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The Power of Friendship

 

Many studies suggest friendship can result in positive social, emotional and physical benefits in the lives of older adults.

Now Australian researchers have found a strong social network may be more important than family ties for survival in old age.

The study was part of a larger project designed to assess how economic, social, behavioural and environmental factors affect people aged 70 and older.

Participants were asked how much personal and phone contact they had with their spouses, children, other relatives and friends.

Lynn Giles and her colleagues at Flinders University in Adelaide monitored the survival of 1, 500 people living in community and residential care facilities over a 10-year period.

Those over 70 who had a strong network of friends were 22 percent less likely to die compared to those with the weakest social network, according to a report in the June issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

However, social networks with children and relatives had little effect on survival.

Why do friends appear to enhance our chances of survival? No one knows exactly – researchers are working to track the mechanisms involved.

Is it the optional nature of friendship? People tend to choose their friends based on common interests and mutual enjoyment in each other. Perhaps friends may contribute “social capital” – respect and mutual acceptance – someone to lean on.

In a separate study, Dr. Nina Chen at the University of Missouri found married and unmarried older adults, identified friendship as a key contributor to a sense of belonging.

One 73-year-old widower says, “Old friends are just like gold, and good friends are just like sunshine. They are special. Older persons need to have friends to support each other” (Journal of Extension, December, 2001).

More important than the number of friendships is the quality of the relationships.

Writing in the 16th century, Montaigne explained his profound attachment to a friend thus: “It feeds the spirit.”