Dale Pollekoff, 71, moved to Los Angeles after a long career in graphic design in Washington, D.C. As a single woman with no children, she felt drawn to the city’s weather and the less conservative ideas of varied lifestyles. “I feel more like I can be me here,” she said.
But soon after her move in 2000, she ran into the challenge of meeting people to explore her new home with. “When you’re middle-aged, you make friends in your job,” Pollekoff said. “After that it’s very, very hard.”
Los Angeles also doesn’t make relationships easy. The city is vast, and the traffic is unforgiving and constant. People often talk about the perils of dating and meeting people in major cities as young adults, but it can be just as hard for an older demographic, who, according to many of the women in the group, feel largely ignored.
In 2015, after failed attempts to find a group focused on female friendships, Pollekoff decided to start her own group, called Finding Female Friends Past Fifty on Meetup, a site where people can make online groups to meet up in real life. After just a couple of weeks, the group amassed around 200 members. And it just kept growing. Today the group has more than 800 members.
“There were a lot of groups that were focused on a particular activity, and there were meet-ups that were generalized for those in their 20s, 30s and 40s, but there was nothing for older women,” Pollekoff said. “And I didn’t want men.”
Many studies have concluded that friendships are vital to a person’s well-being, and this is especially true for older women. A study by the Industrial Psychiatry Journal published in Psychology Today showed a significant relationship between depression and loneliness in older people. It suggested that “female friendships can be the key to happiness in older women, but they’re not often treated as such.” It’s not emphasized as much as exercising or eating well, but it’s just as important, according to the study.
The first meet-up Pollekoff organized was a happy-hour event at a bar in Century City. Around 20 women showed up, and in her eyes it was a huge success. “Everybody had a fabulous time and everybody got along,” she said. “There were two women who were sitting next to each other, and it turned out that they lived within two blocks of one another. They are best, inseparable friends now.”
Variety of activities
The members have varied and rich interests, and that is reflected in the group’s activities, including a screening of the documentary film “Free Solo,” a recurring Proust Questionnaire parlor game, a tour of Pasadena’s mansions and a “carb crawl” inspired by a New York Times article about Los Angeles as an emerging “bread paradise.”
One of the first members was Lindsie Carlsen, 73, an Angeleno who has retired and now manages her apartment building part time. She identifies as a transgender woman and transitioned when she was 53. Carlsen was a member of a lesbian group when she lived in the San Fernando Valley but decided to find a different community after her move to Mid-Wilshire a centrally located district close to museums like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Her decision was prompted by a desire for more diverse activities.
“My interests are all over the place,” she said. Finding Female Friends Past Fifty was a match for Carlsen, who appreciated Pollekoff’s out-of-the-box events. “None of the other groups I’m part of do these really inventive things.”
The group’s most frequent activity? Art gallery visits. On a recent gloomy Sunday afternoon in December, the women gathered to go to an Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Marciano Art Foundation. Pollekoff said she was deeply touched by Ai’s show at Alcatraz many years back and thought members would appreciate this show. They had to cap the attendees to nine because of ticket limitations and had more than a dozen people on the wait list.
The group, including a couple of first-time attendees, walked into the museum together. While Pollekoff initially led the charge, once inside, the women moved at their own pace. They occasionally discussed the pieces of art together or asked the docent questions. But mostly there was quiet.
Standing in front of Ai’s massive installation “Sunflower Seeds,” composed of 49 tons of individual porcelain sunflower seeds, and “Spouts,” an installation of thousands of antique teapot spouts, the group ruminated on the pieces. Pollekoff shared information about the artist to curious members.
Linda Ralph, 66, a first-time attendee, said, “I don’t have that many friends, but I don’t need a lot of friends. I’m quite happy with me.” Ralph said she did not participate much in other groups, but was drawn to the group because of this particular exhibit. “I don’t need to do something to do something,” she said. “But I was moved to do this.”
Another attendee, Julie Khalil, 62, said that “I feel like women have a lot of commonality that we don’t realize.” She looked for a group of friends after her son suggested she find people to hike with. “I’ve learned that at this stage in life, after years of putting our careers and families first, we are looking for a deeper type of friendship than we’ve had in the past,” she said.
Downstairs, the group found another massive installation by Ai called “Life Cycle,” a sculpture about the global refugee crisis depicting the makeshift boats migrants use to reach Europe. Pollekoff carefully studied the delicate bamboo installation quietly. “His work always makes me emotional,” she said. It’s an overwhelming piece and here the group split off.
Filling a void
Flor Covel, 56, who wanted to check out the Yayoi Kusama exhibit upstairs, joined the group two years ago out of a desire to meet people to do things around the city with after the end of a long relationship. “Once I didn’t have him anymore, I thought, OK, great, now I have no friends and no one to hang out with,” she said. “It was very lonely.”
“Our paths would have never crossed if it weren’t for this group. Even if we lived close to each other, you don’t think you have much in common,” said Covel, who now counts Pollekoff as one of her best friends. She said she was now close friends with a former graphic designer and a surgeon who lived a mile from her, and she believed this wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the internet.
For Pollekoff her group has its limitations, mostly distance ones. “I’ve met a lot of wonderful women. Most of my members I really, really like, and I’ve made a lot of friends who are more than acquaintances but less than besties,” she said. “But I’ve only made one really good friend that I know is really there for me.” She blamed the large geography of Los Angeles. “A friend that lives in Santa Monica or Malibu, I can’t see much.”
After a few hours at the museum, the women drove to a nearby Korean barbecue restaurant. Members introduced themselves to one another while waiting for their meals. They discussed their lives, the things that keep them busy, the choices of some to marry or stay single and to have children or not.
“At this age, you are who you are. Your life has been lived, your career is over or in its last stage, you’re married or single, had children or not,” Pollekoff wrote in an email a few days after the meeting. “You’re not looking over the horizon for the next best thing. So there’s no jealousy or competition. The struggle is over; you come to terms with who you are because there’s no alternative. Acceptance is all that’s left.”