In his first few months at Drexel University, Devin Welsh made some lifelong friends, as many first-year college students do. Unlike many collegiate friendships, his just happened to include a nearly five-decade age gap.
It all began when Welsh, an aspiring writer, decided to attend a workshop at Writers Room, Drexel’s university-community literary arts program. Shy and new to Philadelphia, he kept to himself. When he returned a month later, a woman his grandmother’s age approached him. “She was very nonchalant, and she said, ‘I remember you. You’re gonna read this month, right?’” says Welsh, now 25. He looked around to see who she was talking to before realizing it was him. “I felt seen, in a way that was supportive,” Welsh says. “She remembered me and was interested in what I had to contribute, and in a new city with new people, that was a wonderful feeling.”
In the seven years since, Welsh and Victoria Huggins Peurifoy, 71, developed a friendship through working together on projects at Writers Room. Now, they often work together in service of their Philadelphia writing community, but they also are regular friends: They call each other on the phone, joke with each other, and keep in touch.
Welsh and Peurifoy both find that the age difference enhances their friendship. Welsh talks with Peurifoy about changing ideas, like around gender identity, and brings an energy to their collaborations; Peurifoy brings a sense of perspective and a deep history in their shared community. Yet while they may be in different stages of their lives, Welsh and Peurifoy both emphasize that the most important aspects of their friendship are the same as for any meaningful connection: mutual respect, care, and an enjoyment in spending time together.
Making friends with those outside of your age range — people 10 or 20 years older or younger than you — can be challenging. But those relationships can widen your world, providing perspective and community beyond your current experiences. “When younger people have access to friendships with older adults, it shifts their experience of what it means to grow old,” says Eunice Lin Nichols, co-CEO of CoGenerate, an organization that brings together people from different generations. That takeaway is true no matter your age: Friendships with people of different ages offer us a longer view and a reminder of all the varied experiences beyond our day-to-day.
Meet through shared interests
A shared interest and commitment brought Peurifoy and Welsh together. “It was important to find a community space where there was another thing that we were working toward,” says Welsh. “Then, through the nature of sharing stories, you start to learn more about a person.”
When you’re looking to develop a friendship with someone beyond your age range (or your life experiences more broadly), joining a local group is a great way to do it. That could mean a book club at the library, a community garden, or a pickleball tournament. If you’re drawing a blank on possible interests, volunteering at an organization, like a food pantry or a local election campaign, is a great path. “Look for opportunities that are touted as kid- or family-friendly, or open to older adults,” says Nichols. A tip: If you’re looking to meet older adults, she recommends taking an hour during lunch to volunteer, since many of them go during the day.
Ask questions about their life experiences
Once you’ve met someone in a different life stage, how do you go from acquaintance to friend? Much as you would with someone your own age: through shared experiences, like Welsh and Peurifoy’s writing group, and by asking them thoughtful questions about their life. Don’t focus on the differences (in this case, age). Focus instead on what you have in common and what they care about. “I try to look at you as another human being, without putting on all the tags and titles,” says Peurifoy, who has friends in their 20s as well as in midlife. “I’m willing and open to share with people because maybe you can learn from my experience.”
Demonstrating curiosity about your friend’s life experiences is important for the younger person in the friendship, but it’s important for the older friend to ask questions, too. Don’t fall back on “When I was your age ...” or only giving advice. “Calling out the difference all the time reinforces the gap between you and can have a judgment of how things were better back then,” says Nichols. “Use your own stories to inform the relationship in your own head, but be present to what they’re feeling and thinking in the moment.”
Practice grace about your differences
Changing conventions can be hard for older adults to adjust to, which can lead to some tricky conversations in cross-generational friendships. In workshops at Writers Room, participants often go around the room to introduce themselves, including their pronouns, which some older adults don’t understand. “That can be frustrating as a young person, but what I love about Writers Room is that we’re able to talk about it,” says Welsh. “We talk about why it’s important to honor pronouns now, and why for somebody, that could be the difference that makes them feel comfortable in a space.”
Peurifoy sees learning and teaching as part of an intergenerational relationship, as long as each person approaches the situation with respect. “Young people sometimes have an entitlement philosophy,” she says. “Your attitude and your way of thinking means I’m supposed to accept and automatically change because of what you said,” rather than moving through a conversation that acknowledges both perspectives and experiences.
“You can acknowledge that certain things have changed while honoring that someone has lived a certain way for decades,” says Welsh. “Trust that there’s value in that, even if it’s different from your experiences.” Approaching generational shifts with grace creates an environment where all members can make mistakes and learn, no matter their age or background — in other words, a supportive friendship.
Acknowledge that you both have expertise
People sometimes see cross-generational relationships as one-way advice, but a friendship isn’t a mentorship.
Peurifoy often gives advice to her younger friends, but she asks them for it, too. She graduated from college this June, and as a 70-something student, Peurifoy often turned to younger classmates and friends for help. “All the math courses drove me crazy, so two students from Drexel helped me with my algebra and statistics,” she says. She regularly learns from them outside of school, too, like new dances or slang.
“Each of you can benefit from what the other one knows,” says Peurifoy. “To receive and hold on to the wisdom that’s imparted to you without prejudice is critical.” After all, giving advice is a form of sharing your own experiences. If a friend offers you advice based on their life, listen. You don’t have to treat it as a lesson; instead, you can frame it as a way that they’re opening up to you about who they are.
For Welsh, some of the most valuable learnings have come from hearing personal stories from Peurifoy — not as lessons for how to live, but as reminders of how long and varied life can be. “Hearing that somebody’s life wasn’t a straight line takes the pressure off of feeling like I can’t make any mistakes,” he says. “I don’t know the exact path that my life will take, and it’s really comforting to see that somebody I look up to is in the same boat.”
Communicate about what feels comfortable to you both
After decades of experience working with people across generations, Nichols knows to use different methods of communication depending on who she’s coordinating with: phone calls for older people, emails for fellow members of Gen X, and text messages with younger volunteers. “It took me a while to ask the question, ‘What’s the best way to reach you?’” she says. “The important thing is to ask about what works for the person you’re in a relationship with, and then to go out of your way to meet them where they’re at.”
When you’re in doubt about the best way to reach a new friend, just ask. The same goes for other questions of etiquette or logistics. Welsh still calls Peurifoy “Ms. Victoria” and other elders by the same convention because that feels more comfortable for him. “The more I get to know them, the more I stop seeing them as just an elder, but I always want to remain respectful,” he says.
Show up for each other
Peurifoy sees commitment as the most important step in an intergenerational friendship. She’s kept in touch with one younger friend for 15 years because they regularly reach out to each other. “We have a long-lasting relationship because she’ll call me,” says Peurifoy. “Be genuine, patient, understanding, loving — and most of all, be committed to the relationship.”
That commitment is one of the best parts of intergenerational friendship. Different life stages offer and require different abilities: In your 20s, you may be looking for career advice and are able to help parents connect with a distant teenager; a new parent may be looking for a support system that can become part of their extended family; a recent retiree may have plenty of time but seek more day-to-day connection.
“Each generation benefits from being in an intergenerational community,” says Renee Moseley, associate director at Bridge Meadows, which provides affordable apartments to seniors, foster youth, and their families in Portland, Oregon. “They can become your extended family.”
Open up to a new type of friendship
Once you’ve built an intergenerational friendship, stay open to how it will affect you. When Nichols was in her mid-20s, she worked at a nonprofit that recruited older adults to volunteer in schools. “It wasn’t just about getting the work done,” she says. “The work was the setting for an intergenerational experience to blossom.”
When Nichols got pregnant, a group of elders from the program threw her a baby shower, knitting baby booties and having a party for her. “I’m the daughter of immigrants from Taiwan, and I had no reason to belong here with this group of older African American women, except that we had worked together to make this school and neighborhood better,” she says. “That celebration meant the world to me.” A few years later, several of the volunteers from the program passed away; Nichols spoke at their funerals. “I’ve lived my life differently because of those relationships,” she says. “It gave me a different perspective on what it means to grow old and to live with purpose.”