This longitudinal study evaluated the direct effects of providing/receiving family support on mortality in older adults with different living arrangements in Taiwan. All data analysed were obtained from the Taiwan Longitudinal Study on Aging, 1996–2007, of residents aged ⩾67 years (1,492 men and 1,177 women) and Taiwan's National Death Register. Living arrangements were divided into living alone, living only with spouse, living with family and living with others. Support was mainly defined as family support divided into two categories: providing and receiving. The effect of providing/receiving family support on the mortality of older adults was evaluated using Cox regression analysed by living arrangement. Participants living with their families had lower educational levels (illiterate or elementary school) and more disability in both activities of daily living and instrumental activities of daily living. However, they provided more family support than those in other living arrangements. After adjusting for several potentially confounding variables, including background characteristics, economic status and various health status measures, results showed that older adults living with their families and providing support had an 11 per cent lower mortality rate (Hazard ratio = 0.89; 95 per cent confidence interval = 0.83–0.96; p = 0.0018). In conclusion, we found that, when living with family, the lives of older adults can be extended by providing support, clearly supporting the old adage ‘it is more blessing to give than to receive’. Older adults wanting to extend their lives can be encouraged to provide more help to their families.