The Friendship Cure

Staff at Leeds Older People’s Forum have started building up a mini library of books on all things ageing, to help us get wider perspectives on our work. Rachel Cooper brings you her highlights of one of those books, the Friendship Cure.

The Friendship Cure
Putting the theory into practice

When I pick up ‘The Friendship Cure’ I barely register the front cover before I dig in. It’s pretty bland and innocuous, like the publishers were too tight to commission a decent graphic designer! There’s a central orange dot from which several concentric circles of black dots radiate, a random five dots are different colours. Only later does it become clear that the image actually represents an anthropological theory called Dunbar’s Number.

That number is 150 …each person has 150 friends and acquaintances, of which five are typically close friends.

150 connections per person is a universal figure according to Dunbar, though when you work with older people you can’t help but think of it as an inevitably diminishing number as people reach 60, 70, 80, 90. It’s not to say that new friendships can’t be formed but it is the loss of those people with whom we have the strongest connections that make us most vulnerable to loneliness.

This may be disheartening or it could be an encouraging reminder that our response as the third sector to supporting new friendships, primarily through social groups and befriending, may only ease or even merely prevent a person from becoming more lonely. We can’t hope to replace the loss of a spouse, sibling, parent or life-long friend.

The author, Kate Leaver, is a journalist writing from her experience of loneliness, it’s causes and coping strategies. Some chapters draw heavily on evidence whilst others are almost entirely drawn from personal opinion. I fully expected to see the old tropes about loneliness trotted out – loneliness is a modern ill, communities once tight knit have now broken down and the digital age has alienated us from one another. Yet Leaver explores these topics in a thoughtful and balanced manner. Her approach is refreshingly optimistic yet realistic. She lives with depression and knows that friendship alone or simply ‘talking to someone’ cannot fully lift you out of that depression (“friendship does not guarantee survival”) and she calls out those people and organisations that push this pervasive message. That’s not to say she shuns friendships all together, whilst friendship isn’t the cure (she also advocates strongly that we need to accept and learn how to be alone) they are vitally important to our health and crucial to our identity.

It surprised me to see words such as audit, de-commission, time management, prioritise and strategise appear in a book about friendship. They are everyday words in my work environment but I’d seldom use them outside of that context. Leaver, however, urges us to think about our friendships in this way - be pragmatic and ditch the sentimentality. Who are the friends you enjoy spending time with? Who are the friends that will keep asking you to meet up even though you cancelled the last two times because of the stress and anxiety? Who are the friends that are still checking out how you are doing months and years after that bereavement you experienced? Of course – we need to be that friend too.

It’s unusual (possibly even unheard of) in relation to loneliness to talk of dropping friends but there is a whole chapter of this book dedicated to just that. We don’t talk enough about toxic friendships and how to end them. The break-up of romantic relationships is universally understood, ubiquitous in our popular culture. When it comes to friendships, however, we don’t know what signs to look for that the friendship should be brought to an end, nor are those friendships ended properly. It’s easier to resort to destructive behaviours such ‘ghosting’ or ‘breadcrumbing’. This book provides a useful starting point for tips on positively ending friendships and how to properly grieve.

Reflections on the Friendship Cure - lessons for the Third Sector

  • We often think people won’t discuss loneliness due to social stigma but books like these, along with prolonged campaigns and media coverage are tackling that stigma, giving more people the hook on which to start difficult conversations. This book could support narrative approaches to discussing friendships and loneliness.
  • Consider if we should support people to learn about friendship, develop skills and confidence – to think about the type of friends they want, to make and maintain friendships, to end toxic friendships and how to do it properly and how to spend time alone. We need to find a language that works for older people – toxic friendships, ghosting and breadcrumbing are less likely to be part of their vocabulary.
  • Continue to develop older people’s digital skills, and increase their access to the internet and technology, enabling them to supplement in person contact with text and online messaging.
  • Increase understanding about the challenges people face in making and maintaining friendships; include in campaigns, evaluations and discussions with funders.
  • Seek further perspectives, like this book, from younger generations to develop an intergenerational understanding of loneliness.

Rachel Cooper
Chief Executive Officer, Leeds Older People’s Forum

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