Have you followed your grown children across the country, as I did, or struck out on your own in a new town? If so, you know that building a network of friends takes time, energy and a sense of adventure, especially if you are retired and don’t have the opportunity to bond with people at a workplace.
My best advice is this: Talk to strangers.
Sometimes just a smile and a pleasant "hello" will start a conversation, but don't expect to be rewarded from all quarters. Five months after moving to San Francisco to be closer to my son and daughter-in-law, I overheard a younger family friend say this to my son: "I just read your mother's blog – do you know she talks to people on the bus?"
He did, but he also knew that’s just how I roll. Here are seven suggestions for making friends in a new city and encouragement for keeping up with friends you’ve left behind:
1. Talk to people on the bus.
Full disclosure: In almost five years, I have not formed one meaningful relationship with anyone I met on a bus. That said, I have helped young moms struggling with a stroller and a toddler, helped wrangle a surfboard when it slipped from its owner’s grasp and literally caught dozens of unsteady older folks when the bus suddenly jerked forward.
(MORE: The Joys of New Friends)
Also, I have joined lively conversations with strangers about San Francisco’s sports teams, chatted with young girls in tutus heading to see a ballet and listened to a lonely woman talk about why she is ready to move to another city. All these conversations with strangers have made me feel part of a community, and that matters when you’re new in town.
2. Take a class – or volunteer to teach one.
Since I moved, I’ve twirled the night away in a dance class called “Five Rhythms,” learned to meditate and developed a solo theater piece at an eight-week workshop. Look for classes about the history of your new city or explore “lifelong learning” classes geared to older adults.
Want to teach? A literacy program may need your skills. The high school could be looking for math tutors. A senior residence might appreciate monthly visits from a well-traveled speaker or a music teacher or someone who can help residents make better use of a laptop.
(MORE: Memories of a 30-Year Friendship)
3. Talk to your new neighbors.
Better yet, when you see them on the street or in the front yard, stop and introduce yourself. Ask how long they have lived in the area, where the nearest park is and which local coffeeshop they recommend. Listen and learn — and maybe soon you’ll be having coffee with a new friend.
4. Join a club, a political organization or a church, synagogue or mosque.
These are tried-and-true ways to meet new people. Also, look for lively lecture series sponsored by museums, cultural groups and even some fitness centers, perfect places to strike up a meaningful conversation with a stranger. Libraries and some bookstores sponsor book clubs or reading groups. And you can always look online for a group of people who share your interests.
5. Talk to people in the places you shop.
Ask the bookstore manager where she recommends you go for a haircut. Ask the grocery clerk where he likes to eat in the neighborhood with his family. Ask at the hardware store where to find a reliable housepainter, window washer or fence fixer. We all like to be asked for advice, and who knows — conversations with casual acquaintances may lead you to a new friend.
(MORE: Why We Lose Friends in Midlife)
6. Follow your instincts.
A couple of months after moving to San Francisco, I drove to Bolinas, a sleepy little coastal town in west Marin County. I walked to the beach, browsed in a few shops and stopped in the market on the wooden boardwalk. Heading back to the car, I noticed shiny pinwheels spinning in the breeze on a sign advertising an art gallery. An arrow pointed to a small building behind a one-pump gas station.
Intrigued, I went behind the gas station. I found a remarkable artist at work in her studio, an adventurous sort who a decade earlier had come to Bolinas on a three-week vacation and never left; a woman with a great story and an infectious delight in all of life. I found Emmeline Craig, who became my first friend in the Bay Area.
7. Talk to people who sit by you at the movies or the theater.
A few weeks ago, two dozen women of a certain age whooped and hollered through an afternoon showing of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, a superb documentary about the second wave of feminism, which took place in the late 1960s and early '70s. Afterward, a handful of us — strangers all — stood talking in the lobby about ways we now work for women’s rights.
Do you go to the theater? At intermission or after the show, chat with the people around you about the performance. Plus, if you are inclined to donate now or leave some money in your will later, ask at the box office whether any special programs or gatherings are available for donors. Those events provide instant contact with like-minded people.
But Keep the Old
You can’t expect to replace decades-old friendships when you move, but you can stay in touch with those you’ve left behind. Invite friends to visit, so you can show them your new city. Plan regular get-togethers on Skype, when you can catch up with everyone. I play Scrabble online with several former work friends; it's fun and keeps our connection fresh. And remember to watch for deals on plane tickets so you can enjoy heartfelt reunions.