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"I think it's a communal thing": men's friendships in later life.

Friendship has been defined as a personal, voluntary relationship without obligation or control which exists in a social context (Butera, 2008). It is a relationship characterised by equality and reciprocity (Glover & Parry, 2008), intimacy (Powers & Bultena, 1976), trust (Fox, Gibbs, & Auerbach, 1985) and support (Greif, 2009) and can occur in groups or networks of people. Men's friendships are often described as being activity-based and less emotive than women's (Fox et al.). For men friendship is something they do together. Women share feelings so friends provide avenues for support and discussion (Walker, 1994). The instrumental aspects of men's friendship have been linked to the social construction of masculinity (Seidler, 1992). Men are socialised into performing masculinity from birth and this requires them to forego their emotional selves in order to meet gendered expectations. In doing this they focus on independence and self-sufficiency. Consequently, friendships become instrumental and activity based.

Research by Levy (2005) investigated the social construction of American men's friendships and found that men who practiced hegemonic masculinity were more likely to engage in comradeship than friendship. Comradeship is a relationship involving active engagement and interaction which lacks particularity, commitment and emotional honesty (Levy). An Australian study by Butera (2008) highlighted social, cultural, and historical influences on definitions and practice of men's friendships. Using a qualitative methodology Butera makes a distinction between friendship and mateship. Friendship is much broader than mateship and involves an element of free will. It is a voluntary relationship based on personal preference. Mateship, on the other hand, involves a "fraternal relationship, bound by loyalty and courage" (Butera, p. 269). Traditionally it has been linked to men, and more specifically their involvement in military service and war when they have been drawn together by circumstance and stayed together for survival. Like comradeship, toughness and independence are valued characteristics while emotional displays are avoided. However, Wang (2005) argued that term comrade, friend and fellow are not equivalent concepts to the word mate. Wang argued that the term mateship is a culturally specific Australian expression.

According to Butera (2008), the traditional understanding of the concept of mateship differs depending on age. For younger adults openness and intimacy are important for same-sex friendships whereas for older adults, commitment, loyalty, dependability, and reliability are important. As eight of the fifteen oldest participants in Butera's study had experienced military service, compared to none of the youngest, historical context may have influenced definitions. However, a longitudinal study of 94 Americans as part of the Berkeley Older Generation Study found that old/old men (aged 75+ years) defined friendship less intimately than young/old men (60 to 74 years) (Field, 1999). Another American study by Greif (2009) found that older men displayed a deep understanding of friendship. Trust, sharing and emotional support were consistently identified as valuable which is inconsistent with the idea that men's friendships are purely activity based.

The convoy model of social relations proposes that individuals develop a "convoy" of social support--people who are close to them--as they move through their lives (Antonucci & Akiyama 1995). Some relationships are nurtured, some change, and some are terminated as both personal (age and gender) and situational (environment and circumstance) characteristics influence how they are experienced (Antonucci, Akiyama, & Sherman, 2007). People move in and out of, or around, the social network over time (Piercy & Cheek, 2004). Socio-emotional selectivity theory, on the other hand, posits that the amount of time left in one's life will determine the composition of friendship networks (Baltes & Carstensen, 1999). As people age they focus their limited resources on closer and more significant relationships and discard less important ones. Smaller, stronger networks of friends provide optimal support allowing the person to regulate the emotional climate and aid successful ageing. Older adults use strategies of selection, optimisation and compensation to maximise goals and minimise losses. Selection is used to focus limited resources on smaller social networks. Social relationships are optimised by creating circumstances that facilitate social interaction--for example, by becoming a member of a club. Compensation can be used as a means of adapting to the limitations imposed by age, for example, catching a bus to a club if one cannot drive (Burnett-Wolle & Godbey, 2007).

On retirement the opportunity to make new friends or to maintain existing friendships can diminish. Joining a formal group or organisation may make it easier for this to happen (Al pass & Neville, 2003). In Australia the establishment of groups such as Men's Sheds and Older Men's Network Inc. (OMNI), targeted specifically at older men, was based on the benefits of friendship (Golding, Brown, Foley, Harvey, & Gleeson 2007), particularly in terms of health and well-being (Alpass & Neville, 2003). The Men's Shed movement was established in 2007 in Australia and is funded by the Federal Government. The initiative has been adopted by other countries such as New Zealand, Greece, Finland and the United Kingdom. Being part of an organised group or social network can be beneficial, however, it can also expose the individual to increased opportunities for conflict, exploitation, and stress thereby increasing threats to health and wellbeing (Cohen, 2004; Golding et al.).

Research into men's friendships is limited. Studies often focus on cross-cultural (Adams, Blieszner, & De Vries, 2000), generational (Butera, 2008), or gender (Field, 1999) comparisons with the results often embracing traditional conceptualisations of men's friendships as activity-based, instrumental and emotionally remote. This research has increased understanding of men's friendships; however, as suggested by the convoy model and socioemotional selectivity theory, perceptions of friendship are likely to change as we get older. Consequently, the current study aims to extend previous research by exploring older Australian men's perceptions of friendships within a group context.

Given that men's friendships are often embodied in the doing (e.g., Adams et al., 2000; Fox et al., 1985), focus group methodology is suited to an exploration of within-gender diversity. Focus groups allow individual "understandings, opinions and views" (Wilkinson, 1998, p. 187) to be explored while the interaction between participants can produce additional insight. The use of a more agentic method may also counter previous criticism that the friendship literature has been "feminised" (Adams & Ueno, 2006, p. 118). Thus, this study aims to investigate both individual and collective understanding of homosocial friendship. In particular, the study aims to explore the definitions, dimensions, meanings, and importance of friendships in later life for men who belong to formal men's groups and for those who do not.



This study comprised six focus groups with a total of 40 male participants from a rural area in New South Wales, Australia. Ages ranged from 46 to 85 years (average 71 years). Participants aged over 60 years accounted for 87.5% of the total participants. The remaining 12.5% were under 60 years of age with one of these being 46. The youngest participant was part of one of the Men's Shed groups who were being interviewed. The interviewer decided to allow to him participate rather than excluding him from the group. Four groups were comprised of current or past members of existing groups (OMNI and Men's Shed). OMNI is a social organisation for older men that focuses on the development of strong social bonds (OMNI, 2010) while Men's Sheds provide opportunities for men (predominantly retired men) to engage in hands-on activities (Golding et al., 2007). Participants for the two other groups were recruited at a local Shopping Centre during a Senior's Day promotion. Thirty-one (77.5%) participants were married, three (7.5%) were widowed, three were single (7.5%) and one was divorced (2.5%). Marital status was unavailable for two participants. None of the participants were working full-time, however three worked part-time occasionally.


A semi-structured interview schedule was developed which explored participants' perceptions of what a friend and friendship were and whether friendships had changed over the lifespan. Follow-up and probe questions were used as required. Focus groups lasted about one hour 15 minutes. Each was electronically recorded, transcribed verbatim and forwarded individually to the relevant group contact for comment. Pseudonyms were assigned during transcription.

The data were analysed following Braun and Clarke's (2006) thematic analysis. Any item in the transcripts relating to the understanding, construction, demonstration, or value of friendship and/or social relationships was coded. Initial codes and thematic groupings were then presented to the participants for confirmation and clarification. In performing the analysis the researchers were also aware of their own influence on both the data collection and analysis. Thus the final result also reflects the researchers' understandings of the participants' experience and construction of friendship.


The aim of this study was to explore the meaning, importance, definitions and dimensions of friendship for older men who belong, or do not belong, to formal men's groups or organisations. Three manifest themes and one latent theme were identified and each of these will be analysed separately. Constructing friendship: friends, mates or acquaintances? relates to the constructions of friendship while the dynamic nature of friendship describes the ways in which friends and friendships change. The importance or beneficence of friendship reflects the value of older men's friendships. Underlying these themes and shaping their content was a sense of the need to belong, to be part of a community of men.

Constructing Friendship: Friends, Mates or Acquaintances?

The interviews began by asking participants to describe what a friend is. While the men acknowledged the importance of doing practical, instrumental activities with their friends, their definitions of friendship contrasted with previous comparative studies (e.g. Fox et al., 1985; Walker, 1994) by also elaborating on the more affective qualities of friendship--such as sharing, caring, support and trust.

ALEX: Someone you can share with and trust.

ARCHIE: Confide in.

BART: Have fun with.

JACK: Enjoy the fellowship.

CRAIG: Mateship is the greatest thing that I've experienced, the support you can get from your mates when things go a bit wrong.

ARCHIE: It's someone you can talk to, in confidence.

ALEX: Yeah you know it won't come back [yeah it won't go around town]. (1) ARCHIE: Reliable.

Despite consistency around the affective qualities of friends, there was inconsistency surrounding the dimensions of friendship. For some friendship was described as a multi-faceted concept, with clearly demarcated types or categories such as friends or acquaintances. For others it was more dimensional in that context influenced the descriptions, for example, workmates or school friends. The following comments exemplify these dimensions:

PETER: I find friendship, its [sic] more than just acquaintances, and I think there's different classes of friendship too. I've got a best friend, my wife's my best friend, she's the only person I've disclosed as much of things in my life and, I've got, one male friend, he wasn't in Vietnam, but he did serve in the armed forces and he'd be the very best friend. So there's all these other categories of friendship, then there's acquaintances, and there's workmates, and there's sporting mates, school mates, play mates, and, I don't know, so that's for me, anyhow.

INTERVIEWER: Are friends different to acquaintances?

CAMERON: Oh, yes, by a long way.

BERTY: Oh sure. I've got a lot of acquaintances, but friends, I've got four friends. I served my time with three of them in 1949, and I still know them, know their family and everything. They're real friends but acquaintances you meet all the time.

JOE: I think you have levels of friendship. You have the people you work with, and they used to ring you up and might meet with you, have dinner once a year, drinks and all that. Then as you hit the bigger world no-one else bothers.

Peter and Berry appear to adopt a similar categorical system for classifying different types of friendship, with acquaintances clearly demarcated from friends. Joe's 'levels of friendship', however, suggests that friendship may be dimensional and may also be further influenced by context such as the workplace or military service.

The level of category of friendship type also influenced the level of intimacy within the relationship as indicated in the following comments:

BARRY: Well I've acquaintances, I've probably got hundreds; friends, I've probably got, real friends, seven maybe eight which you'd call, some of them which are very close, that you've known for years, go out and that for dinner.

WES: I'll give you an example. You walk into the supermarket and there comes Rosie, she is your friend, you will stop you have something in common and you discuss about it. But if it's an acquaintance ...

ANDY: g'day mate ...

WES: away you go ...

ANDY: hi, goodbye ...

WES: you don't have that common thing spontaneously.

For Barry, his "real" or "close" friends are those with which he has a long-term relationship involving social interaction--"go out and that for dinner." Moreover, Barry's description of friends encouraged Wes and Andy to elaborate further on the differences between acquaintances and friends.

There was agreement across the groups that acquaintances are not a type of friend. Acquaintances may be fleeting short-term relationships or longer term relationships which lack the quality and depth of friendships. The notion of depth in friendships links with previous research (Rybak & McAndrew, 2006) which found that participants defined friendship according to level of intensity and intimacy. Relationships with best friends are more intense and intimate than relationships with friends, which are more intense and intimate than with acquaintances. In contrast mates were considered to be special types of friends by some.

CAMERON: yeah, I think a mate is probably is one of your special friends as Joe said.

The (sometimes very animated) discussions about mateship highlighted this point. Many of the men used the term friendship interchangeably with mateship. However, like Butera (2008) some of the men also suggested it was a distinct entity which they linked to military service, national identity, and survival:

WALT: the term that comes to my mind, and I'm just fortunate or unfortunate enough to have been there at that age to see it, the thing that was different was Australian men's friendship, was the term mateship. But you ...

WES: (interrupts) that's a good point.

WALT: yes, a distinctly different thing.

ANDY: Well that's what drives our nation doesn't it, mateship?

WALT: In the armed services mateship was a peculiar Australianism.

GUSTAV: In the armed forces you will find that in every army, whether it be Germany, English, or Australian ...

TINO: (interrupts) we had it too ...

GUSTAV: If we are in war, we have to rely on each other and the mateship will be there exactly the same among the Australians, the New Zealanders, the English, the Germans, they all look out for each other, they have to otherwise they don't survive.

The conceptualisation of mateship reflects Butera's (2008) "fraternal relationship, bound by loyalty and courage." It also suggests that mateship is a universal construct not just an "Australianism" as noted by Walt. Gustav's conceptualisation of mateship contradicts Wang's (2005) cultural specificity of the term. But while the context of war or conflict may bring mates together, it may also separate them as once they return to normal life the context is removed and the relationship may cease to continue. Indeed the discussion on mateship often reflected reminisces of good times gone by, highlighting one of the fundamental elements of friendship: reciprocity.

JIM: I think friendship is more reciprocal than anything else at the time, it's a two-way street. It's very good to have friends set to support you, but you will be required to support them [of course] otherwise a friendship is just no good ...

Thus for friendships to be good, they have to be reciprocated. However, the opportunity to reciprocate can depend on a number of factors such as health and mobility, and access to people (Alpass & Neville, 2003).

CAMERON: Well have a problem with that because apart from being blind, and half-deaf, and my back's buggered, [laughter]. I've got to use this machine to get around, so consequently I don't go out very much. The fact is this is the first time this fortnight I've been out so it's too awkward. I catch the bus and you can't get in there with the walker. It's too hard to go out and of course I can't see so there's no point in owning a car. So I don't really have much opportunity to meet people, one reason why I rather look forward to coming round here.

Apparent in Cameron's comment is the importance of the group network to enable the opportunity to reciprocate friendship, perhaps negating the impact of health, mobility and access to people.

Another distinct relationship--with one's wife--was noted as a type of friendship. Previous research (e.g., Field, 1999) has failed to separate the marital relationship from other familial relationships, yet in this study a wife's friendship was clearly important. Many of the participants placed great value on the friendships shared with their wives, as demonstrated by the following comments:

KEN: I've been married over 60 years and I've got a friend in my wife I can trust, say what I like. I get the same, she can say what she likes and if she wants to talk about some things, particularly if it's personal.

CAMERON: I think you've picked up something my wife always goes crook about, because I always call her mate, nothing bad about that, and she calls me honey or something like that and I don't like it, but then we've been married about 57 years and I think I'm entitled to call her mate.

BERTY: That's right, yeah ...

CAMERON: and I believe one of the reason's it's lasted so long is because we're friends.

Ken, Cameron and Berty, like many of the participants, clearly valued their wives for their trust and support. Moreover, both Ken and Cameron believed that friendship was a key contributor to the longevity of their marriages. However, for individuals who were not married, the friendship between married couples may present a barrier to socialising with them for fear of imposition:

TONY: It's very hard when you're single and you live by yourself, but that's my case. But also a lot of my friends are married or in relationships and I get to a stage where I don't want to impose.

The majority of participants were married so this was not a commonly held opinion. It does, however, highlight how context, in this case marital context, influences the construction of friendship. In describing different types of relationships the focus groups thus elucidated the multifaceted nature of older men's friendships. Some men constructed friendship as a categorical concept, with clear demarcation between different types, such as workmates and best friends. Others suggested a more dimensional model of friendship with different levels of friends determined by the intensity or intimacy of the relationship. The discussion on mateship illustrated how context influences type of friendship as well as the different understandings of friendship. There was also an implicit understanding that acquaintances were not types of friends, while a wife's friendship was valued. However, change, whether age-related, time-related, or even context-related impacts on friendships and this changing nature of friendship is discussed in the next theme.

The Dynamic Nature of Friendship

The focus groups clearly discussed the dynamic nature of friendship, indicating that the need for friendship may change and that circumstances, particularly those relating to loss, may also change the nature of friendships. So while some of the participants had maintained the same friends for over fifty years, others described changes in, out and around their social network. Indeed, as described by the convoy model of social relationships (Antonucci & Akiyama, 1995), friends may come and go:

BOB: But as you get older you attract a different style of friend. I'm sure your friends mean different things to you. As age you've got to remember about respect and all that sort of stuff.

WALT: They do indeed. It changes; I think you've said a very wise thing there. It's that whole aspect of friendship changes, in each decade as you go along.

GEOFF: Your priorities change don't they, some of them?

Bob and Walt noted the changing nature of friendships over time, but Geoff suggested that it may be changing priorities which lead to changing friendships. Even the concept of mateship was thought to have changed over time:

ANDY: Mateship is different now to what mateship was 50 years ago ... it probably depends on circumstances and situations now ...

WES: (interrupts) so it is a bit like real friendship but it is not as tight as real friendship?

ANDY: During the war mateship was the people you relied on, so then in peacetime it is different. Mateship changes.

Andy believes that mateship changes over time. He does not elaborate on how this may happen but he does acknowledge the different contexts--war versus peace. Across all the groups there was discussion about how friendships change. Many noted the impacts of widowhood or divorce, changing jobs/retirement, moving house, and social and/or historical circumstance. Notably, however, one of the greatest impacts on the friendships was the experience of loss:

JOE: it reminds me of as you go on in life things happen, people pass away and they get sickness ...

CAMERON: (interrupts) I know a family, or used to know them. There were six of us used to work at (location) and we shared a car, so you only ran your car once every six weeks but out of those six, as far as I know at least four of them are dead. So you can't have friends there anymore because they're gone [that's right, yeah].

The loss of friends through ill health and death was one of the most pervasive themes across the groups. Even before any data were collected this was evident as several older men declined to participate, citing that they had "no friends" or that "all my friends are dead."

The loss of friends after retirement was also noted and mourned by many. The only time some of the participants went out was to attend their group. Just as the mateship formed during military service may become harder to maintain in peacetime, it may be that the move into retirement limits the ability to interact or reciprocate with former workmates, leading to the cessation of a friendship (Davidson, 2004) but also selectivity in choice of friends. Some of the men readily acknowledged this:

Andy: As we age we gain more experience and wisdom. You seem to be selective on who you choose [or cautious, yes] as a friend. But it's very hard not to stereotype, who is important and not, due to the amount of experience you've had.

Andy's comment suggests that he uses prior experience to guide friendship selection. His approach to friendship exemplifies the selective optimisation with compensation theory as he focuses his limited resources on his closer and more significant relationships (Baltes & Carstensen, 1999). This theory is further illuminated by Paul who expresses the importance of the need for friendship, which seems to increase with age:

PAUL: For me a friend is somebody you can talk to, somebody if you need something you can rely on them and when I say rely, they ask can they help. As you get older this is very important because we need that help at time to time from our friends.

While age may increase the need for friendship, the friendships must be reliable and worthwhile. The men may intuitively understand that having a smaller, stronger network of friends aids successful ageing (Baltes & Carstensen, 1999; Giles, Glonek, Luszcz, & Andrews, 2005) or they may just accept that a smaller network of friends is a consequence of ageing (e.g., from death, retirement etc).

Another factor considered to impact on the longevity of friendship was the transience of friendship:

FERNANDO: I come from overseas (name) and I've still got friends in (place) I used to go to school with and did sport with, and that's 60 years ago. Times do change, we just have a really good friendship and we phone each other, we write each other. I've got a friend I met on the boat coming to Australia and we have been friends ever since but that's friendship, you don't abandon them.

Fernando's friendships have endured even after moving thousands of kilometres. In contrast, distance created a barrier for Matthew as he described that he was unable to maintain friendships despite moving just a few kilometres.

MATTHEW: Friends tend to be where you live. Twelve years ago lived in (place) moved to (place) and the people that I thought were good, close friends don't come to (place). But a new network of friends has expanded and that's this group. Now if I move away, wherever I go I know I'm going to start a new lot. These ones will still be here but they will slowly fade and we'll take on new ones.

Evident in both these quotes is the importance of effort in maintaining friendships, regardless of the distance between. The difference between the experiences seems to fall on whose responsibility it is to maintain the friendship. For instance, Matthew appears to believe that the responsibility for maintaining friendships is on the other person while for Fernando it falls to both parties. Raymond also places responsibility on both parties despite acknowledging that this may not be consistently applied to all friendships:

RAYMOND: you have to work at friendship, it's not something that you can just sit back and it will happen, you've got to work at it and I suppose I've worked at it with one or two people but not that much.

Berty, on the other hand believes that friendship it is an automatic process--it just happens.

BERTY: Well I never thought about it. I just automatically know everybody I like, I haven't got no hates or anything like that and I can't explain that. I never thought about friendship, it's just one of those things that happen.

Berty's response may have been influenced by the nature of his focus group where the participants did not know each other prior to the session. In other groups, where prior relationships were established, there was more agreement:

BOB: No, one-sided relationships don't work.

GUSTAV: No, you have to maintain.

BOB: You have to monitor friendships.

Despite noting the importance of working to maintain friends, participants thought that maintaining a relationship with work friends after retirement was difficult:

RAYMOND: I've got lots of business friends that, because I was in the industry for 40 years we got quite friendly but yet none of them have ever rung me up and said come round for a BBQ. It's only a superficial friendship we have.

JOE: Yes, that's right.

RAYMOND: In the business sense ...

JOE: I worked at the University for 31 years. The day I left I haven't had a phone call since.

Following Raymond's comment, Joe is encouraged to share his experience of lost friendship after retirement. Like Matthew, when trying to make sense of these losses both men considered that it was the role of others to make or maintain the contact. It may be the case that thoughts about whose responsibility it is to maintain a friendship depends on the type of friendship--workmates or good friends. Alternatively, it may depend on the value placed on the friendship. As Raymond said "it's only a superficial friendship we have."

For these men friendship becomes more meaningful in later life, yet possibly harder to maintain. Importantly, contextual factors appear to influence how friendships are conducted and how they change as well as the importance placed on them. There also appears to be differing opinions about who is responsible for maintaining a friendship. The responsibility may depend on the type of friendship, however, it may depend on the value placed on a particular friendship.

The Importance/Beneficence of Friendship

Across the groups meanings and importance of friendship were often couched in terms of benefits and values. Benefits represent the profits of the relationship; they are what the person gets out of participating in a friendship. Values are desired qualities sought in a friend and friendship and these are similar to Adams and Ueno's "interactive motifs" (2006, p. 106). The practical or physical values sought and gained through friendship are behavioural processes (Adams & Ueno, 2006) and include the various ways in which friends physically interact with and practically support each other. For example, the men described that they enjoyed doing things together:

BARRY: We enjoy Men's Shed.

GEOFF: I think it could be any group if you get along well with people like Gustav.

GUSTAV: That's right, I feel just as comfortable at the Golf Club or with Wes and Tino. We go to another (woodworking) group, just as good...

Barry, Geoff, and Gustav's appreciation of physical interaction aligns with previous research which suggests that men's friendships are instrumental or activity-based, that is, men do things together such as woodworking or golf (Fox et al., 1985; Seidler, 1992). Men's Sheds, which focus on engaging men in practical joint activities, were developed on the premise that men's friendships are embodied in the doing (Golding et al., 2007). The opportunity to participate in practical activity attracts men to this group. Once there the tangible benefits of participating include increased interaction with other men and an increased sense of belonging and enjoyment (Golding et al., 2007).

OMNI was also established as a means of developing and fostering older men's social networks, however, the focus here is on social interaction rather than physical activity. Despite this Jim and AIbert talked about the physical interaction and practical support that OMNI can also offer:

JIM: I remember one meeting, Albert, got a Housing Commission place and I remember him saying he needed to get a garden shed. The next thing I know, two or three blokes said we'll fix it up next Sunday and they did!

ALBERT: ... and they wouldn't let me do a thing.

JIM: That's the sort of thing we do here ...

ALBERT: get inside and have a cup of tea!

JIM: That's the sort of thing that I think is probably generated by the function of this group, and the way we do it.

Though their friendship may have begun within a formalised social-group context the function of the group extended to include informal interaction resulting in tangible benefits for Albert. Notably Jim tells the story while Albert adopts a passive role, perhaps to demonstrate his appreciation of the help received.

Other benefits discussed included minor home repairs, help with gardening, assistance with transport, and even financial support. According to Butera (2008), the provision of practical support may be motivated more by "professional or kinship obligation and commitment to community service rather than friendship" (p. 275). Indeed the example provided by Jim and Albert is suggestive of a degree of obligation. However, there appears to be a much deeper relationship here than can be explained by obligation alone:

JOHN: I've had five hip replacements and we were going down the back of Paul's to have a look, but Matthew was generous, he run me down there in the car. Now that, really to me, what a lovely consideration, that somebody, that thought. He drove me down there to save me walking down and walking back and that's the sort of thing, this is what it's for, because we're all friends, you know.

PAUL: We think of each other [yes].

To John, Matthew's assistance was motivated by values of care and concern rather than obligation while Paul confirms that the relationship is founded on more than practical support.

In this instance the values and benefits are less tangible and refer to the more immaterial dimensions of friendship and the fulfilment gained from friendship. Simply having friends or companions is valued as the following exchange demonstrates:

BART: Everybody's here for the same reason ...

CHRISTOPHER: and that's to communicate.

ALEX: The thing is the common interest--photography, bushwalking, all these sort of things ...

ALEX: the common interest.

CHRISTOPHER: the bad jokes, I love the bad jokes that come out of this lot, they've got a sense of humour [laughter].

ALEX: That's the campfire approach [yeah], out come all the goodies.

CHRISTOPHER: This is the thing I miss most from work, the laughter [yeah]. Having now been made redundant and not having that [yeah] office environment or group environment at work there's very little laughter around me and getting the opportunity to sit down with blokes like this, in any group and...

BART: have a laugh.

For this group companionship was important. For example, Christopher values the companionship as he is no longer working. Even though Alex values shared activities, his "campfire" comment also suggests he values companions for entertainment. While there was an understanding of the importance of having a "convoy" (Antonucci et al., 2007, p. 532) of social support, situational characteristics (for example, Christopher's redundancy) can change these relationships.

Other elements of friendship valued by the participants included trust, acceptance, loyalty, and respect. These values represent the "cognitive motifs" described by Adams and Ueno (2006, p. 106). For many of the men, respect in friendship is a given and examples were illustrated across the groups in stories of absent friends and interactions with each other:

JOHN: My wife is my best friend but for me to be able to trust and talk and seek another's advice. I think that's very important you know and accepting one another as well, like you are. I think it's hard to take me some time because I am a little bit garrulous--that's talking a lot Matthew [laughter] [He is].

John values the more cognitive aspects of his relationships but other values and benefits encapsulate how the men feel about friendship and their friends. These "affective motifs" (Adams & Ueno, 2006, p. 106) have previously been linked to women's descriptions of friendship (e.g., Fox et al., 1985). Like Greif (2009, p. 628) however, this study found that for these participants "comfort," "consideration," "caring," and "concern for others" were valued elements of friendship.

WES: What worries me here, in the Men's Shed I'm happy to see these guys, actually if someone doesn't turn up ...

ANDY: (interrupts) you miss them.

WES: In your mind you ask--"I wonder what's wrong with them, or has anybody heard what happened to Andy, or what happened to Bob?" ANDY: Bobby was an example ...

WES: yes.

ANDY: One of our members had a pacemaker inserted. He showed up for a number of weeks and then all of a sudden he stopped coming so we got really concerned.

While Wes expresses individual concern, Andy's use of the plural "we" suggests a group concern. Thus, while the function of friendships may be to provide companionship and entertainment they also provide social support (Antonucci et al., 2007; Piercy & Cheek, 2004). Indeed, having friends in older age has been linked to better cognitive functioning (Seeman, Lusignolo, Albert, & Berkman, 2001) and increased longevity (Giles et al., 2005). The focus groups also linked friendship to the prevention of mental health problems:

ROGER: The fellas of my age that don't converse or get together seem to be the ones that are copping the dementia, Alzheimer's, and [yes] they're ending up in the nursing homes long before you expect them to.

ARCHIE: Neighbours, friends, mates, there's more loneliness in the world today than ever.

ALEX: Sure is.

ARCHIE: A lot of people, especially men, they get lonely and withdrawn, and they commit suicide.


ARCHIE: Because they've got no friends they withdraw completely.

Social support can provide "specific resources" that enable the individual to cope with life's stresses (Clover & Parry, 2008, p. 212). For example, friends provide tangible support in the form of helping with medications and transportation, and intangible support by offering understanding and advice. Furthermore, having someone to talk to can alleviate feelings of loneliness (Holmen & Furukawa, 2002). Simply knowing that friends and/or mates could be relied on for support was appreciated by the participants:

JOE: A mate is someone who if he needs help or you need help, he'll come.

RAYMOND: Somebody you can rely on, yeah, somebody you can rely on...

CAMERON: he'll be there won't he?

JOE: I'll be there yeah.

BERTY: He's not a gunna do, he's not a gunna...

JOE: and usually a mate is someone who says "yeah I'll come and help you", but he doesn't say he'll be there in six weeks [no] and you know he'll be there fairly soon [yeah].

This emphasis on reliability is consistent with Butera's (2008) finding of the importance of reliability to older men. Further, the reliability of friends is especially important during times of need as social support can provide a buffer (Cohen, 2004) or "psychological safety net" (Clover & Parry, 2008, p. 212). Archie talks about how supporting his ill friends benefits him:

ARCHIE: That's what we do weekends, we think of all the people we know, 'cos most of them are dead now, and if they're sick you go specially to cheer them up, and then it cheers you up because you've cheered him up [yeah].

CRAIG: It's a two-fold thing ...

JACK: yes it is ...

ARCHIE: yeah, its two-fold and you figured you've done some good.

Archie's friendships have become mutually beneficial, resulting in increased self-esteem for him and support for his friends. However, for many older adults, un-reciprocated interactions (as a result of ill health or disability for example) can lead to social isolation. Thus, the context of ill health may determine the level of social support. The links between social support, loneliness and depression are also unclear, as Alpass and Neville note it may be that "the more depressed a person is, the more socially isolated they become leading to greater loneliness" (2003, p. 215). Graham made this point during one of the focus groups:

GRAHAM: But I think, I live by myself now and so it's important that you've got friends, because I know another bloke who's on his own and he suffers with depression pretty badly. I've slipped into it a couple of times, it was really bad so it's important to have friends when you get older. When you're younger you get out and about but you stop that once you get older.

Graham makes an effort to prevent loneliness; he belongs to OMNI, does charity work, and "goes out a lot." Being involved in social organisations may help compensate for the loss of a partner (Perren, Arber, & Davidson, 2003). Alternatively, the opportunity to "address significant issues" in a "safe, male-only sharing environment" (OMNI, 2010, para. 1) may attract Graham and others with a similar personality to OMNI while those who seek friendship based on shared activity may be more attracted to groups such as Men's Shed (Golding et al., 2007).

So personality may influence where older men seek friendships and the conduct of those friendships. For example, members of one OMNI focus group valued an open relationship characterised by sharing and disclosure of problems:

BART: There's no doubt about it, talking about anything makes the problem a bit easier [yeah]. If you've got somebody else helping it really does [yeah], if you're feeling crook [yep] somebody says don't be silly Bart, come and have a drink, or come and have a game or do something.

ARCHIE: Takes the weight off your mind.

BART: that's right, it's a diversion.

ARCHIE: I mean you talk to your wife and they're not all that interested normally they aren't, are they, if you talk to somebody else you feel better.

INTERVIEWER: What sort of things do you talk to your friends about?

ARCHIE: Well as you get older I find you say how are you today, how's your--oh me back[laughter], what pills are you taking? And all that sorry stuff there, and then you go onto sport and then you go on to what's happening in the world.

BART: Yeah, what sport, how's your team going?

ARCHIE: I find that you, as you get older, your friends are getting older and that's what you talk about, your health.

While the participants valued openness and disclosure within their relationships, consistent with Walker (1994), they also saw the value of shared activity--sharing a drink, talking about sport and health. Further, and in contrast to the majority of participants, Archie valued the support of his male friends more than that of his wife.

Interestingly, in a group of men who appeared to value a more distant, less open relationship, Joe gives primacy to his partner's support:

BERTY: I don't think any friendships there are really that deep.

CAMERON: No, that's true.

RAYMOND: Yeah, they're more a surface.

JOE: I don't think you tell personal things. I mean like you've got a problem that's for your partner.

CAMERON: A lot of people I've known I've never heard a man say "I've committed adultery" [no] or something like that. But maybe it's one of those sorts of things I don't think too many men talk, not many men admit to, because if they do they sound as though they're bragging, so they don't [that's right].

BERTY: Or health, if you've got something wrong with your health you don't talk about your health [no]. Well I don't, I don't know about anyone else, you try and say he's sick, he's whingeing again or something, [never shuts up] but don't mention anything.

Berty's statement about not talking about health is in direct contrast to Archie's comment previously that men talk about health. The literature on older men's friendships shows similar diversity, with Greif's (2009) research showing that the majority of older men valued emotional support, while Butera (2008) found that only one older participant referred to the importance of providing emotional support. Of course this disparity may simply reflect the heterogeneity of the older male population, not all of the men are going to want to share personal problems. Indeed, not all men are going to benefit from friendship.

Previous researchers have suggested that poor interactions with friends may increase threats to health and wellbeing (e.g. Antonucci et al., 2007). Increasing age also poses a challenge to health and wellbeing. While the men recognised these challenges they also overwhelmingly focused on the positive interactions with friends and the values and benefits of friendship. Benefits included participating in joint activities and providing transport, but also companionship and the provision of emotional support.

Regardless of how they construct their friendships there is recognition of the importance of friendship and the great benefits of being with other men. Underlying much of the interviews was this sense of the need to belong, to be part of a community of men.

Community of Men

Even though many of the men acknowledged that their wives were their best friends, and that their families provided immense support, there was also real value placed on being part of a men's community. Not necessarily one community but perhaps several different communities. Further, interactions with other men are not always group, or activity-based, although they may be.

BOB: Well just being one of the boys [that's true] able to have a laugh and a chat. [Barry: and it's a good feeling, it is]. I always know Mondays because it's the Men's Shed on Mondays. I look forward to it every week, look forward to coming here, and it's good.

BARRY: We have a BBQ lunch [Bob: that's right, get a feed as well].

For these men, friendship is differentially constructed, and individual constructions will determine how they come together and who they come together with. Some men may seek formal activity-based groups, such as Men's Shed, while others may just get together with a couple of mates over a cup of tea. Thus, understanding how individual older men construct friendship may help determine the appropriate context for them to find and maintain friendships. However, while group membership may increase the availability of social capital, it also adds additional complexity to relationships. For example, negative interactions with friends in the group may have detrimental influences on health and wellbeing, exposing the individual to increased opportunities for conflict and stress (Cohen, 2004; Golding et al., 2007). This poses a dilemma for older men, as they recognise the need to come together with other men, yet risk exposing themselves to additional stress as demonstrated by Paul:

PAUL: When I was told about this organisation, I was told it was a matter of us going in, getting a cuppa tea and a biscuit, sitting around having a bit of chit chat amongst friends. Well it got way beyond that and that's not what I joined for and that's where this is so good. We've all become good friends, we talk, and might discuss a bit and there, they expected us to sit in a group like this and first of all Roger what do you say, and what do you say, and went around, and we don't do that.

The members of Paul's focus group originally belonged to an OMNI group, however, they felt that OMNI was too organising and consequently they formed a group of their own. They just wanted to sit around and talk with others informally. So rather than belonging to a group per se, it may simply be important to meet with a group of friends. All participants recognised that just being with other men, to talk, or not to talk is highly beneficial. Being part of a community of men appears to nourish their sense of self and provide a sense of purpose and belonging.


The participants in this study defined friendship as a multi-faceted concept, with different categories, types and concepts which change over time as a result of age, distance or cultural context. Friends are important to older men because they provide tangible and intangible support which is valued. The type of support or how friendship is defined is likely to determine whether an older man will join a men's group or not, the type of group they might join or whether they will continue with a particular group. The men who belonged to Men's Shed or OMNI generally noted the value of the groups on the formation and maintenance of friendships. Even those who had left OMNI because it did not meet their expectations maintained a network of like-minded friends formed during their time with the group. They still meet and talk and do things together in a group context.

Although differentially constructed, these results suggest that older men's friendships are rich and rewarding and offer great benefits and support in later life. While it is recognised that the results may not be broadly generalisable, it is nevertheless hoped that the findings will aid understanding of men's friendships in later life. Indeed, understanding how men construct their friendships may aid in the promotion of good health and wellbeing into old/old age.


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* Charles Sturt University.

Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Rhonda Shaw, School of Psychology, Charles Sturt University. Email:


(1) Quotes in square brackets denote conversation by other members of a focus group. Often where the speaker cannot be identified or where there are multiple speakers at the same time.
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Author:Shaw, Rhonda; Gullifer, Judith; Shaw, Rebecca
Publication:The Journal of Men's Studies
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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