enjoying activities and time with them. But I do really want to concentrate on the friends that mean the most to me."
"I think we select, prune and refine our friendships as we become more aware of our mortality," says Marie, 54. "We have fewer friendships but they go much deeper."
"I see fewer people more of the time," says Annie, 60, "and these few are the only people I really want to spend my time with."
However, while prioritizing quality over quantity is paramount for some, other friends remain open to opportunities.
"I do find my friendship muscle starting to stiffen as I get older," admits Julie, 56. "I don’t actively look to start friendships as much as I did when I was younger. However, I do feel like I should work on that and stay open to friendship – you never know when someone special or influential will come into your life."
Friendships for me personally at this stage in my life are mostly about the quality. But at the same time, I want to remain open to interesting new experiences and people coming my way.
I find my friend pool a rich place, brimming with incredible women. They have come to me from school, work, later education, children, through other friends or have just turned up randomly. Their welcome presence means there are many positive things to say about friendships at this time in my life. Here are just a few:
Illustrated by Assa Ariyoshi.
Parenting tips from friends without kids can be the best
My mum friends have been the natural turn-to as my kids have grown. They still are. I really value their advice. However, in the last few years, some of the best parenting advice I’ve received has come from more unexpected quarters. Several of my female friends who don’t have children themselves have come through with objective, fresh takes on kid issues which have been insightful and massively helpful. A younger me may have felt they weren’t 'qualified' by experience to help. Older me recognizes every opinion counts.
Distance makes the heart grow stronger
When I moved out of London to a smaller city five years ago, a big concern was how I’d keep in touch with the friends I left behind. Thank you, digital world with your Instagram, WhatsApp and FaceTime for helping out there. But I also think it’s been good because I’ve had to work a bit harder to keep those connections going. Where that hasn’t been reciprocated, the friendships are history. But the friendships that are left are actually better for it. I go to them, they come to me. We take an hour, a day, a weekend or more together. However long, it’s quality time. Always.
Making new friends isn’t so hard
I have to confess that when I moved, I shamelessly muscled in on friends belonging to a good pal already living in my new city. I came, I saw, I clicked. My friendships with these women have just bloomed from there. That said, I have been trying to test and challenge myself in this still new landscape and make an effort to meet more people. So I’ve joined a gym, signed up to an art class and plan to brave a few more activities this winter. I’ll keep you posted.
Always expect new experiences
Next year I plan to gaze at the Eiger’s north face, shop my way round Copenhagen and loll on a seriously sunny beach far, far away. I am married to a man who considers a trip to Tesco a travel challenge, so it’s kind of serendipitous that my life is turning up friends who, like me, can spare some time away from their emptyish nests and more flexible careers. Family holidays are irreplaceable but expensive; it’s a fact that one can travel cheaper than four. So, just for next year, it’s all about me…and my friends.
Friends never stop amazing you
Not so long ago, someone very dear and close to me was battling a serious addiction. Trying to help and support this person really had me struggling too. And sinking. Suddenly, unexpectedly, a brave friend who had secretly and successfully battled a similar addiction decided to waive her anonymity and share her own experience. All so she could support me better through this horrible, horrible time. I will never be able to thank her enough.
I feel (I hope) that from where I have arrived in life I bring good news about what we may seek, find and enjoy in our friends as we get older. I am constantly meeting real spirit, enthusiasm, challenge, passion, creativity and love from my mates. There’s little complaining, grumpiness or mean spirit to be seen. My friends do not fail me.
And when it comes to showing my appreciation to all those friends I have gathered along my way? There are no words to better those from my daughter’s thoughtful friend: I just really love you.
On a final note, the American poet Anne Sexton had some fierce, passionate words on friendship. "Max" (a section of "The Death Baby") is about the close friendship between Sexton and her fellow poet, Maxine Kumin. I love the empowering strength of these words and the loving, in-it-together, whatever, forever vibe. It says everything I feel about one precious friend right now, at this time in our lives. She knows.
Max and I
two immoderate sisters,
two immoderate writers,
two burdeners,
made a pact.
To beat down death with a stick.
To take over.
To build our death like carpenters.
When she had a broken back,
each night we built her sleep.
Talking on the hot line
until her eyes pulled down like shades.
And we agreed in those long hushed phone calls
that when the moment comes
we’ll talk turkey,
we’ll shoot words straight from the hip,
we’ll play it as it lays.
when death comes with its hood
we won’t be polite.

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