Friendships: An Untapped Natural Resource in our Society
It is time for us to focus on a successful aging plan as we come to term with the longevity issues challenging our world.
There are many aspects to this challenge that we need to consider. These challenges include the physical, social, economic, political and philosophical dilemmas of global dimensions. My concern has to do with the social and emotional well being of our aging population. I believe we need to harness the power of friendships, in protecting older adults against loneliness, as we face a changing world.
There is an increase in longevity, resulting in a rapidly expanding population of older adults, especially those over eighty. The average life span is eighty-three for women seventy-eight for men. By 2030 there will be two women for every man over eighty years of age.
Societal changes have not kept pace for those who are aging. The needs of older adults cannot be fully satisfied by family, especially when it comes to dealing with loneliness.
Shifts in Family Relationships are dramatically affected by women's economic independence. The increase in segregation between generations and geographic distance affects family members enormously. While research confirms that having a spouse and family will not protect one from loneliness, we continue to have familial expectations that are rarely realized.
The Developmental Stage of older adults, beginning at age fifty-five and potentially lasting more than thirty years, has become the longest life stage with no proactive psychosocial struggle. Consider that this life stage has developed with no evident biological task. People have learned, grown, raised children, and sent them off. Now what? They are faced with a new dilemma. Older adults need to take physical and mental care of themselves, in order not to become a burden. They need to thrive, not just survive.
The oldest adult stage brings the imminent threat of physical losses.
These loses impact one's self concept. "I am vibrant” becomes "I am dull". The older adult needs the reciprocity, affection, mutuality, trust and equality that only friendship brings with its wonderful mirror. One's self concept is developed and affected by one's ability to relate to others and the reflections one receives from others.
Meaningful adult relationships around common interests result in greater satisfaction and affirmation, yet we allow the number, kind, and quality of friendship to diminish as people age. We have taken friendships for granted and relegated them to a questionable status while continuing to unrealistically expect small family units to fill the function of the village. Friends provide benefits throughout the life span which continue to be nurtured and cultivated in the older adult life stage as well.
Two generic benefits for Cross Sex Friendships (CSF) and Same Sex Friendships (SSF) are:
Most friendships are achieved through meeting, sharing, and being heard. A CSF is voluntary, nonfamilial, nonromantic relationship between male and female with a verbal agreement of friendship. CSF provides unique benefits along with a different mirror than SSF. Research indicates that women prefer CSF as they offer insight into what the other sex thinks, feels and behaves. Men displayed no such preference, not valuing friendship to the same degree as women. Men preferred to replace a spouse rather than develop friendships.
Emphasis on CSF is inadequate in our society. Adults limit themselves unnecessarily therefore losing an insider's perspective to gender differences.
Harvard's recent newsletter indicates that older adults with more social support are in general healthier, happier and live longer. Families are still expected to care for the very old. Woods and Robertson’s research findings suggest and I quote, "one good friend is more comforting than a dozen grandchildren.” The comfort of sharing with friends outweighs a visit from a grandchild. Older adults can support one another in the task of staying connected to life rather than detaching in the face of death.
Barriers exist against friendships and especially CSF. Most barriers come from one's own social network, but physical losses can result in the greatest barrier. A community is necessary to protect the older adult from loneliness. Societal responsibility for producing good friendships through education and models across the life span is a necessity.
Baby Boomers are searching for new ways to approach the older adult stage. Model programs much like the consciousness raising groups of the late 60's early 70's would help create a much needed dialogue about the aging process and the benefits of friendship.
"If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go with others." - African Proverb
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