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The Real Reason I May Not Have Any Friends In Middle Age

Why I worry I'll be left out of plans.

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illustration of woman holding up gaming cards with silhouettes of people on the covers
Anna Parini
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One of my dad’s favorite activities was playing cards. As a kid, I remember his monthly poker games with his colleagues from work. Once he retired, Bridge became his game of choice.

He played twice weekly, keeping his skills up during the pandemic by playing online. After his kids and grandkids, I think his proudest accomplishment was becoming a Bridge Master. My mother is quick to point out that she, too, loves to play cards. Her game of choice is Canasta.

Given my lineage, it would make sense that I, too, would be a competent gamer. After all, like my brown eyes and dark hair, I should have inherited the "gaming" trait from at least one of my game-loving parents.

But I don't play Mahjongg, Canasta, Bridge, Bunco or pickleball. I am not interested in any of the games my friends are obsessed with. I’m starting to worry — will this limit who will hang out with me as I get older?

It was time to reexamine my game plan, so I turned to an expert and here’s what I learned.

Card games are not for "old people."

Initially, when friends asked if I wanted to play Canasta, I was reluctant because of age bias. Mahjongg and Canasta made me think of my mother and grandmother. I had a preconceived notion that I wasn't "old enough" for those types of games yet.

Jenna Nielsen, LCSW, a clinical social worker and therapist at, explains the reason more older people play games is because “they have more free time. They want to find ways to connect and socialize. Playing games is an ideal way to do both.”

Plus, games are nostalgic. People start playing them as children, first with their parents and then with their peers. It's a fun way to spend time together. We play less as we get older because we get busy, not because we outgrow the fun.

"When you look at the instructions for most strategic board games, there is a minimum age but no maximum,” says Nielsen. “They’re for everyone."

Games can be good for you.

Games are a great way to decrease loneliness. As we get older, our lives become less scheduled. Knowing there’s something to do every Tuesday at 1 p.m. is comforting. No stress to plan or reach out to friends — the game provides structure to the day.

Getting together to play a game can be less expensive and healthier than other activities like shopping or going out for a meal. Plus, it keeps your body and mind active.

“The strategic thinking used in game playing uses a different part of the brain,” explains Nielsen. “With pickleball and tennis, there is strategy and physicality. You get exercise and fresh air while interacting with peers.”

Games also provide distraction. My father would often say that when he played Bridge, he had to maintain focus. Concentrating on the cards meant he couldn't think about his daily worries, especially his many health issues. The games gave him a reprieve from his problems.

Time to deal me in!

Once I realized the ridiculousness of my age bias, I agreed to join a beginner group to learn Canasta. I committed to four lessons, but by the second week, I regretted signing up.

I realized that competition makes me anxious. Instead of fond memories of playing games as a kid, I remembered the stress — of being last picked for a team because I wasn't athletic and of striking out in a camp softball game and letting down my teammates. If I’m honest, even when I was young, family card games could make me nervous.

"For some, even a friendly competition can be stress-inducing," says Nielsen. "When you play as an adult, you need to find people with the same goal and skill level. Some people take games very seriously, even as adults."

Games can also require larger groups. "Many people, especially those who are more introverted, don't like spending time in groups," adds Nielsen. "They prefer to socialize one-on-one."

"People can derive many of the same cognitive benefits from doing crosswords, word puzzles, reading and Sudoku,” says Nielsen. “And you can make these activities less solitary by sharing your results with friends or playing against opponents in an online community.”

It’s just a game, right?

I worry I will be left out of plans if I always decline offers to join in games. Nielsen suggests being honest with friends. "Rather than just saying 'no,' explain that you aren't comfortable."

By being open and vulnerable, you let your friends know that it isn't them you are rejecting but the activity. Suggest something you would like to do together, like going to the movies or for a walk in the neighborhood.

Another option is to give gaming another chance. “Sometimes the hardest part is getting started,” says Nielsen. “Rather than making a big commitment that can feel overwhelming, say to yourself ‘I’ll try it a few times’ so that you minimize the stress.”

My new strategy.

I don’t want to let the anxiety I felt as a kid inhibit me as an adult. Part of the reason I didn’t like the original Canasta group I tried learning with was because I didn’t know them well. I was worried that if I didn't catch on quickly, I'd be embarrassed, or they would be annoyed.

"Don't let fear allow you to cut yourself out of something that could be a lot of fun," says Nielsen. "Learning new skills as we age is good for our brain health, even if we aren't proficient at them. Find a safe environment, playing alongside friends who have the same goals as you so that everyone can have a good time, including you."

Do any of YOU play card games? Which is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below.

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