‘She’s 85 and can out-dance me’: the joy of the age-gap friendship

Modern life makes it hard for old and young to meet, let alone become best friends. Whats the secret?

Its natural in the Caribbean community to have connections across generations: Audrey, 53, and Donna, 74

Audrey Im a music lecturer and, around 2004, I started a singing group for older adults. Donna arrived and she was loud. She declared she didnt have a clue about singing but was willing to learn even though she was, lets say, tunefully challenged.

I started giving her a lift to lessons and it gave us time to chat, mostly about music. Donna wanted me to go to concerts with her and we have enjoyed many together. I took her backstage on Errol Browns last tour, when I was a backing singer.

Donna is funny. She has lots of stories, is well-read and full of facts. Anything I ask, shell answer. No topics are off-limits. She has told me about her previous relationships and her ex-husband.

In 2012, we went on holiday together to New York. Donna had travelled a lot on her own, but didnt have the confidence to go there alone. We saw sights, laughed, ate and shopped and survived Hurricane Sandy. Now she is not as mobile, we sit and talk in her home, and watch the news. She loves my Jamaican cooking.

Donna thinks its unusual that I still stick around. She doesnt have family and I know its a lifeline for her, but its quite natural in the Caribbean community to have connections across generations. If I had an auntie in her situation, living alone, my mother would expect me to check in on her. Thats how I think of Donna, as an aunt.

Neither of us is prepared to accept our fate. This is clearest when it comes to our beliefs on equal rights and justice. I wont stand for any kind of racism and will argue that point if I see something unfair going on. As a younger woman, in the US, Donna worked as a social worker and is also quite the activist.

If someone expects something of me, Im probably not going to comply. Donna has that fight, too. I dont want that to ever end.

Donna I was immediately impressed by Audrey. She was signing us up for singing lessons and had her two young children with her. They didnt want to be there, but she had them under control and, as a former teacher, I know what that takes. I knew wed get our moneys worth and I never missed a lesson.

She drove past me once at the bus stop, in the rain, and gave me a lift to the class every week from then on. I wasnt used to that type of kindness since I moved to Manchester, England, from Indiana, US, in 1968.

Theres a tendency that if someone likes you, you like them back, and, put simply, that works here. She has a stimulating personality and I was struck by her confidence and independence. Shes a problem-solver, enjoys work and is generous. She is busy, but I know if I call with something important, she will always give me the time.

Audrey feels like family to me. I dont have family myself, and her husband and children are wonderful. They join me for Thanksgiving each year. We go to a restaurant and I enjoy the family atmosphere and being around young people; I find they are usually more open-minded than their parents or grandparents. We are comfortable together no airs and graces.

I am not very mobile now. Without Audrey I might be housebound. I think of her as my next-of-kin. Her friendship means the world to me. My peers are dying and sometimes, at my age, it can feel there is nothing to look forward to. Audrey keeps me in the queue to live.

My dad died when I was 19 and Dave is someone I can open up to: John, 34, and Dave, 53

Friends
Having a mate who doesnt take himself too seriously is great, Dave says of John. Photograph: Thomas Butler for the Guardian

John A group of us had tickets to V festival in 2009 and a mate said a guy called Dave, who was a bit older, would give us a lift. Im not sure what I was expecting, but he didnt look his age. He turned up in his BMW and talked about horsepower for five hours. I thought he was boring as hell. But the next day he brought out a mini barbecue and great food, and I figured, maybe hes not so bad after all.

We live around the corner from each other so we started meeting at the pub or watching our mates band play. I came to realise he is not just fun but a truly kind soul. He wants people to be happy and would help anyone. He doesnt do it for adulation; he doesnt like to see people struggling. If I rang him this second and said, I need 1,000 and to get to France today, he would be outside in a car within the hour.

Being around someone like Dave, who is so full of life, is refreshing. We both like talking to people. Were competitive and theres an element of one-upmanship to our friendship, like who is funnier. At Christmas, we set ourselves a six-pack challenge to get in shape by summer, which were taking far too seriously. We fall out all the time, mostly about politics (Im more leftwing and he is more rightwing), then were best mates again. We still go to festivals.

Our friendship is fun, but it goes a lot deeper. I dont know if he looks at me as some sort of weird son. I look up to him in some ways. My dad died when I was 19 and Dave is someone I can open up to about that loss where I wouldnt with others. Theres no judgment, no condescension.

Time with him always brings the unexpected. I can meet him for a drink at 1pm on a Friday and get home at 3pm on Saturday. The funny thing is we dont have much in common. He loves cars, I couldnt care less. I love sport, he thinks football is called soccer. But Ive got somebody who I can forever take the mick out of for being older than me. If I was in bother and could only make one call, it would be to Dave.

Dave My first impression of John was formed when he jumped into my car with a mutual friend of ours. I thought he was a bit ignorant because he didnt want to join in our conversation about cars; but he works as a journalist and so I thought he must have something about him which, it turns out, he does.

John is massively into music, which is why he loves festivals, but I just went for the party. It was the first festival Id been to since 1984.

Our friendship was a gradual process. I counselled him through his divorce. I also counselled his ex-wife, who was part of our friendship group, because Ive learned never to take sides something Ive tried to teach him.

We both like attention and if one is getting more, the other wont like it. We moan about each other, but hes very loyal. Having a mate who doesnt take himself too seriously is great. We go to the gym together and, mostly, we go drinking. I wear my heart on my sleeve and hes more closed, so I can drag things out of him. Were just comfortable with each other and can laugh in any situation.

Ive never noticed the age difference. I suppose Im paying it forward at the moment, so he can push me around in a wheelchair in my old age.

Shes the way I want to be as I grow older: Sian, 37, and Dilys, 85

Friends
She brought fun back into my life, Dilys says of Sian. Photograph: Thomas Butler for the Guardian

Sian I met Dilys in Cardiff, where we both live, at an event called Superwoman, in 2013. We were both invited to speak and were at the same table. Dilys had a big reputation for her charity work with disabled people, as well as for being the worlds oldest female solo skydiver. I was asked to talk about entrepreneurship and my media marketing company. We hit it off, and she roped me into my first skydive, despite my fear of heights. I thought she was amazing and the way I want to be as I grow older. I meet people all the time, but connections like ours are rare. For the first time in a long while, I feel as if I fit in. She celebrates my overambitious nature, and understands why I have sometimes found it hard in circles of my own age.

Shes the first person I ring when anything good or bad happens. She advises me on my love life, work and how to be a better person. It is always honest, and informed by her experiences. I get scared in relationships, for example. Dilys doesnt want me to end up alone and is worried I will follow in her independent footsteps. She calms me down when Im flighty or put up defences, and teaches me to see things from other peoples point of view, and to conduct myself with grace. Shes one of a kind.

We love to sit with a takeaway and listen to Mozart. We like films and the theatre. When were giggling in a cab, taxi drivers ask how we met, but we never think of our age gap. She has more energy and can out-dance me. My family see how much good she does me. Were straight-talking and speak nearly every day, so we invest in our friendship. I often walk into Dilyss house when Im stressed and within seconds Ive chilled out. Shes like soul food.

Dilys I could see Sian was solid gold. This glamorous, lively woman talked about being an entrepreneur, and her love for her father, and I thought she was more able than most. We just clicked.

She started inviting me places. I went to the races with her, not the sort of thing I normally do. The new experiences we share help to keep me alive. She brought fun back into my life when I was working hard to run a charity. Shes a bubble of energy and warmth. She has integrity and likes me for who I am.

When I was ill last Christmas, she came in like a hurricane, with decorations, firewood, champagne. I felt afraid and tearful, and she told me that wasnt allowed. She really rescued me.

I feel I understand her because she represents my younger self. I was a dancer and taught the art of movement in college. I was always a bit different; mine wasnt a typical path. I got married within six weeks but divorced when my only son was seven. I was a free spirit. Ive got the life I wanted, but its not always easy. I try to offer that perspective to Sian, without superiority or judgment.

Sian isnt a relation but feels like family. Its a nontraditional friendship but our links are strong: we made them by choice.

I laugh at her fake tan; she mocks me for dressing as if I found my clothes in a skip: Rudolph, 53, and Sara, 32

Rudolph
My new boyfriend had to like him, Sara says of Rudolph. Photograph: Mark Chilvers for the Guardian

Rudolph Sara and I were at very different points in life when we became friends in 2008. I was on my third career and married with a toddler. Sara was in her 20s and wore a lot of spray tan. But we were both at the bottom of a new profession, as barristers, and that gave us common ground. I was coming to the end of my pupillage (the final part of training) and Sara was starting hers. We still work in the same office, practising immigration and asylum law. I thought she was witty, and liked hanging out with her. She thought I was scruffy and slapdash.

Saras great company. Shes very clever. We enjoy a good gossip and she is an excellent enabler because she likes to eat and drink as much as I do.

Ive always been gregarious and had female friends, so it wasnt a surprise to my wife, Clare. She and Sara get on well. Weve been trying to get fit, and the three of us have a done a few 10km runs. No one has cast suspicions over our relationship at work not to me, anyway. I find it depressing that a friendship of different sexes raises the question at all, but we dont work in a gossipy environment.

Im tempted to say our age difference is inconsequential, but I dont think thats true. One thing it brings is perspective. A lot of people my age get complacent (if they think theyre successful) or fatalistic (if they think theyre a disappointment). The wind hasnt changed yet for Sara, and that staves it off for me. I, in turn, can offer advice with relationships or when she bought her first home. Theres an element of diplomacy when you deal with your generational peers. You know these are the folk against whom you are measured. Thats not the case with us. We tend to cooperate rather than compete.

As relationships go, its quite honest. We get away with a fair degree of piss-taking because were confident enough in our mutual regard. I laugh at her for painting herself orange (the election of Trump has been a gift) and she mocks me for dressing like I found my clothes in a skip. She gets it in the neck for being stroppy and wet behind the ears, and I, apparently, am a grumpy old bastard.

Sara When I moved to London in my 20s it was the furthest I had lived from home north Wales and I didnt know anyone. Rudolph seemed approachable and made sure I had someone to go to for advice. He was a calming influence, both work-wise, and with time, personally. I remember talking to him about bad dates, and he became a great sounding board for problems with family or friends, advising me not to take things to heart. Having someone male, of a different age, to offer relationship advice has been valuable. I have come to consider him one of my closest friends. When I met my current boyfriend, it was really important to me that he liked Rudolph and vice versa.

I didnt think of him as being much older than me until he invited me to his 50th birthday party. Id never had friends who werent my own age. He was completely different. He was from a different background, for a start. Rudolph grew up with his parents in various countries; Im from a single-parent family, in which my sister and I were the first to go to university. For the job we do, however, neither of us is from the conventional background, so we have that in common. We are both state-school-educated, and neither of us had any family in the law or prior connections.

Hes really laid-back, a bit of an old hippy. Hes not what you expect in a good way. He has some great stories and has travelled to really random places, like Transylvania on honeymoon. We try to meet once a week for lunch. Hes introduced me to oysters, spicier food and authentic Chinese cuisine. Ive spent a lot of time with his wife and kids. Hes been to most of my birthdays, and Ive been to his. People think its strange that were friends, but hes easy to get along with and preconceptions soon go out the window. Hell talk to anybody, so a night out is always better with him there. Hes just a cool guy.

Im on my third marriage, hes just starting his first: John, 61, and Irfan, 36

John
Hes been there and done that, Irfan says of John. Photograph: Thomas Butler for the Guardian

John Irfan and I met in Oxford in May 2016. We were on a work course and I didnt know anyone. I was sizing people up when Irfan plonked himself down and started talking. My first impression was that he was younger than me although, until now, Ive never thought to ask his age. They say you form a view on someone within 10 seconds; mine was that Irfan was worth spending time with. Hes earnest, a deep-talker, a quiet intellectual.

We were both living in Manchester at the time and met for coffee. We both work in business: Im a consultant (and a photographer) and Irfan is a project manager. We both coach and mentor people, too. Discussing this part of our lives quickly turned to more personal conversations and putting the world to rights. We bat all sorts of topics back and forth. Irfan now knows things about me that no one else does. Hes a visionary and a storyteller, and you feel better about the world when youve seen it through his eyes. Its in both our natures to be startlingly open. I talk to people in lifts, and Irfan is from the same mould.

I dont see massive cultural differences although we both know there are nuances. I was brought up in a 1950s/60s Irish Catholic immigrant family; Irfan has a 1980s/90s Pakistani immigrant upbringing. There are greater similarities than you might immediately see: respect, adherence to law and values. In particular, I admire his kindness to his mother, something that he does not from obligation but from his good nature.

Were at very different points in life. Im a grandfather on my third marriage. He is just starting married life, yet I learn from him. He has taught me to stay calm and be kinder. I could count my true friends on my left hand. I trust Irfan. Hes non-judgmental. He listens to problems without telling you what to do. Hes also a hoot, without knowing it.

Irfan From early on, I found John easy to talk to. I dont like wafflers, and he gets straight to the point. He puts a different frame on things. He has a confidence which I think comes with age, so it stood out.

Even though we had culturally very different upbringings, I quickly found similarities. We are both ambitious and seek to get the best out of ourselves and other people. We are both comfortable with who we are.

I soon found myself seeking his advice on personal matters, for example when I met my wife despite the fact hes on his third marriage, so arguably not the best person to look to for relationship guidance. He came to my wedding. Ive met his wife and hes met mine, but the bond of friendship is very much ours.

John does his best thinking while hes walking. Thats one of the most useful things Ive learned from him. I moved to London last year, and if Ive had a difficult day or week, I will often walk to gather my thoughts. Now we are in different cities, we see each other once every three months, speak once a month, and text and WhatsApp messages fill the spaces in between.

He pays for the meals, because he has more money. And we always have a story to tell. Our age gap brings a real sense of perspective to our conversations. Hes been there and done that, while Im still finding things out about myself.

If youre inspired to form an intergenerational friendship, you could try: Meetup, which helps you organise and attend events covering a wide range of interests; goodgym, a community of runners who stop off on runs to visit older people; or Nextdoor, a local social networking app for your neighbourhood.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jun/09/the-joy-of-the-age-gap-friendship

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