Friends or family? It’s not usually a choice people have to make. But after my father died, that was the choice my mother faced.

None of her three children lived in Perth; two of us lived on the other side of the country, one on the other side of the world. But Perth is where my outgoing mother had spent her then-68 years, and all her friends lived there.

She decided to stay put.

My mother, now 84, was right to stay with her friends rather than move to Sydney to be near us. Research is mounting to show that if you had to make the Sophie’s choice between friends and family, friends are probably better for you.

Having a diverse group of friends is good for your health, your longevity, your morale, and your memory. Adult children and relatives as your main source of social contact don’t confer the same benefits.


The fascinating research led by Professor Mary Luszcz, of Flinders University, first showed the literally life-giving effects of friendship a few years ago. Following almost 1500 older Australians over 10 years, she found those with big friendship networks lived eight years longer than those with the fewest friends.

Those who relied on adult children, spouse or relatives for friendship didn’t do as well. Her most recent study on memory, published late last year in the Journal of Aging Research, tells a similar story.

Beginning with people of average age 78 and with normal memory, she tracked them over 15 years and found those with lots of friends who kept in regular contact were more likely to preserve their memory and slow the rate of its decline. But having adult children, a spouse, or relatives as the main social contact conferred no similar benefit.

There’s further evidence in a study of nearly 3000 nurses with breast cancer. Having a spouse didn’t help survival but having a friendship network did. Given most of us intuitively know how precious our friends are, it’s odd so much fuss is made in public life about the importance of marriage, family and children and so little about the crucial role of friendship. Apart from the Men’s Shed initiative, it’s hard to think of policies that promote friendship in older adults.

Yet loneliness is a serious health problem. It can be as detrimental as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic, according to Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad, of Brigham Young University in Utah, who reviewed 148 studies on social networks and health.

friendLoneliness is twice as bad for our health as being obese. Letting friendships slide or failing to nurture them can be dangerous to our health, the research is telling us. It’s another reason why workplace reform is so important – to give us time for friends as well as family.

But why should it be that friends are more likely than family to improve our lot? For a start, we choose our friends, and the friends we keep into our older years are likely to be tried and true.

On the other hand, we’re stuck with our adult children and relatives. As much as we may love them, they can bring us grief, worry or aggravation. “You have to put more energy into friendship and that gives people a sense of autonomy, control and independence that seems to be good for them,” Professor Luszcz told me.

“With family it happens as a matter of course.”

Adult children also play a different role from friends. They provide practical help, mow the lawn, fix things, and ferry parents to doctors’ appointments. Most provide important emotional support, too. In the best of all worlds, older people have friends and family. My mother is in quite good health, independent in her home, still going out with those friends who aren’t too disabled or sick.

But as she heads towards her 85th birthday, I wonder what the future holds. I suspect ultimately it’s family that will be crucial.

What do you think?



The Cost of Caring

Sorry Love, You’re Too Old

My Dad. What Might Have Been

We Need to Talk About Dementia


*This column was first published on Adele Horin’s blog, Coming of Age, at www.adelehorin.com.au and it is republished here with kind permission.


adelehorinheadshot*For 18 years Adele Horin was the social issues journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald. Now, in Coming of Age she explores how her generation is meeting the challenge of getting older. Whether in paid work or retired, whether caring for elderly parents, adult children and grandchildren or fending for ourselves, once again baby boomers are rewriting the script.

You can follow her on Twitter @AdeleHorin



Follow us on


  • Reply March 14, 2013

    Maureen P.

    Welcome back into my life, Adele Horin. My Herald just isn’t the same without you!

    We are experiencing a similar situation with my husband’s widowed mother, who’s 87..(.both my parents died at relatively young ages)…and I really do believe it is a combination of friends and family that get us through.
    My m-i-l lives in her own home and is active in her local community (another important factor) and there is a daughter (and her family) 20 mins away. She is lonely and is missing her sister who died last year, but she’s taken up a mind-stimulating boardgame, which also provides social contact and the opportunityfor new friendships. She’s much loved by her children, numerous grandchildren and her friends, and we remind her of this when she gets a bit low.
    I hope I do so well when I’m in her situation, but my husband is my best friend…life without him is horribly imaginable!

  • Reply March 14, 2013

    Annie Also

    Family you cannot pick and choose. They can be cruel and hurtful, neglectful and abusive and you have to stick with them even when you don’t want to.
    Friends you can nurture and encourage, drop if they become abusive or ‘users’.
    I would be more interested in studies on the stress that extended families can bring.
    I’m afraid I could not do without my husband of 40 years. He is my best friend and an amazing human…why can’t he be counted in my ‘circle’ of close friends too?
    Love that you are still around to read Adele. Thank heavens for the internet …

  • Reply March 14, 2013

    Lady Penelope

    The only problem is that it is likely our friends will age along with us and will be unable to assist us at times like Adele is describing. Fir those of us without children being in the aged care system without someone to watch out for us is a frightening thought. Having said that I havenfriendships reaching back over 30 years & it’s wonderful to remenisce on the hits & misses.

  • Reply March 14, 2013

    Narelle Matheson

    I guess a little of both is a good thing. My Mum is 82′ healthy, and independent. She has friends, but loves the company of her children and their children and enjoys the best of both worlds. We are close, and close by. It’s a good thing!

  • Reply March 14, 2013

    Sonya Math

    A loving family is more likely to travel to see their mother regularly as opposed to friends (particularly older ones) who are less likely to unless they are going to the other city for another purpose.

  • Reply March 14, 2013


    Womderful to see Adele Horin writing so well again. I really missed her when she disappeared off the pages of the SMH.
    I’ll be taking this article to my group at the U3A where I work as a volunteer tutor and teach all about happiness and well-being. This is a wonderful addition to our knowledge about how to look after ourselves, and our loved ones, into our old age. I’m really looking forward to following Adele’s blog too.

  • Reply March 14, 2013

    Tone M Nilsen

    I think it can apply both ways, it entirely depends on what kind of relationship you have with your family, I have a better relationship with my friends and would rather have approached me to them than my family if there was anything I needed help to. But to my children, I have a very good relationship also to my oldest daughter who has moved out, we often meet and socialize together,I can not imagine life without them, we are good friends and will always be close.So when I get old, I can trust that they will be there, my kids and my friends are my family. 🙂

  • Reply March 16, 2013


    My elderly mum has outlived all her siblings and friends. She socializes with the older folk that her family introduce to her now. It is to the younger generations of her own family that my mother now looks to for company and outings. Friends grow old with you and are as vulnerable as yourself to the needs and demands of old age.

    She lives on her own and of course she’s lonely and relies on us to ring her every week. The younger generation visit when they can and take her out – do all the odd jobs for her. We keep an eye on the house and do what needs doing. She’ll never be parked in a nursing home and left to die. Her family will see to that.

    Friends are precious but so is family. Worth working on all your relationships.

  • Reply March 17, 2013


    Adele it is great to have you back – SMH is not the same without you and a few others. My mother chose to return to live in the country where her sister lives when I left school and away from the city where I was brought up. She is now 89 and still lives independently. Her sister is 87 and also lives independently. I ring my mother every day to see how she is, but of course I worry about her. She wouldn’t want to move away and so I have to accept that my level of care is going to be long distance most of the time. I would love to do more for her but have to accept that is the way she wants to live.

  • Reply March 23, 2013

    Adrian Glamorgan

    Thank you! This adds to our life planning…

  • […] Much has been written about the importance of community in longevity – that being surrounded by friends extends health and happiness. Adele Horin wrote about that here. […]

  • […] Friends… Or Family? […]

  • Reply July 9, 2013


    You should really control the commentary at this website

  • Reply April 15, 2014


    This is such a complex issue – the value of family v friends and reading the comments above provides much scope for thought and discussion. My family of origin is fractured beyond repair and out of my 6 siblings 4 of us have no relationship with our parents, their (parents)decision not ours; my 2 daughters and I have a reasonably solid relationship and I enjoy them immensly, however, I am aware not to burden, nor outstay my welcomes with them whereas with friends I can come and go with spending time with them and enjoying the outings etc. Unfortunately or maybe fortunately I don’t have a partner so I have learnt over the last 10 years to be independent and enjoy my own company so as I don’t have to be too reliant on someone close to manage everyday living and I’m only a young 60 still working full-time and will have to do so for a lot longer.

Leave a Reply