The benefits of friendships and close relationships are clear to all of us. As well as providing practical help and support, friends enhance our self-esteem and sense of well-being. They can contribute to our emotional stability and protect us from the effects of adverse life events such as loss or serious illness.
Just like the rest of us, people with a learning disability think friendship is very important. Many feel lonely and would like more friends.
Traditional services still tend to focus on helping people develop daily living skills, while paying insufficient attention to their emotional needs, including the need for friends.
People living at home may have close supportive relationships with parents and other family members, but as they grow up they tend to have less chance of making friends of their own age and enjoying a social life outside the family.
It’s not our job to provide the people we support with friends. And it’s not our job to be substitute friends, or worse still to pretend that we are friends when clearly we are paid to be there.
So what can we do to encourage people with a learning disability to develop and maintain friendships?
There are some simple we can bear in mind:
- Many people are not well off so finding affordable social activities will also be important.
- We can look out for opportunities in people’s daily lives where they can meet other people who might become friends. Most of us make friends at work, in college, at leisure facilities and similar places.
- We can offer practical support such as organising transport and making telephone calls.
To make any connections at all you have to be physically present in the same places as other people – but ‘being there’ in itself isn’t enough.
You have more chance of making connections in any setting if you keep going there, are seen to be there regularly and duly get recognised. But again this in itself is no guarantee of resulting in new relationships…. you have learn to spot and use the opportunities to have conversation, share time and look for common interests.
We can act as facilitators and enablers of introductions and also help people develop the confidence and social skills to maintain friendships. Some of the people we support need help knowing what to say after saying hello!