By Sharon Naylor

May 23, 2012 6 min read

How many close friends do you have? How many pleasant acquaintances? It's a factor of good health and longevity to enjoy enriching friendships, with many studies supporting the theory that you'll enjoy greater health and happiness if you regularly spend time with friends who uplift you and share your interests.

According to the Mayo Clinic, friends "prevent loneliness, increase your sense of belonging and purpose, boost your happiness, reduce stress, improve your self-worth, help you cope with traumas such as serious illness, the death of a loved one, or divorce and encourage you to change or avoid unhealthy lifestyles."

Friends add a dimension of fun to your life, as well, if you join them in evening walks or swim with them at the town pool (which you might not go to alone). You get to indulge in your love of entertaining when you invite them over for tea or dinner. You may even discover a talent you never knew you had when you join them for an art class.

Friends may even fill your life with the joy that went away when your adult children moved out of town, taking grandchildren with them. Without friends, you'd live a very lonely, sad life.

According to Life Extensions, a nonprofit dedicated to research on extending the human life span, not having friends and living in isolation is:

--As bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

--As dangerous as being an alcoholic.

--As harmful as never exercising.

--Twice as dangerous as obesity.

Clearly, it's time to reconnect with your old friends and make some new ones.

But how? It can be very difficult for seniors to reach out to friends they haven't spoken to in years. The may feel as if they've been forgotten or that they'll be rejected. But in most instances, with truly good friends, your bravery in making the call or sending the email will be rewarded. All it takes is a simple, "I've been thinking about you and hoping to reconnect." With true friends, the amount of time lapsed won't matter at all. If you reach out and the old friend doesn't reciprocate, at least you tried. Don't take it as rejection; take it as life encouraging you to keep on connecting with others.

It can also be difficult to make new friends, especially if you're shy by nature. But that, too, will turn out to be easier than you expect. Just follow these tips:

--Talk to people where you are. If you regularly go to the gym, take a class and say hello to the people around you. Some people will engage in conversation naturally, and some will be cordial but then return to focusing on what they're doing. You haven't embarrassed yourself. You're learning how to make friends.

--Give it time. According to Irene S. Levine, clinical psychologist and author of "The Friendship Blog," you shouldn't "expect too much too soon. Friendships take time, but if you are welcoming to potential friends and pursue your own passions, you'll be able to turn new acquaintances into deep friendships over time. If you come across as desperate or clingy, it might be a turnoff to a future friend-to-be."

--Take your grandchildren or pets to the park. While there, you'll connect with other grandparents or pet owners with whom you have a great interest in common. As an icebreaker, give a compliment or ask a question, such as "Do you know where there's a good frozen yogurt place around here?" Others like to be helpful, and they too may be at the park hoping to make new friends.

--Volunteer. You'll meet other people who share your giving nature and dedication to the cause, which is a strong foundation on which to build a friendship.

--Join groups. Check your regional magazine or website to find out about existing clubs like nature lovers groups, gardeners' groups, cooking clubs, book clubs and other free social gatherings where you will, over time, connect with the other members. Included in this are faith communities.

--Extend invitations and accept invitations. You'll experience more success in friend-making if you're proactive in your goal rather than waiting for your phone to ring. Plan an afternoon tea and invite potential friends to attend, asking them to invite friends of theirs. When you're asked to attend a neighbor's get-together, make every effort to attend. "I'm normally very tired in the evening and don't usually go out," says recent widow Elizabeth Rose. "But when I was asked to go to a friend's book club, I just pushed through my hesitancy, put on some makeup, and went. I perked up once I got there."

--Be pleasant to be with. This is a big one. If you have a bad habit of complaining, others won't want to spend time with you. Your best friends can certainly provide emotional support, but new friends need to feel happy and light in your presence.

--Take it to the next level with regular "dates." As your friendships grow, you might establish an every-Wednesday lunch or an every-Sunday morning walk. When a friendship achieves routine, it becomes an even greater health boost.

--Use social media. According to AARP, women older than 55 are the fastest-growing demographic on Facebook, connecting with old friends and making new ones online. Use this, though, as a tool to facilitate in-person activities and not as a replacement for them.

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