November 28, 2016 by Jean
I recently joined a Facebook group for “elder orphans” – older people without spouses, partners or children. This is a closed group with moderated discussion, and it’s a cut above the usual social media experience. The group discussions are thoughtful and passionate and focus primarily on problems and issues that older singletons regularly face.
Many of the discussions focus on the importance of friendship networks for “elder orphans.” In the words of the Beatle song, we all “get by with a little help from [our] friends.” But those who have lived alone for years have often developed a habit of independence that makes it difficult to ask for help, and those who are newly alone (e.g., recently divorced or widowed or with grown children who only recently moved away) may not have learned yet how to rely on friends instead of family. In this post, I want to share what I have learned over the years about getting help from friends.
- To get help, you have to ask for help. Don’t expect friends to just notice what you need and provide it for you. Most people like to help others (within limits). Years ago, a psychotherapist asked me how I felt when others asked me for help. “It makes me feel good,” I said. “It makes me feel needed.” “Then why,” she asked, “are you so determined to deprive other people of that good feeling?” It was an important lesson for me.
- Spread your requests for help around so that you are not asking one or two friends to meet all your needs. I remember one friend who needed a lot of emotional support after a cancer diagnosis. She would glom onto a particular friend and then call that person 5-10 times a day and often wanted the friend to come spend the night at her house. She was burning out her friends at an alarming rate. Friends will find it hard to be helpful if they feel overwhelmed.
- In order to spread out your requests for help, you need an extensive friendship network. Our model for friendship is often family relationships, and our model of family relationships is a small circle of close, emotionally intensive relationships. A good network of supportive friends may include some close, emotionally intense friendships, but it also needs to include a larger circle of less intense relationships. One widow of my acquaintance who has been looking to make a few close friends asked “Do I really need more casual friendships?” The answer is yes!
- Ask people for kinds of help that they are able to give. If they can’t give the kind of help you are asking for, but offer some other kind of help that you could use, say yes and look elsewhere for help with your first request. One member of the Elder Orphans group posted about a sibling who had asked her not to send him a text message first thing every morning. She took this as evidence that he didn’t care whether she was dead or alive. But I found myself looking at this request from the brother’s point of view. I savor mornings of solitary calm as my favorite part of the day. I would experience a request to respond to another person’s text message first thing each morning as oppressive.
- Many of us find it difficult to ask for help and then get a response of no. We can feel unreasonably rejected and unloved. One way I have learned to handle this is to send out group email messages asking for a particular kind of help and then letting those who can volunteer their assistance. When I had to get to a series of chemotherapy treatments 30 minutes’ drive away from home, I sent out an email to a large group of friends and co-workers asking for help with transportation. So many volunteered that I was able to have different people drive me to and pick me up from each of my six treatments. Word of my cancer diagnosis had spread quickly through my workplace and people were very grateful to be given some way to help. And because I wasn’t dependent on any one person, I was able to retain some sense of control.
Friendship is, by definition, a relation of reciprocity and equality. This means that, in order to get help from friends, you must give help to friends. Ideally, you will have developed some of these relationships of mutual support before you really need them.
- Offer to help, even before people ask. When I learned that a friend was having day surgery, I asked if she needed transportation. It turned out that she had already asked another friend for that help; but the fact that I offered makes it easier for her to ask me for another favor or for transportation in the future.
- Put yourself out a little to help others. It’s sometimes tempting to say “no” when filling a request for help is inconvenient; but if you never inconvenience yourself to help others, they will have no reason to inconvenience themselves to help you.
- Be sure to ask others what it is they need. It’s fine to suggest something, but don’t just assume that the other person wants what you would want in that situation. You might think that nothing would be more wonderful than having friends take turns to provide home-cooked meals for the first two weeks after a hospital discharge; but your friend might be looking forward to cooking and eating her own favorite foods.
- We can’t help others unless we also take care of ourselves, so sometimes we need to set boundaries on the help we offer. When I saw my very needy friend with the cancer diagnosis burning through her friends one at a time, I knew that I needed to protect myself from the same fate. So I made an offer: I would be happy to set aside one half-day per week to spend with her, doing whatever she wanted to do. She chose Saturday afternoons, and for several months, I spent every Saturday afternoon with her. Sometimes, if she was recovering from a chemotherapy treatment, I just sat and read while she napped. Sometimes we went out for a walk or a shopping trip. We often ended the afternoon with dinner at her favorite restaurant. One time, I drove her to a wedding more than an hour away. One of her work colleagues used our arrangement as a model to set up an online sign-up where friends could volunteer for times to visit with her. In this way, he managed to ensure that she had company every day of the week without burning anyone out.
- Try to reciprocate the help you get from others how and when you can. One friend of mine with a heart condition that prevents her from shoveling snow bakes favorite confections for the neighbor who shovels the sidewalk in front of her house after he does his own. A friend who is no longer able to drive periodically treats the friend who does her weekly grocery shopping and his wife to dinner out at a nice restaurant. By doing what she can, she maintains the reciprocity that is at the heart of friendship.