Social Skills: Essential in Old Age?

Let me tell you about an old lady I knew, Holly. She lived in a small rather tired house in the country with a semi disabled son, couldn’t drive or walk very far, the perfect candidate for a lonely old age you might have thought.

She was a lively lady, but neither she nor her son had much to offer, yet she had a constant stream of visitors and a full social life.

Now how did that happen?

This is the answer: She paid people to come and see her!

No, I am serious. She did.  Not in money. No. She had, quite unwittingly, a much more subtle currency. She paid them in “Feel goods”!

I am not sure how to define a “feel good”, but it is something like a dose of appreciation, a spoonful of feeling needed, a dollop of praise, a soothing spread of recognition of how clever you are, how brave, how nice etc.

Phrases like “How wise you are!” “ How did you manage to do that!” “You are so good at ….” wrap themselves around your ego, massaging it to a warm glow.

She didn’t moan, but was charming, and oh so glad to see you.

We were all ensnared! Couldn’t wait to come come back for another ego strengthener! Loved finding events and outings to take her to. And of course the shopping trips, the Doctor visits were all sorted. Limited sight and handicapped clubs fetched her for lunches and talks…. She was so happy. Perhaps the key to it was that she was so good at enjoying life. We enjoyed seeing her do it. She certainly made us all feel good! Went home with shining haloes!

Nothing like feeling needed and useful is there?

Not when you get paid like that!


But until I met Holly, I hadn’t realised just what a wonderful tool the right social skills are. And very useful when you are old. Win win for everyone.

For those who would like to think about it a bit more.   ( It took me a while to realise what was happening.) It became obvious that what she was doing was in effect a very positive Behaviour Modification programme ie. She was rewarding those ‘behaviours’ that she needed to find in other people in order for her to survive well.

Don’t misunderstand me, for her it was not deliberate, not at all. She was a natural!.

But ‘Oh Boy’ was it effective!

Recognising that humans have a need for this kind of reward is essential. It oils the wheels of our society doesn’t it.? It is a system that underlies much of our lives. We may work for pay, but our hardest effort happens when it is appreciated doesn’t it?

Think for a moment about volunteers. How are they paid? What makes them give free time?  It is exactly the same! They, like Holly’s friends, get some sense of feeling good out of what they do, and keep coming. At least, if they do if they have a good volunteer manager!

It may sound as if I am suggesting that older people need to be humbly grateful and thankful to get care. I hope not!  Far from it. Far more subtle a debate that that!

It leads on to two questions.

First: Do older people who have these natural skills get better attention from services and society in general because they can reward us in this way?

Quite a thought?

Second: What about those who don’t have this ability? Do they get less attention?

There is research which suggests that that is so.

Having an action rewarded by a ‘Feel Good’* is what motivates most human activity. It is the oil in our social system. But is not always recognised. And it does alter behaviour!  And sadly, it can be a trap, can’t it?

Young or old, we do seem to have a need for praise, for a thank you, for rewards. It can be addictive…..

These are quite significant points for all of us. We, older people, carers, neighbours, friends, family, professionals, services and businesses, all of us, are part of this give and take system. Though, it may be that as as both givers and receivers, we need to recognise the way it works. Be careful as well as generous?

*PS. We also use ‘Feel Goods’ other than praise and pay to motivate ourselves! Need to be aware of such things as martyrdom, and ‘doing my duty’ which produce exactly the same self and ego massage rewards! Also very relevant to care in later years?




  1. Sally Beaumont
    July 30, 2017 / 8:47 am

    You are a good role model.

  2. July 30, 2017 / 9:09 am

    Thank you for this lovely tribute to my mother. Yes, she certainly was adept at making you feel good.

  3. Andrea
    July 30, 2017 / 2:31 pm

    Some interesting points here. I agree it does pay dividends to be positive and friendly whenever possible. Thanks for posting this fascinating insight to another person’s kind and giving nature.

  4. July 30, 2017 / 10:32 pm

    She had not much to offer? Apparently she did have as you pointed out! A warm kind personality is a great gift and it sounds like she had this in spades. You were fortunate indeed to know her! Thank you for sharing the story.

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