Academic research has shown that relationships – even casual ones – are good for us. Social connections decrease emotional and physical pain, reduce stress, relax the nervous system and incentivize us to stay engaged.
“Those who have better social relationships, and especially with quality friends who are there through thick and thin, tend to be healthier in every aspect,” says Rosier Dedwylder, a family medicine doctor in King George, VA. Relationships with a colleague, neighbor or companion animal make a difference.
Yet many of us are reticent to access these relationships when struggling with the challenges of growing older or caring for family members.
“We need each other, but none of us seems eager to acknowledge as much,” Dedwylder laments.
The reasons for this are complicated, involving social constructs and psychological tendencies.
“As adults, we’ve been raised and reinforced to be independent and to solve our own problems,” explains Rimas Jasin, executive director of PSS in New York, which services for healthy aging and caregiving. “As problems arise, we might continue to do that – even if it’s not the wisest course.” Those issues quickly begin to accumulate and overwhelm us – at a time when we have less emotional and physical capacity to cope with them. Add to that our feelings of embarrassment or guilt and “it becomes easy to see how things can reach a crisis point.”
But I know firsthand that getting past this is crucial.
We all expected my mom’s knee replacement surgery to go smoothly. It did, but the rehabilitation did not. Things quickly grew far more complicated than I imagined. I was overwhelmed and Mom was frustrated and scared. We made it through this difficult period because of one thing: other people.
My Mom’s a private and independent person, so asking for help isn’t her best skill. But not reaching out to others during this time was not an option. I knew I couldn’t take care of her or myself alone.
I asked neighbors and family friends for practical help. They got groceries and picked up medications, and visited with Mom so we could have time off from each other. I asked my personal friends to help me manage the emotional toll. Nearby pals met with me in person, those farther afield called; even my Facebook friends sent supportive messages. All this emotional and practical support helped us get Mom back on her feet figuratively and literally.
The casual friendships Mom had with her neighbors were a motivating factor to get out and do her physical therapy walks. She loved the thrum of the street and running into other residents – especially the kids. She also liked showing them how well she was doing as she walked further down the block. These connections prompted her to stick with the rehabilitation and regain her mobility and independence.
We can ease the awkwardness of relying on friends by staying connected and allowing them to rely on us.
“To have a friend, you have to be a friend,” says Daniel Dahl, M.D., a Birmingham, AL-based member the American Psychological Association’s Council on Geriatric Psychiatry. “Reach out to others and maintain connections. The currency of relationships is time. So say ‘yes’. And while there’s more richness to older relationships, even new ones have health benefits.”
Still feeling weird about reaching out?
Consider this: Being of service has psychological and emotional upsides for our connections, too.
“The satisfaction that one gets from being there and helping someone is an obvious benefit,” Jain says. Our friends and acquaintances feel good when they connect with us because it fuels their own desire to be caring and helpful people.
Understanding the psychology of relationships and the value of accessing the value of our connections ensures that we remain effective caregivers and age well.