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Why and How to Make Friends of All Ages

Marlo Thomas on the benefits of timeless friendships

When I was a little girl, the average age of my friends was about 45. That's because I liked to hang out with, in addition to my schoolmates, the comedian pals of my father, Danny Thomas, and listen to them tell jokes. Then there were all those bustling producers and manic directors I'd meet at the movie studio when my father took me to work with him. And, of course, there was my maternal grandmother, who well into her 70s played drums in a beer garden in Pasadena. Grandma was a trip — feisty, funny and talented — and she was my role model. And my friend.

Marlo Thomas with (from left) Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, George Burns, and Jan Murray (Courtesy Marlo Thomas)

Marlo Thomas with (from left) Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, George Burns and Jan Murray. — Marlo Thomas

Although I didn't know it at the time, I was enjoying what is now called multigenerational bonding, which has become something of a studied science. According to the Pew Research Center, about 51 million Americans live in a home that boasts at least two adult generations, a 10 percent increase over a three-year period. That's a lot of bonding. And experts note that intergenerational mingling is a healthy thing — especially for older people.

"After they retire," says Terry Hokenstad, Ph.D., professor of social work at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and consultant to the United Nations on aging policy, "the degree of intergenerational bonding has a direct positive relationship with the quality of life. Through Facebook alone, we're seeing greater and more vibrant interaction between seniors and younger generations."

But personal relationships do not live by the Internet alone, which makes it difficult for some to connect with the younger generation in a meaningful way. How can older people build and maintain that important bridge, especially if their kids have moved away, or if they don't have children? Granted, it's hard not to worry about being written off as a prehistoric know-nothing, older than old and clueless about the high-tech world around us. But the truth is, we all bridge the generational divide every day. The woman at the salon who cuts your hair? She's young enough to be your daughter, yet the conversations you share add something special to the texture of your life. That's bonding. And what about your neighbor's kid — the one who fixes your drainpipe or helps you set up your modem? That's bonding, too.

You can also be proactive in new friendships. Is there someone at your gym, or in your book club, whom you'd like to connect with, if only you were their age? What's stopping you? Don't make defensive jokes about how old you are, or try to force your wisdom and experience on them. Simply smile and introduce yourself, the way you would with a contemporary. Share a bit of your story. Listen to theirs. You many not get a BFF out of it, but you might just be surprised at the connection you make.

The benefits of multigenerational bonding are plentiful, and I've seen this up close, ever since starting my own website in 2011. In the course of a typical day, I will meet with my editorial team, many of them 20- and 30-somethings, and their smarts and passion inspire me.

Next page: Surrounding yourself with those who are funny, smart and engaging. »

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