How many times do we hear about senior citizens who move cross-country to be closer to children and grandchildren? Maybe this person will see their family on a daily or weekly basis. But then again, maybe it won’t be that often, and now they’ve given up their social life and are far away from friends.
As an older person, what’s healthier, being around family or being around friends?
There was a time when most people would have quickly answered, “Being around family, of course.” While no two people are alike, there is evidence that meaningful connection with friends has more of an impact on the aging process.
According to a 2017 study sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, friendship is more important to the health and well-being of senior citizens than familial connections.
The study found that not only do these relationships influence your happiness and habits (whether you’ll smoke or drink, work out, stay thin or become obese) but that the importance of friendship increases with age.
But there is a caveat, and it’s an important one.
The impact of friendship works positively and negatively. Meaning, just as good friendships offer health benefits, friendships that are not so great or even toxic are tied to chronic health problems. The key is to keep friendships in good order, which means you may need to repair or replace friendships as you age.
Another study, this one designed by Michigan State University psychology professor William J. Chopik, looked at two sets of data—one drawn from people around the world at different ages, and another from older Americans.
More than 270,000 volunteers between the ages of 15 to 99 and from roughly 100 different countries answered questions about how highly they valued different kinds of relationships and how happy they were. Instead of tracking the same people over time, the study tracked “representative” groups of different ages at intervals over the years.
Those people 65 and older valued friendship more than they did when they were younger!
In another analysis, researchers examined data from close to 7,500 American volunteers in their sixties and seventies. The results found that those people who experienced a “strain” within their friendships were more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and psychiatric problems. This was true regardless of whether they had support from family members or not. Strain with family, surprisingly, wasn’t tied to more illness.
The moral of the story is, many of us take our friendships for granted. We think these relationships should be easy, and that our familial relationships are where we should focus our time and energy. But the older we get, the more important it becomes to have strong friendships. When our friendships are happy and healthy, we’re happy and healthy.
Is there a relationship in your life that is bringing you down instead of up? Are you unsure how to communicate with your loved one? Maybe it’s time to end a relationship but you don’t know the best way to do it.
Often, speaking with a therapist can give you clarity over a situation. A therapist can lend an impartial ear and offer advice based not on emotion, but on knowledge of human behavior.