Source: iStock/prasit chansarekorn
Convoys are meant to provide protection. You might think of camels traveling through the desert, long-haul truckers, or navy ships banding together to ward off enemy submarines. But the concept can apply to people, too. Your social convoy is the core set of supportive relationships—close friends and family—that move with you through life.
With our growing awareness of the importance of connection and the risks of loneliness, the social convoy is a concept worth keeping in mind because you can’t build a convoy late in life. You have to pay attention to who’s traveling with you along the way if you want any of them to be there when you need them.
The phrase “social convoy” was coined back in 1980 by Toni Antonucci and Robert Kahn of the University of Michigan. Antonucci, who is still at Michigan, is trained as a lifespan developmental psychologist. “I want to understand how people grow and develop over time,” she says. When she started her career, the study of social relations was considered lightweight—relationships were hard to measure and thought to be pretty irrelevant to biology.
Antonucci saw the social convoy as a useful way to measure the complexity of people’s close social networks over the course of their lives. The model asks individuals to place their family and friends into three concentric circles representing those close, closer and closest to “you” at the center. The very closest, says Antonucci, are the ones without whom it’s hard to imagine your life. The people populating the next ring are still emotionally close, but a little less important, and so on. She counts the number of people in each circle, but also captures the variation in quality of each relationship. Some are positive, some are negative, some are a bit of both. Some people provide concrete help, others are more likely to provide affirmation. Those details can change over time as some people fall out of your convoy and others take their place.
We know now, of course, that social relationships matter enormously for our health and that loneliness can be deadly. A 2010 study pulled together the results of 148 studies examining the lives of more than 300,000 people and found a 50% increased likelihood of survival for those with stronger relationships. The University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, who passed away in March, devoted his career to uncovering how loneliness, which he defined as perceived isolation, gets “under the skin.” His studies linked loneliness to a host of physiological problems including poor cardiovascular and immune function, poor sleep, and increased stress responses.
Like Cacioppo, Dutch sociologist Jenny de Jong Gierveld was an early pioneer in the study of loneliness. She nearly invented the field in Europe and developed a loneliness scale that has been in use for decades. Now that loneliness is recognized as a public health issue, Gierveld is regularly asked to speak to volunteers and health workers in the Netherlands who are trying to improve the lives of lonely people, particularly the elderly. She always tells them about social convoys. She adopted Antonucci’s term because it resonates well with the Dutch, who have a history as a nation of sea-faring traders. “Like a convoy of boats,” Gierveld says, “we need to be a member of a convoy so that we care for this group of people and they care for [us].”
Although she’s thrilled that loneliness is getting the attention it deserves, there is still an important problem, says Gierveld. Most of the current anti-loneliness interventions don’t work—they come too late or they don’t get at the root cause of the problem. “To decrease loneliness, the lonely person needs to know what’s going on, needs to be willing to tackle it, and needs to be able to do it,” she says. Many elderly people (here she’s talking about those over 80) are no longer able to meet those criteria.
This is why the best strategy, says Gierveld, is to start paying attention earlier. For one thing, loneliness is not just an issue for the elderly. Although levels and intensity of loneliness are both greater in older people, who have often lost close friends and family members or are socially constrained by ill health, there are plenty of young people who also yearn for more social connection. But it’s also true that the way to prevent loneliness at the end of life is to be mindful of maintaining connection earlier on. Especially in the phases of life when we think that we don’t have time to be social.
Parents with young children should make the effort to socialize with other young families, says Gierveld. “Be creative.” Find activities to do with other families whose children are the same age. When you are in your 40s and 50s and career takes precedence, she notes, many people work late into the evening. “It’s not good. You need to organize your life in such a way that you make time to eat together [with friends and family].” As for the elderly, she suggests that they think twice about moving away from familiar neighborhoods to be near a child if it means leaving behind a larger network of connection such as church friends.
The critical point about convoys is that they set out together—they don’t just meet up at the end of the journey. “When you are later in life and something happens, you become very ill, you can’t build a new social convoy,” says Gierveld. “You need to rely at that moment on the convoy you already have.”