When, in the hospital where I was volunteering some years ago, an older person—let’s call him Jim—said to me, “The staff are my family,” I simply smiled. I had heard Jim say that a few times before. Jim had found “families” everywhere, previously at work, and at some point even in the park he used to frequent.
Jim’s wife had passed away and his only offspring was living abroad. A recent medical crisis had put Jim in regular contact with a large group of health professionals at our teaching hospital. We saw Jim quite often. And he seemed happy not only about the medical care but also the social support he was receiving.
I will return to Jim again but first I would like to talk about social support, a concept that can be understood in terms of structures and/or functions.
Think about people you interact with on a daily basis. Your social network—i.e., the structure of your social connections—likely includes both formal and informal links to others, to people such as:
- Nuclear and extended family
- Health professionals
- Support groups
- Churches, sports clubs, and other organizations
- Schools and colleges
- Government assistance programs
These structures are usually evaluated based on criteria such as size, density, strength of connections, etc. For instance, Jim’s connections with health professionals, though formal in nature, were stronger and more numerous than his connections with his family.
We can also analyze social connections in terms of their function. In an influential 1976 paper, Cobb defined social support as the communication of information which would lead the recipient to believe that he or she is loved, valued and esteemed, and belongs to a web of “communication and mutual obligation.”
This definition is quite similar to how emotional support is defined. Emotional support refers to the expression of love, care, and reassurance, often conveyed through listening and sympathizing; emotional support makes us feel valued and gives us a sense of belonging.
More recently, however, the definition of social support has been broadened to include functions other than emotional support—functions such as informational support and instrumental support.
Informational support refers to the provision of advice, guidance, and assistance in problem-solving. The type of support is often offered by health or legal professionals.
Instrumental support refers to the provision of tangible aid, such as one doing the shopping for an ailing friend, or helping them with chores around the house.
By now it may have occurred to you that the same person can provide more than one kind of support. Take parents. They often provide multiple types of support for their children. They care for them, give them guidance, cook for them and clean after them, buy them what they need, etc.
And sometimes one type of support may be perceived in additional ways. For instance, a doctor’s informational support regarding managing an illness, or a friend’s willingness to pick up your dry cleaning on a very busy day for you, can also be experienced as emotional support. Why? Because their actions might make you feel valued and loved.
Let me return to Jim now. To me, he appeared to feel loved and valued. But in reality, his formal social support (i.e., support provided by health professionals) would not last forever. Once his health crisis was over, the same level of interaction with healthcare providers would no longer be permitted or justified. Jim would then need to find the support he needed elsewhere.
I do not know if Jim found a new “family” after the crisis passed; if he felt cared for and loved; I do not know if he was able to adapt. But he seemed resilient.
Social support is important for our well-being. Often an anticipated change in our situation prompts us to re-evaluate many aspects of our lives, but how many of us remember to think about re-evaluating our social support?
Of course, we are not all in the same situation. Even with a large web of relationships, some of us do not feel loved and cared for; while some with a much smaller web of friends, do.
If you never thought about social support but happen to be lucky enough to have just the right level of it, remember the following two points.
First, remember that the life around you is dynamic. Your social support might change. Your good neighbors might move and, sadly, your best friends and relatives may pass away. Secondly, your own life and therefore your needs, change too. Your needs as an older person, a pregnant woman, a person with chronic illness, someone going through a divorce, a migrant or a refugee…can be different and require different kinds of assistance.
Therefore, to receive proper social support, it helps to be mindful of the kind of support that one need. And to be flexible. Just as Jim was, and hopefully still is.