Yesterday for the first time in weeks, it didn’t rain. After endless hours of typing, staring at my computer screen and attempting to teach phonics to a stubborn four-year-old, I jumped at the chance to get out for a socially-distanced walk with my friend Diana, who I’ve lived next door to for the past eight years.
Di and I have always got on. She’s funny and blunt and gives excellent advice. Pre-Covid, she was regularly swimming multiple lengths of the nearby outdoor pool, going on holiday with friends and recommending new restaurants that I hadn’t even heard of yet. Our walks are much the same as a walk with any of my other friends, but for one exception – while I am in my mid-30s, Di has just turned 80.
In previous years, there were few stark differences between our lives, despite the 45-year age gap. If anything, retirement offered her life more freedom and adventure than mine could ever muster. As far from the ‘vulnerable elderly neighbour’ cliché as you can get, over the years it has been Di who has frequently come to my rescue – most notably the time I called her in hysterics because my cat had brought a live bird into the house. She marched in, threw a towel over the dazed creature and took it outside, before returning to give my cat a stern telling off – all without waking my newborn baby who was asleep in the next room. I think it’s safe to say that I value her friendship hugely.
A time to take stock
This year I’ve thought a lot about friendships, and how the shadow of COVID has fundamentally changed the way we connect with others.
Without the safety nets of workplaces, events and social spaces, friendships are stripped back: a one-to-one walk or video call is a very different thing to a room full of people with loud music and flowing drinks.
The pandemic has shrunk everyone’s world back to its very core. But this paring back also represents an opportunity to build better relationships with neighbours and those around us. This reconnection of communities has benefits that reach beyond practical support – it also breaks us out of rigid social structures, where we go about our days surrounded by others of similar ages and backgrounds to ourselves.
When I first asked around to see whether anyone else had a story about age-gap friendships, it was immediately obvious that this year has provided the perfect backdrop for these more unconventional bonds to grow.
A fellow journalist, also in her mid-30s, told me that one friendship in particular has flourished during lockdown, despite an almost 20-year age gap. The two live nearby and meet regularly for walks.
“We laugh a lot, but I think the age difference means that she also has a different perspective on life,” she explains. “She’s survived a bad divorce and being a single mother, and I admire her attitude; she’s resilient and brave.
“We’re both single, but she doesn’t seem to give it a second thought; she has a full and colourful life without a relationship, and I take strength from that. While she’s the older one, I’m more cautious by nature, while she’s more rebellious. Sometimes it does me good to talk to her and be reminded that you can ignore the rules and make mistakes, and the world doesn’t end.”
While research on the subject is limited, from US charity AARP showed that age gap friendships have unique, universally positive benefits across all generations. Almost half of these friendships have lasted at least ten years, while almost a quarter were still going after 20 years. Further, 61 per cent of respondents said their friend helped them to see a different perspective, 41 per cent said they inspired them and 40 per cent that they provide a role model.
It’s a picture that rings true for Ally, 36, and Ruth – “almost the big 6-0” – who have been friends for eight years, after meeting through the 50s Rock’n’roll scene in South East London. “I liked you because you were quite brazen and you had fabulous clothes,” Ruth says to Ally, when I ask about their first meeting.
“Until the dancing, I don’t think I had any intergenerational friends,” Ally says. “I was friends with people from school, then from university. But I get something different from Ruth.”
“Social expectations, group dynamics – they’re very key to when you grew up and who you grew up with; what you’re exposed to at those key points of your development,” Ruth continues. “We actually talk a lot about this, and I find it really interesting to see the differences between the generations.”
Both Ally and Ruth say that common interests and values make their age difference largely insignificant, but that occasionally these generational differences will be obvious – they cited watching It’s a Sin as one recent example.
Ally remembers visiting an exhibition of dancer and choreographer Michael Clark pre-lockdown. “I was looking at all these cool things that happened in the 80s, when I wasn’t even born. Ruth was walking around saying, ‘Oh! I know that guy… I know that guy.’’
Executive coach Shilpa Panchmatia tells me that she has developed a strong bond over lockdown with an older friend who she originally met through a walking group. When she had to shield last year, her friend did all her shopping for her.
“It was a totally different switch – rather than the youngsters shopping for older people, she was shopping for me,” she smiles. Since then, their friendship has continued to grow. “I was bowled over by her generosity, her positive mindset. She volunteered on all the COVID units, right the way back from March. It gave me a real sense of inspiration.”
Shilpa points out that the benefits of diversity in age and experience have long been recognised in the business world. “Diverse teams are not only smarter, but approach decision-making differently, to give a fuller and more rounded solution,” she tells me.
Thinking about this, I’m struck by how much ‘mentors’ are valued in the working world, and how we wouldn’t hesitate to reach out or ask career advice from someone older and more experienced. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could embrace this approach to life as readily as we do in our careers; seeing experience as a valued commodity and acknowledging the importance of making space for different perspectives?
In a culture that – for women at least – often seems to value youth and beauty above all else, ageing can be a prickly subject. Perhaps if we surrounded ourselves with strong, happy older women, the spectre of ageing wouldn’t have quite the same hold on us.
I’m reminded here of Kristen Scott-Thomas’ glorious monologue in Fleabag where she tells of the freedom that comes with passing the menopause – “It is horrendous, but then it’s magnificent. Something to look forward to.” – notable not just for its razor-sharp delivery, but also as one of the few examples of a female character ageing joyfully. These are the conversations we all need to hear, and yet so many of us don’t.
Perhaps if we manage to salvage one thing from this catastrophic mess of a year, it will be to hang onto those unconventional bonds that we built when it mattered the most.
Maybe the role models that can make a real difference to our lives aren’t on TV, or writing in the papers, or speaking from podiums. Maybe instead, they’re the ones dropping bags of shopping at the door, reminding us to laugh and saving us from a wayward cat.