There's an aspect of aging that doesn't get discussed much: The older you get, the fishing pond for new friends gets shallower.
Pretty much everyone accepts that your prime friend-accumulation period occurs when you're still in school -- where you are surrounded by people your age and with similar interests. While our eyes rolled when Princeton alumna Susan Patton said we better find our husbands while we were still in college, we did have to agree with her that that was where the concentration of potential mates was strongest. Once you leave school and enter the mixed-age, mixed-life-stages of the work force, not everyone you encounter is a mirror reflection of yourself.
After you leave the college campus, finding friends becomes a bit harder. And once you become a parent, making new friends becomes harder still. Kids are the ultimate friendship-busters; new moms no longer have hours to devote to listening to their single friends' dating woes. As your kids age, your friendship circle morphs to school families or the other sports team or drama club parents. And when that period ends and your kids leave the nest, you are left with... well, frequently not much.
The friendship crisis that afflicts mid-lifers isn't even just a shortage of friends; we don't actually feel we can count on our old ones, according to a study by Lifeboat, a group that says it is "dedicated to rediscovering great friendship." It found that almost two-thirds of us lack confidence that even our closest friends will be there when we need them. Maybe it's because we haven't actually had the time to nurture them for the past two decades?
In middle age, we tend to categorize our relationships. We have church friends, golfing friends, synagogue sisterhood friends, bridge-playing friends and friends from the Sierra Club's hiking group. We keep these single-purpose friends in their own boxes and they don't transcend into other parts of our lives. There's a woman who I hike with a few times a year. When I saw her last month, she again asked me how old my kids were and got one of their names wrong. No, I don't think she's someone I'd call in an emergency. So where are those friends, the ones who you would call?
Increasingly, they are in our own backyards -- they are our neighbors.
When an unexpected fall recently bought my husband a day in the emergency room waiting to be checked out, it was neighbors who fetched my kids at school and walked my dogs. A third neighbor offered to check on my husband the next day so I could return to work. It was also a neighbor who removed a tarantula from my front doorstep and, since every street has one guy who is handy, a neighbor who fixed my alarm system that kept going off at 2 a.m. He might have had a self-interest in that act of kindness.
For many new retirees, neighborhoods have become the place to turn when they no longer have a job to go to every day or have a PTA to join. Anecdotally speaking, we are seeing more potluck neighborhood parties than ever before. In my own neighborhood, we celebrated Memorial Day with a round robin dinner -- appetizers and cocktails at 5 p.m. in one backyard; potluck main course in another at 7 p.m.; and dessert and dancing to a live band (from the neighborhood, of course) around 8:30 p.m. Best of all, everyone got to walk home. It was a family affair with the home-from-college kids joining, and dogs running through the yards.
It made me think that Dorothy was right: Indeed, there is no place like home -- even when what we're talking about is where to look for friends in midlife.