That’s what friends are for

Posted on May 13, 2016 by Eleanor McKenzie
Mature friends laughing together

There’s a film called “Youth” that explores the theme of male friendship between two ageing men who have known each other for 60 years. It is not the first time that friendship has been the key theme of a film, and in the case of this movie it focuses on a relationship that has stood the test of time.

The movie stars the wonderful duo of Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, two actors who both demonstrate that maturity doesn’t mean you’re over the Hollywood hills. The film is set in an Alpine spa resort where they reminisce about the past, including the mistakes they have made and the loves they have lost, whilst also trying to face the future. Caine’s character Fred is a retired composer and conductor and his friend Mick, played by Keitel, is film director who is in search of the perfect ending for a screenplay that he hopes will be his last and best movie. Fred has also received a request from the Queen Elizabeth for him to come out of retirement and perform at a birthday celebration for the Duke of Edinburgh.

The twosome are in turn grumpy, amusing and sentimental, and if you’re wondering about the relevance of the film’s title Youth, it is a reference to the fact that Mick’s character struggles at times to remember large chunks of his younger years which adds a poignant dimension to the plot.

Youth also presents a more mature audience with some points to consider about the significance of friendship at this stage of life. Why are friends as important to us in our later years as they are in our youth? And, what do friends give us that nobody else really can?

Across the years and miles

Allison, a friend I have known since I was 14, recently celebrated her 60th birthday. Her artist daughter mailed every contact she could find and asked us to send her a memory of her mother so that she could create a gift of 60 memories. From a personal point of view it gave me an opportunity to cruise down memory lane and select some of the funniest moments I’ve shared with Allison. It reminded me of people that we both knew in common, but most importantly it reminded me that you don’t have to see a person every day in order to still think of yourself –and be thought of—as a friend.

Bring up the bodies

Long time friends know what you’ve done. They remember that dodgy bloke with the mullet that you dated during school who you thought was the double of Rod Stewart. These teen years, or even childhood, buddies can remember things about you that you’ve forgotten, or basically buried in your mental basement. These may sound like disadvantages, but when you get together there’s no need to explain who all the characters are in your stories and you can talk in a shorthand form that adds to the enjoyment of trips down memory lane.


Group of men, laughing

Close confidantes

I know that many people claim that their husband, wife or partner is their best friend, but there really are times when your romantic interest doesn’t feel like the right person to confide in and a best friend seems more appropriate. It is often easier to hash out a personal dilemma with a friend than reveal the innermost workings of your psyche with a lover. It feels safer and there’s less likelihood of them recoiling in horror when you divulge an innermost secret, particularly if it’s something that you regret.

Mental wellbeing

The Mental Health Foundation says that friendship is a “crucial element in protecting our mental health.”  We talk and they listen and give feedback. They also keep us grounded and give us perspective when times are tough. And, our friends “form one of the foundations of our ability to cope with the problems that life throws at us,” the MHF also claims. Friendship is especially important to anyone who is unwell, particularly people experiencing a mental illness, because it is all too easy for them to become isolated.

Friends also introduce you to new things and people who may also become friends. They can offer you a different worldview and also tell you when you’re stuck in a rut or wallowing in misery. Some friends are suited to all occasions, whilst other friends may be chosen for the ‘wild night out’ value, or their shared love of art or a sport. Perhaps, most importantly, they are a refuge in a world that is increasingly disconnected and lonely.

Watching Fred and Mick’s story in “Youth” provides a pause for thought about the friendships we have in late life, and it also amply demonstrates the significance of the phrase “that’s what friends are for.”

For more on mental wellbeing, explore the challenges of travelling with a mental illness through this illustrated series.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.