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In sickness and in health, many boomers turn to their close friends, not family, to get the support they need.
Twenty years ago, when writer Trisha Arlin bought a two-bedroom co-op in Brooklyn, N.Y., she didnt know that some of her neighbors would become as close as family. At first they helped each other out with little things like plant watering and pet sitting. But then, when Debbie and her husband, Wrolf, who lived in 1C, had children, Trisha started celebrating some holidays with them, even though she had a sister living nearby. When Trisha was immobilized by an injury, Chris from 4B cleaned her apartment and fed her by hand. Over the years, Debbie and Wrolf expanded into the apartment below and Chris moved to Florida, but Trisha says theyve never been closer. “Would I jump in front of a truck to save them?” asks Trisha, who is 52 and single. “Yeah, I guess I would.”
As boomers move through their middle years, many are delighted to find that they have a friend–sometimes a network of friends–who is every bit as close as their own brothers and sisters. Psychologists call the phenomenon “family by choice,” and say it is an inevitable–and healthy–response to 40 years of social upheaval. Its not new. Gay people have long formed de facto families, and much has been made in recent years of the “urban tribes” developed among well-educated twentysomethings. But now boomers are following suit. Many find that their parents are elderly or have died, siblings live in different time zones and relationships with distant family members, while fine, are often rooted in a sense of obligation, not affection. As the nuclear family grows weaker, says evolutionary psychologist Kent Bailey, “increasingly, we are in a position to choose the people we are around. And the people we choose are the ones we enjoy.”
Boomers, of course, didnt invent close friendships. But 50 years ago, opportunities to create and maintain a strong social network were limited. In the 1950s, middle-aged people were more likely to get and stay married and most women worked at home. When people made friends they usually picked from a relatively small pool of family members, neighbors and co-workers. Boomers, on the other hand, attended college in record numbers, giving them more opportunity to bond with like-minded people. They married later, divorced more and changed jobs more frequently. Women entered the workplace in massive numbers–surging from 30 percent in 1950 to 59 percent in 2004–and found plenty of companionship there, too. With more disposable income and more communications technology, boomers found new ways to stay in touch–traveling in groups and even making plans to retire together.
Back in 1959,