Well, I would consider her my best friend. She lives just right across the boulevard from me. I met her when we were taking driving lessons together, about seven years ago. We had never known each other before but there again she’s a very friendly person and when I got to class, we would talk, you know; quite a bit when we would see each other at school. And then later when I passed by test, she was one of the first persons I called to tell her about it. And I think that since then we started to be friends together. New we call each other every day. (Matthews, 1986).

Friends are unique in social support networks. Other than our spouses, we don’t get to choose family members. Friends, on the other hand, we bond freely based on common interests, values, goals, and so forth. Most people gravitate toward people they consider to be their social equals (Atchley & Barusch, 2004). Factors that promote equality and provide common ground including growing up together, living in the same neighborhood, attending the same school or religious institution, and belonging to the same social clubs or civic organizations.

In later life, friendships complement the social support provided by family members. Unlike family support, which is often obligatory by nature, support in friendship is usually given freely. Important aspects of friendship do not appear to change over time and include enjoyment, understanding, trust, affection, respect, acceptance, and spontaneity (Davis & Todd, 1985). According to Antonucci and Akiyama (1996), a review of the literature indicates “although family members are close and intimate members of most elderly people’s network friends are name as the people with whom they enjoy spending time, engage in leisure activities, and have daily or frequent contact and who have the most significant positive impact on well-being.” (p. 361).

Social Support in Friendships

Throughout our lives, friends are key provides of emotional support. Compared to men, women have a greater number of friends, do more to maintain those friendships, contact friends more frequently, and give and receive more support (Antonucci, 1990; Atchley & Barusch, 2004). This appears to be a mixed blessing, as some research indicates that larger social support systems and a higher number of intimate relationships increase the demands that a person will have placed on them, raising the probability of conflict (Antonucci).

While family members are very important providers of social support (particularly instrumental support), some studies indicate that seniors prefer friends as support providers. Furthermore, research indicates that friendships, more so than family relationships, play a crucial role in the well-being, morale, and autonomy of older adults (Antonucci, 1990; Atchley & Barusch, 2004). It should be noted that the line between family and friendship is often blurred, with many seniors considering family members among their friends (Atchley & Barusch).

Reciprocity is an important dimension of social support in friendships. Relationships in which exchanges were viewed to be equitable were more satisfying and more positive (Antonucci, 1990). Interestingly, in most comparative studies, seniors hold different standards for families and friends when it comes to providing social support. Whereas family are expected to provide support in times of need, friends are not expected to, and therefore the support they do provide is more appreciated (Antonucci).

The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved.