I am a single woman without children, journeying through what author Mary Catherine Bateson refers to as a “second adulthood.” I live alone. And I am doing my best to gracefully grapple with the vicissitudes of getting older. Depending upon health and finances, more years can mean more trips, more books to read and more people to meet.
But getting older also can be fraught with challenges. One of mine is the feeling of aloneness—like being on an island that’s close to shore, but still an island. Different than loneliness, but powerful to be sure. I have many friends and a business. I serve on boards and am involved in my community, but when I turned 60—particularly when I became a caregiver for my mother—concern about my future and that sense of aloneness entered my consciousness. My mom had me to help her. Who would be there to help me, if and when I needed it?
Friendship—a Vaccine Against Illness?
I think about friendship and community frequently and feel an urgency not only to build support systems for myself, but also to ensure that support will be there for others. In a quest to learn more, I found many articles and books about aging, longevity and the importance of friendship and community. Friendship networks have even been referred to as a “behavioral vaccine”—inoculating us against illness.
In The Longevity Prescription Dr. Robert Butler wrote, “To thrive throughout life we benefit from attachments, whether you call it love, friendship, empathy or bonding. Those connections can add great richness to the three-decade dividend.” He quoted a 35-year-long Harvard study showing that a good marriage at age 50 is a better predictor of good health at age 80 than is a low cholesterol count.
One of several research projects addressing the positive impact of friendship on aging is a 10-year Australian study by Giles et al., published in 2004 in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health (59; doi: 10.1136/jech.2004.025429), of 1,477 people ages 70 and older. It showed older people with extensive networks of good friends and confidantes outlived those with the fewest friends by 22 percent, and close relationships with children and relatives had little effect on longevity rates for older people.
Although the study couldn’t say for certain why close friendships have such a dramatic effect on longevity, the authors speculated that friends might encourage older people to take better care of themselves, perhaps by cutting down on smoking and drinking or seeking medical treatment earlier for possibly serious symptoms.
In 2006, a study by Kroenke et al., published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, of nearly 3,000 nurses with breast cancer found that women without close friends were four times as likely to die from the disease as were women with 10 or more friends (24:7, doi: 10.1200/JCO). Notably, proximity and the frequency of contact with a friend were not associated with survival; just having friends was protective.
“Although we don’t yet understand all of the mechanisms and pathways of the connections between involvement with friends and health and well-being, we really see more evidence for positive than negative impacts of friendship interactions,” says Karen Roberto, Ph.D., professor and director of the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va. “Some studies suggest that older women’s friends help promote good health by offering advice about diet and exercise, sharing meals, providing transportation for medical care, listening to their needs and laughing with them.”
(Not So Good) Life without Friends
Any discussion of the link between friendship and healthy aging must include the impact of its absence. As someone who lives alone, I understand loneliness is not a by-product of being alone, nor is the desire for solitude. Social isolation, however, is a serious consequence of a lack of community and is becoming an even greater health problem as the aging population increases.
According to a 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (110:15, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1219686110) by a University College London (UCL) team, social isolation is “linked to early death.” The findings showed that after factoring out mental and physical health conditions, a lack of social contact still led to early death among 6,500 men and women tracked over a seven-year period. “They’re dying of the usual causes, but isolation has a strong influence,” said study author and epidemiologist Andrew Steptoe.
Butler also discussed the subject of connectivity, which he believed enhances health. “Numerous studies have led to wide-ranging conclusions about the importance of social relationships to individual good health,” he writes. I refer to it as community, or circles of care, and believe that its creation within neighborhoods is crucial to all residents across the life span. Even those of us who are lucky enough to have good friends—our chosen family—we need to think about building support systems near where we live.
Collaboration Can Build Community
A serious illness propelled Charlotte Frank, an older woman who lived alone, to develop the Caring Collaborative (CC). A model for “living differently,” the program offers volunteer assistance for health-related problems and is a membership benefit of The Transition Network (TNN), a national organization for professional women in or near retirement, co-founded by Frank and by Christine Millen.
Financed with $144,000 from the New York State Health Foundation, the Collaborative uses software to match participants who need help in a community with those willing to help. Operating out of three of TNN’s nine national chapters, the Collaborative’s largest program, begun in 2007, is in New York City and has a 200-member database.
Everyone who joins the CC participates in a mandatory orientation addressing the scope and boundaries of giving and receiving. All requests go to a central coordinator, who sends an email blast that provides only the service needed and the location. Confidentiality is key and no names are given until a “match” is made.
Because of its size, the New York City CC has formed neighborhood groups that meet periodically. Although not a Collaborative goal, friendships have formed. “We have found that fewer requests are coming in to the central system, because the women in the smaller groups often call each other for help,” says Victoria Weill-Hagai, chair of the New York Caring Collaborative Council.
Other forms of collaboration and programs will no doubt take shape as baby boomers eventually may need more help. Friends, acquaintances and neighbors likely will step in to provide assistance in lieu of family members. “Recent trends documenting changes in family structure and process reinforce the need to look at support beyond the family,” says Roberto. “Co-housing options, where there is a high proportion of never-married, divorced or childless adults have identified mutual support as a driving reason to move in and have emphasized the centrality of community ‘fictive kin’ support in their lives.”
Barbara Meltzer is president of Barbara Meltzer & Associates Public Relations in Los Angeles, Calif. She serves on the Aging Today Editorial Advisory Committee, as a commissioner on the Los Angeles County Commission for Older Adults, and is on the board of the Life Planning Network. Contact Meltzer at Barbara@meltzerpr.com and firstname.lastname@example.org about community programs fostering friendship among elders.
Editor’s Note: This article appears in the July/August 2013 issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.
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