Fast friends: seeking a chum for my empty-nester mom
Are platonic match-making sites the answer to helping older women find new confidants?
I was sitting in my parents’ kitchen when Dad walked in, and told me he had a bone to pick with me. “What’s this about you putting your mother on a dating website?” he said.
As always, he had spectacularly missed the point. I explained that, in fact, I had made Mom a profile on Together Friends, a friendship website aimed at women aged 45 and over. It’s the perfect tool for my dear mom Rebecca, who is somewhere in her 50s (she’s vague even with me). She is close to her sister, a neighbour and a few other women, but has never been one to have a birthday party with 100 people. Since my sister left for university in September, it’s just her and Dad – who is great, but best in smaller quantities.
And although she talks to us a lot, texting throughout the day on the family group chat, she also wants to spend time with people like her. Now that her work in business academia is less busy than when we were children, she has time to expand her social circles.
She’s not alone in wanting to make new friends later in life. Nine million people in the UK say they feel lonely, according to the British Red Cross, with women reportedly feeling more so than men. For older women, friendships can be disrupted by divorces, empty nests and retirement, leaving them wanting new connections. In the past they had the Women’s Institute, now they have the internet.
“The idea came to me one day when I wanted to go for a walk and there was no one to go with,” says Helen King, 58, who set up Together Friends from her Yorkshire home in 2013. “I had pals through baby groups and my children’s school, but as time moves on, those friends move away, or they retire or split up. Often, people in early retirement lose their friends from work and they want to build a new group. Then if you get divorced you can lose all your friends and start again.”
She excluded men from the site to make sure friendship really did mean just that. So when it came to making Mom’s profile on the site (they are yet to make an app) I used the same tricks I used myself when dating online: smiling photos (even if you look better when pouting) in which minimal cleavage is on show, listing the theatre as an interest (even if you never manage to stay awake after the interval) because this is internet code for “I want to meet fellow clever people”, and a vague “about me” section. “I’m looking for something serious” sounds a bit frightening, even if it’s true; “I’m looking for someone to have fun with!” is the far superior tactic.
This must be accompanied by at least one small joke to show that you don’t have the personality of an undertaker. Mum’s final profile read: “I am interested in walking, nature and the outdoors, cooking and Midsomer Murders. I joined the WI recently but my cooking doesn’t extend to making jam! I also love watching films and go to the cinema about once a week.”
Instantly she got about 30 matches based on her location and supposed interests. The profiles were surprisingly honest about the women’s need for platonic companionship: the first read: “I have recently moved with family and at times can feel a bit isolated”. Another revealed: “I turned 70 last year and thought it was a good time to make some new friends.” Another said she was at a loss after quitting a big job in London. Others who got in touch explained that they struggled to fill their free time, or that all of their friends have social lives seemingly too busy to incorporate them.
We swiped through women and, just like on dating apps, the huge selection of matches meant it was easy to dismiss those who didn’t immediately float our boats. “I’m not a feminist, so that might be annoying to some people,” said one profile. “Doormat,” said Mum. “I enjoy dancing to loud music,” another profile read. “Obviously not,” said Mum.
We sent messages to the maybes, hopeful that, given the site has been up and running for six years and produced matches that have yielded firm friendships, something might blossom. Helen herself became close to Penny Coulthard, 52, who logged on after moving up north from London. “In your 50s, time frees up a bit. You’re not looking after kids or doing such a full-on job,” said Penny, who works as a consultant. At that age “you want to start new hobbies and meet new people. I’m quite shy, so getting to talk to people in the gym is hard. But Together Friends is one-on-one and you know the other person is in the same boat.”
When she and Helen matched on the site four years ago, they first went for coffee, and then a walk: it was “like going on a first date”, Penny recalls. She and Helen now see each other once a week, while she meets up with the three other friends she’s made on the site at least once a month. In spite of her burgeoning circle, “I think I’m still actively searching for friends”, says Penny. “I have enough not to feel lonely but I’m still open to meeting new people.”
Lin Riley is part of a group of women in their 60s and 70s who met through the site. Over the past few years they have become so close that four of them chose to spend last Christmas and New Year together in Portugal.
When Lin joined Together Friends in 2015, it was to find a friend to join her on a cruise: “A lady called Morraine e-mailed me that same afternoon.” When they met the next month, “it was like we’d known each other forever”, and within months the pair set sail for Dubai.
The group of about six women gradually grew over a monthly coffee morning full of various matched friends from the site, and see themselves as Ilkley’s silver-haired answer to Sex and the City, taking several holidays a year to the likes of Croatia, the Mediterranean and the Baltics – fairly easily done since they have the freedom of being without husbands.
“Without this group I don’t know what I would have done. It’s been my lifeline,” Morraine admits. Both agree that making friends online only works if you put in the effort, just like in the real world: “You shouldn’t sit there and wait for people to knock on your door,” Lin says. She adds that “women need to know that getting divorced or widowed is not the end of the world, there is life afterwards”.
It’s still early days for Mom, but she is optimistic about one match who sounds perfect for her, and coffee is already in the offing. They share interests in walking, cooking and, of course, theatre. It sounds like it could be the start of something serious.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited 2019