You gotta have friends!

Many of us don’t give a lot of thought to our friendships. It’s not that we don’t appreciate our friends, because most of us do. It’s just that in our day to day lives we don’t usually step back and consider whether we have enough friends or deep enough friendships.

And as much as we may appreciate our friends, we may not be aware of how important friendship is to quality of life in older age. Researchers are very aware of this because they have been studying the issue for years; they talk about friendships in terms of social support. There is a deep body of research on social support and the findings are impressive. People with good social support live longer and healthier – both mentally and physically - are less likely to end up in a nursing home, and heal more quickly when sick.  Pretty impressive!

Social support vs. task support

Researchers also talk about the various aspects of social support. They differentiate between emotional social support – the people we turn to for love, nurturing, and connection –and instrumental or task support – the people we turn to for help with the tasks of daily life. These tasks can  be as simple as shovelling our driveway so we can get out in the winter; running errands for us when we are sick; or providing more intensive personal care in  case of more serious illness or disability.

Do you have enough social support?

How can you determine if you have enough social support in your life? Simply take a piece of paper and divide it in half. On the top of the left column write “emotional social support” and on the top of the right column write “task or instrumental social support”.  Next, on the left side of the page, list all of the people you could turn to for love, nurturing, or connection. On the right side, list all of the people you could turn to if you need help with tasks in your life.  If, when you are done, you only have a couple of people in each column, you need to grow your social support. In other words, it’s time to make more friends!

The truth is we all need to make more friends – because relationships change, people die, and people move away. The only way to ensure we have enough social support as we get older is to continue to invest in and deepen existing friendships and develops new ones. When we consider the incredible benefits of having enough social support in our lives, whatever effort this takes will be well worth it.

How can you make new friends at this stage of your life?

Even if you agree that having enough social support is worthwhile and acknowledge that you need to expand your friendship base, you may wonder how you can make new friends at this stage of life. I’ll talk about that in my next blog: how to make new friends and deepen current friendships in mid-life and beyond.

Dr. Amy

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