"It is not what we see and touch or that which others do for us which makes us happy; it is that what we think and feel and do, first for the other fellow and then for ourselves." Helen Keller
September was Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. October- Breast Cancer Awareness Month. November brings us Diabetes and Lung Cancer Awareness Month, along with many other disease awareness campaigns. In 2010 the American Cancer Society estimated that 1,529,560 cases of cancer were diagnosed.
On the aging front, the AARP estimates that 30 million families provide care for an adult over the age of 50, and that number is expected to double in the next 25 years. Rosalyn Carter once said "There are only four kinds of people in the world - those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers and those who will need caregivers."
If you look at the above statistics, each of us in our own way is or will somehow be affected by disease, or a care giving responsibility at some point in our life. Research has shown that caregivers are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and are less likely to take care of their own health needs. The physical, emotional and financial costs to the patient, family, and ultimately society can be devastating.
So what is one free thing that can help get us through some of those hard and difficult times? Having friends, being socially connected, and being a friend can be a mental and physical health saver, both to the person who you are helping and to you. Over the years several studies have shown the physical and emotional benefits of having good, solid friendships. One particularly interesting 2008 study conducted by the University of Virginia followed thirty four students who were fitted with weighted backpacks and had to estimate the steepness of a hill. Those students who stood with close friends next to them as they climbed the hill gave lower estimates of the steepness of the hill. While this study size was fairly small, it nonetheless highlights the importance and effect on perception of facing a challenge when someone you care about, and who cares about you, is nearby.
Being a Good Friend
Be thoughtful and don't make assumptions. If you are not sure what someone needs, ask them. For instance, if a friend is going through a medical crisis you might ask what would specifically be helpful- ex. accompanying them to a doctor's apt, making them a meal, sending them articles about particular things related to that situation should you see them. Offering to relieve a caregiver of their responsibilities for an hour or so can help them recharge their battery. Taking a friend who is experiencing a rough time out for coffee or lunch can provide a brief respite from the trouble; maybe provide some laughs, and a much needed reminder of good things in their life.
Asking a friend if they want to talk about what they are going through or not, can show them that you are sensitively trying to give them what they feel they might need, not what you think they need or should do. Sometimes you might intuitively know, but accept the possibility that you might be wrong. Giving a person back some of the control they may feel they have lost can be very helpful.
There are countless ways friends can help make a difficult situation a little bit easier. And in helping someone else, we often help ourselves. We can feel useful; we can become more grateful and mindful of things that are going well for us, while at the same time possibly improving the mental and physical well-being of a loved one. So "pay it forward", and as Helen Keller might note, it will come back to you.