When I was a little girl, I loved visiting my neighbors, Alice and Nell. They’d serve ladyfingers and pink lemonade in a garden lined with bleached-white clam shells. I’d sit in their knitting circle — stringing yarn through oversized, plastic buttons, giddy with the excitement of listening in on an adult conversation.
I was 5 at the time, and Alice and Nell were well into their 80s. Despite the eight decades between us, I considered them to be my first friends. Today, my closest friends are either 46 like me or just a few years older or younger. Although it’s more common to have friends who are around your age, an AARP study finds that four in ten adults have a friend who’s at least 15 years older or younger than they are.
“Intergenerational friendships can be mutually rewarding,” says Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., author of a book on female friendships titled Best Friends Forever. A psychologist and friendship expert who writes at The Friendship Blog, Levine remained friends with one of her elementary school teachers whom she calls her “role model and mentor” for more than 50 years — up until the day her friend died.
As we mature, friendships are formed around our commonalities and interests, not necessarily our age anymore. “We’re less likely to know everyone’s ages because we’re not all grouped together like we were in school. We now work with, live next to, and attend events with people of all ages,” explains Shasta Nelson, author of The Business of Friendship: Making the Most of Our Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time.
A wider social net is cast as you move further from the formal education years: You may volunteer, join a book club, go to church, travel, or enter the workforce where, according to the AARP study, you're more than twice as likely to befriend someone from another generation than anywhere else.
My sister Joelle Bruno, 42, met Ginger Feola, 70, at a high school in New Jersey where they were both working in the guidance counseling department. When Feola found out that "ringing in the New Year in Times Square" was next on Bruno's bucket list, she replied, "Me too. Let's go!"
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We had so much fun,” says Bruno. They took the train into the city together, watched the ball drop, and got on TV with Ryan Seacrest and Jenny McCarthy.
Although Bruno and Feola are 30 years apart, the age difference is irrelevant. “Joelle’s so open and friendly that it’s easy to gravitate toward her,” Feola says. “When we’re together, she makes me feel like we’re the same age.”
Although they talk on the phone, Bruno and Feola spend most of their time in person, which isn’t surprising considering more than 50 percent of intergenerational friends engage in mostly face-to-face communication, the AARP notes. When it's possible, this adventurous duo goes to outdoor markets, concerts, or trendy restaurants. Bruno even planned Feola’s retirement dinner with their colleagues. “I love our conversations and the advice Ginger gives me,” Bruno says. “If it weren’t for Ginger, I wouldn’t have a 403b retirement plan.”
Nelson says this is one of the major benefits of an age-gap friendship. “Having an older friend helps us ‘try on’ certain life experiences before we get there — whether it’s watching a friend lose a parent or retire before we do — and feel more ready for what’s coming in future life stages,” she explains.
Anne Smith, 66, of New York City and Beth Tripmacher, 41, of Brooklyn also met at work, when Smith hired Tripmacher as an editor at a publishing company in 2005. What began as a manager-employer relationship turned into a friendship, despite their 25-year age difference.
Even though they no longer work together, they still see each other often. They enjoy going to dinner and the theater, taking bike rides, and working out at the same gym. “Sometimes we just order food and cocktails and sit in Anne’s apartment and chat and laugh and catch up,” Tripmacher says. “The funny thing is, I have more in common with Anne than I do with some of my friends my own age.”
Tripmacher is now the content operations director at the Sundance Institute, and Smith met up with her at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020. They went to see a movie, had a late dinner, and then got a Lyft ride from a “very hip driver,” as Smith recalls. “Here we were — Beth and I — in Park City, Utah, driving around in an all-terrain jeep and listening to Sam Cooke. Too cool.”
There is indeed something “cool” and liberating about befriending someone who’s in a different generation than you are. “Sometimes it’s younger friends who give us more permission to tap into a side of ourselves that might have more energy or might want to take more risks,” Nelson explains.
Some age-gap friendships are driven by shared values and a passion to change the world. Lara Thorne, 29, and Jane Drichta, 51, are both midwives who became friends while volunteering at a maternity clinic in Kurdistan, Iraq in 2018. They wound up not only working together, but also living together for nine months. It was the start of a beautiful friendship that’s still going today, despite Thorne living in London and Drichta in Seattle.
“With Jane, no topic is off limits and we’re completely honest with each other,” says Thorne. I know I can call her — anytime day or night — for a laugh, cry, rant, or to share an idea. Our best times are spent philosophizing late into the night.”
Thorne and Drichta message each other every day and have video calls a few times a week. “We talk about everything under the sun,” says Drichta. “We may tease each other unmercifully, but there really isn’t anything we wouldn’t do for each other. We’re so much alike, it’s a bit scary.”
Many “age-is-just-number” friendships are wrapped in a cozy comfortableness that feels more like a sisterhood. Such is the case with Kelly Johnson, 50, and Jessica Frolli, 35, both from California, who’ve been friends for 15 years.
They text each other every day and meet in person at least once a month. Johnson says, “We both love Halloween and scary movies. We have movie-night sleepovers or go to art fairs, or just hang out at each other’s houses.”
Frolli values that Johnson is honest and upfront with her. “I can say anything to her — even the not-pretty stuff — and she’ll still love and support me,” Frolli says.
“We know that everyone’s lives are different, but we remember this more easily with a friend who is in a different life stage. That openness can lead to less comparing, less judgment, less competition,” Nelson explains.
In fact, one of the best things about an intergenerational friendship is its authenticity: The elements of jealousy or self-consciousness or keeping up with whomever it may be that you want to keep up with are pretty much nonexistent.
When Bruno moved out on her own and bought a condo, Feola shared in her joy. “I was thrilled for her," she says. "Genuine happiness.” And Tripmacher says of Smith: “She’s always supportive and encouraging, whether I'm going for a new job or making a bigger life decision — she’s the best cheerleader.”
When you seek out and nurture a friendship with someone who isn’t in your age group, trivial things fall by the wayside: She’ll lift you up, support you, take you to that dreaded doctor’s appointment, drive you to the airport, share a bottle of wine, laugh with you until you both pee your pants. In her, you’ll find a friend who’s more like family — your safety net, biggest fan, and unflappable support system. Sounds kind of perfect, doesn’t it?
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