That’s men: How friendships and social networks can help you to live better for longer

Families can sometimes be overbearing, so keeping a social network is important

The bottom line is that, as they age, men and women should not take their social relationships for granted.

The bottom line is that, as they age, men and women should not take their social relationships for granted.

 

Today’s older people are, it seems to me, pretty good at paying attention to their general physical health and fitness. But it’s worth knowing that paying attention to social relationships and networks also pays off in maintaining a healthy life.

For example, people with good social relationships live longer than those who are isolated. Middle-aged men who suffer a series of stressful events are less likely to have a heart attack if they have good social support, and this involves give and take. For example, older adults who help other people have lower blood pressure. They feel better about themselves. They are less likely to be depressed or distressed. They feel more effective in themselves, more independent and more useful. They also get more help from other people, so this isn’t a one-way traffic.

But getting the balance right matters. Too much support, especially from family, can leave people feeling worse off. In an example in an article in the Psychologist, “an older man must now rely on his daughter to take him to complete his weekly shop, when the norm throughout his life had been for him to provide support to her. This reduces his feelings of competence and, moreover, alters his role as father”.

Interestingly, it often happens that friendships contribute more to the health of the older person than family relationships do, according to Laura Soulsby and Kate Bennett of the University of Liverpool, the authors of the article “How relationships help us to age well”.

But maintaining those healthy relationships takes attention and effort because many life events reduce social networks. Retirement is one. Divorce is another. The death of a spouse removes the social support and links provided by that person.

“The bereaved must learn to socialise as a single person, and may face the loss of relationships with other married couples as well as losing links with their shared friends,” write Soulsby and Bennett.

Men commonly control their own emotions to be better able to take care of family after the death of their wife. But good social support can protect them against the poorer health that results from a bereavement of a spouse, in the cases of both men and women.

The bottom line is that, as they age, men and women should not take their social relationships for granted.

Men’s wellbeing

The Mojo programme, run by statutory and voluntary organisations in the area, was set up for men who were distressed, usually by unemployment.

Its 12-week training programme has helped to reduce suicidal thinking and self harm and also to lower the use of alcohol and other drugs. Men taking part in the programme reported a greater sense of belonging and an increase in the ability to take control of their lives.

Nine out of every 10 men who started the programme stayed with it, which is a very good result and above the national average. The programme also achieved better than average results in relation to returning to work, and volunteering.

Some of the men are being trained as listeners (with the help of the Samaritans) and will offer a listening service to distressed men in Tallaght. This strikes me as a highly valuable move.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, many people, mostly women as I recall, improved their lives hugely with the help of personal development programmes. Then these programmes seemed to die away, which was a huge loss. It’s great to see the return of programmes of this kind in the form of the Mojo project and to see one aimed at men. These programmes really can change lives. For more information, see mojo-programme.org.

pomorain@yahoo.com Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email.

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