A-Team - SmartLiving 360 blog

Who’s Your A-Team?

I probably watched too much TV as a child. A Gen-Xer, I consumed many of the iconic shows of the ’80s, including The A-Team. It was one of my favorites with Hannibal, Faceman, Murdock, and B.A. — played by Mr. T – defying the odds to get the job done. If someone was in trouble, a call to the A-Team would save the day.

I was reminded of the A-Team as a recent guest on the Dr. Cloud Show Live to talk about the intersection of place, including housing, and successful aging. One question particularly struck me. A caller asked: How can I successfully age on my own? How can I manage all that’s necessary, from housing to health to health care to finances to purpose and beyond, by myself?

The answer: You can’t.

Successful aging is a team sport.

Unfortunately, not enough of us have our own A-Team. One of the great successes of our modern age is increasing longevity. Researchers predict that half of babies born today in developed countries will live to at least 100 years of age. However, a long life is only a positive if paired with a matching health span and wealth span. It is best to create a plan that includes others to help you.

The reality is that successful aging is incredibly complicated and multi-faceted. Even with the Internet and social media, it’s impossible to stay on top of everything. It requires much more than information collection. Setbacks and curveballs are inevitable. These hurdles require emotional support and at least an extra pair of hands.

This poses a challenge for singles and couples. More than a one-third of people 65 and older, including nearly half of women, are single; 2 million of these people do not have children and are described as “Solo Agers” by author Sara Geber. In absence of a partner or children, these individuals must create a support network. But it can also be a challenge for couples. It’s unrealistic to expect a spouse to handle all that’s required to help you age successfully. No one person can do it all.

Successful aging is a team sport (Source: National Senior Games)

Creating Your A-Team

A recommended approach is to create your own A-Team. An A-Team may include a talented and committed combination of people ranging from family and friends to professionals and subject matter experts. Here are some of the areas to think about:

  • Social Connection. Who do you enjoy spending time with? Who will help you no matter what? The longer we live, the more likely we will need to rekindle existing friendships and create new ones. We need to find our kin.
  • Exercise Buddies. Exercise is critical for healthy aging, and its powerful effects are even greater if pursued in tandem with others.  Do you have friends to walk or jog the neighborhood?
  • Health Advocate. It’s easy to get lost in our complicated health care system. It is important to have someone looking out for you who has knowledge of your condition and of the health care system. Do you have a family member or friend who can help in this area?
  • Health Care Professionals. A primary care physician who knows your health history, genuinely cares about your health and has access to a network of quality specialists is vital. Consider making an appointment to better get to know your family doctor and provide an update on your current health.
  • Legal Advisor. Getting key documents in order, including a will and health care directives, is essential. Seek recommendations or online resources to make sure key documents are prepared.

Being Part of Someone Else’s A-Team

The best relationships are reciprocal. Consider not just how to build your own A-Team but how to be a member of someone else’s A-Team. Many of us could use help.

There are benefits of being a member of someone else’s A-Team. It can provide purpose which is one of the best predictors of happiness. It can be valuable to be needed and be in a position to help others.

Adult children are often key members of their parents’ A-Team. However, adult children must not assume too much responsibility and make sure that their parents have a team of support. Adult children trying to be a one-person A-Team is a recipe for failure.

Pocket neighborhoods and shared spaces can make it easier to get to know neighbors (Source: Patrick Schreiber)

The Role of Place

Place has a significant role in cultivating your A-Team. At least some members of your A-Team should be local. Face-to-face connections make a difference. It’s impossible to have your A-Team only exist on Facebook.

Consider your community and neighborhood. Do you know your neighbors? Do you have close friends that you can see on a regular basis? For older adults, the best places to live are often where support structures are in place. A lack of sufficient support may be reason enough to trigger a move. Where you live matters, including in finding your A-Team.

The Time is Now to Create Your A-Team

In the famous words of Mr. T, I “pity the fool” who does not make time and effort to assemble an A-Team. To be fair, this is hard work and may require resources. At a minimum, we should recognize the significance of successful aging as a team sport and be resourceful in attracting others to join our journey.

Dr. Cloud points out that people should look to build their team at a young age, as early as their 30s. My A-Team is a work in progress, partially because I recently moved to a new area. I hope my answer to the talk show caller was instructive, but the question was an important reminder for me. I’ve got some work to do and so may you.

Ryan is an expert speaker in the aging industry. Want to have Ryan speak at your event? Find out more.


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Intergenerational Fatherhood - SmartLiving 360

Intergenerational Fatherhood

I am a few years into the teenage kid stage of fatherhood and I’m working my way up the learning curve. I’m finding that the timeout is not an effective punishment, my jokes aren’t as funny (or funny at all) and my IQ has plummeted. I have changed my approach. I seek out one-on-one time and say ‘yes’ to almost any offer to hang out that comes my way, even if it means risking my life with a driver in training. Doling out punishment has changed, too. I’ve focused on essay writing as a mechanism to prompt self-reflection and deep thinking. It seems to have had some impact. One of my kids, commenting on his frequent essay writing of late, shared in his Father’s Day card to me, “I may not enjoy it, but I know it’s good for me.”

But, whatever my strategy, it’s clear that just me won’t be enough. I need some reinforcements. I need intergenerational fatherhood. And, the thing is, I think elder fathers need it, too.

We’re living in the Age of Longevity where people are expected to live longer than ever before. That’s great in many respects – so long as our health and financial well-being match to a longer life – but it also comes with challenges. Chief among them may be finding continued purpose in life. Purpose, particularly the type that finds meaning in making a difference outside of oneself, has been shown to improve overall wellbeing. This is an opportunity for our elders.

At the same time, it couldn’t be more clear that our youth need help navigating today’s world. And their fathers – people like me – can’t do it alone. We don’t have all the answers and often don’t have enough time. Heck, if our current times are the 1960s part deux, we can’t offer a comparable parallel. My generation read about times of intense racial tensions, but elders lived through them. That brings credibility and perspective.

Erickson on intergenerational fatherhoold - SmartLiving 360
Erik Erickson, a 20th century psychologist, introduced generativity as the 7th step of human development

Collectively, there is an opportunity for generativity, a theory created by Erik Erickson, a legend in the arena of human development. As Marc Freedman describes in his recent call for a Generativity Revolution, Erickson’s theory suggests that we have a drive to contribute what we’ve learned from life to future generations. The well-being of future generations becomes part of the legacy of elder generations.  

A number of organizations, like Generations United and Encore.org, help connect the young and old. They do great work and can point to countless inspirational success stories. But what would it look like if we did a better job of connecting the young and old within our own families? What would it look like to truly father our grandkids?

A mentor of mine once said that your values are not expressed by what you say but how you budget your time, resources and energy. Following this logic, if you want to be an intergenerational father, you need to make sure that your actions back up your intentions.

So, what can you do?

Start with a plan. If you live close to your grandchildren, determine how often you can reasonably connect in person. Understand their age and stage and what activities and conversations are most appropriate. Identify shared interests that help bring you naturally together.

If you don’t live close, it can be more difficult. Find opportunities to connect regularly on the phone or on video. Prioritize travel schedules to visit and be intentional with your time together. Try to forge one-on-one times for greater connection and impact. Make strong memories in your time together.

Intergenerational fatherhood - fathering your grandkids - SmartLiving 360
Effective intergenerational fatherhood may require moving close to grandchildren

If intergenerational fathering becomes a high priority a question emerges: does my current home allow for me to engage with my grandchildren in the way that I would like? For some, this may require a relocation to be closer to grandkids or creating more of a seasonal schedule, if life permits, to visit for longer periods of time. I was fortunate that my mom’s parents spent a month of the summer with us and it allowed me to have significant time with my grandfather. In fact, Eric Erickson and his wife moved in their 80s across the country to be a part of their grandchildren’s lives. Place can make a big difference in nurturing these relationships.

Be prepared to be more tech savvy, too. A smartphone is a pre-requisite and texting may not be enough. Instagram. HouseParty. TikTok. You may have to download them all.

When looking to do intergenerational fathering, it’s important to get buy-in from the father, too. Odds are he will welcome the involvement with open arms. I’ve given my two fathers the green light. Each has embraced it. One has started an unofficial reading club for the summer. He and one of his grandsons alternate choosing books and then discuss and compare notes over Zoom and email. I think they also use these sessions to concoct practical joke ideas, often at my expense. My father-in-law has made special efforts to see his grandkids and adventure seek with them, imparting lessons of life along the way. Be careful – greater engagement can come with greater risks. A three-hour horseback ride at the age 76 was never part of his master plan but he toughed it out to get more time with his grandkids.

For some families, what I’m envisioning is nothing new. It’s a way of life, particularly for extended families that live together. As our society has become more affluent and assumes a greater reliance on the individual, this type of intergenerational fathering has become less common. It’s probably made us all more lonely, too.

Are you ready for fatherhood part two? The teenage parenting years really aren’t that bad. Especially if you’re the grandfather this time around.

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Commitment to Place - SmartLiving 360 Blog

Commitment to Place

More and more, we are realizing that place matters. Zip code can predict life expectancy – gaps of as much as 30 years exist for zip codes within Chicago, for example. And, of course, the pandemic has put a spotlight on the impact of place. On a per capita basis, states like Oregon, Texas and Vermont have been relatively unscathed while New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have been ten times more lethal. We may not know the exact reasons, but it’s clear that place matters.

By place, I mean the elements of country, region, metropolitan area, urban, suburban or rural environment, neighborhood and, of course, physical dwelling. All considered, these variables can create an almost endless list of possibilities, particularly for those with financial resources. To find the exact perfect place, you would need a quantum computer to create all of the possible scenarios.

But what if you intentionally limit your options? What if you made a commitment to stay in one place?

Some people are suggesting to do just this. In his commencement speech to the Purdue University Class of 2020, President Mitch Daniels makes a case for rooting yourself in a place. His argument is based on the value of social connection. He admits that he has prioritized work over relationships and, looking back, he’s worse for it. He fears that young people today, raised entirely in the iPhone era, “won’t make friends at all.”

Daniels points out that one of the main ways to immunize against loneliness is geographic rootedness. People who live in the same community for extended periods are far less likely to be lonely. Proximity facilities repeated interactions and time together is a key determinant in developing friendships. Researchers indicate that it takes about 50 hours to move from an acquaintance to a casual friendship, about 100 hours to call someone a friend, and over 200 hours of togetherness to become best friends.

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels delivering his 2020 commencement speech on the importance of place

For those who have not chosen place yet or are open to change, one option is to live close to your friends. C.S. Lewis was explicit in this strategy when he wrote, “Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods … the chief happiness of life. If I had to give a piece of advice to a young person about where to live, I (would) say sacrifice almost everything to live near your friends.” Even now in the area of ubiquitous zoom and houseparty video calls, I suspect that C.S. Lewis would offer similar guidance.

Shortly before the coronavirus outbreak, I had lunch with an acquaintance visiting from Indiana. The conversation led to why his family chose to move to a suburb of Indianapolis, particularly given that he is not from the area and his job didn’t require him to be there. For him and his wife, it was simple: friends. They coordinated with four of their closest friends located in various parts of the country to move into one neighborhood and onto one street. They are raising their families together. It comes with trade-offs – most are not close to family, some could afford nicer homes in “better” locations, and more lucrative jobs could be found elsewhere – but, in their view, the day-to-day lived experience is incomparable being enmeshed in life amongst their dearest of friends.

People who commit to place and invest in relationships locally to the betterment of their area are called weavers, according to David Brooks. Weavers view their community as home and look to make it as welcoming as possible. They have a genuine concern for the trajectory of their place and prioritize neighbors, broadly defined. They may not do it for the relationships, but odds are these relationships take on great meaning in their lives and provide a level of social support, almost akin to family. It’s important to note that you can’t be a weaver if you move every couple of years to find the next best place.

However, decisions related to place can get more challenging as we age. Within the last twenty years, the percentage of retirement-age citizens living within 10 miles of their children, in the same neighborhood with any relative, or having a good friend living nearby, dropped by double digits. This reality has left many of us or our loved ones with tough choices: should one stay in place or move closer to family and friends? The best option may to remain in one’s existing neighborhood but get more rooted.

Minneapolis is an Age-Friendly City that is also Making Sweeping Changes to its Zoning Laws to Enable More Housing
Minneapolis is an age-friendly city that is also making sweeping changes to its zoning laws to enable more housing

Trends are making it easier to stay in existing communities. Changes in zoning laws, such as allowing for accessible dwelling units (ADUs), are making it easier to downsize to another home in your existing area. Technology advances and health services are making it easier for services to be delivered to you. The World Health Organization and AARP are helping municipalities become more age-friendly, with about 500 communities signed up as part of the program. Collective impact initiatives, including a recent effort by Praxis in starting place-based guilds, are helping communities band together to raise the quality of life of their residents.

For author, poet and environmentalist Wendell Berry, committing to place has come naturally. His place is an agrarian small county in Kentucky. He writes:

“And so I came to belong to this place. Being here satisfies me. I had laid my claim on the place and had made it answerable to my life. Of course you can’t do that and get away free. You can’t choose it seems without being chosen. For the place in return had laid its claim on me and had made my life answerable to it.”

Perhaps now is the time to evaluate your commitment to your current place. If you’re in a reasonable spot, maybe it’s worth doubling down in a more significant and long-term way. If you’re not in such a place, perhaps it’s worth finding an attractive spot and creating roots as you age. Odds are that your future self will thank you.

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Where You Live Matters - SmartLiving 360 blog

Where You Live Matters

Home is multi-pronged. Sometimes, we view it too narrowly, as simply our physical dwelling. Our single-family house, apartment, condo and so on. But the reality is that the country you live in, your metropolitan area, your neighborhood and your physical dwelling all combine to form your place.

The coronavirus crisis is a strong reminder that the place we call home matters. (See Power of Place.) For some, all considered, place has fortified their health and provided reassurances. For others, place has magnified fears and increased health risks. It’s no exaggeration to say that place can be the difference between life and death.

Warren Buffett once said: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

For our institutions and as individuals, the coronavirus has exposed us. For many of us, we hadn’t thought through how our place would be impacted by a pandemic. Unfortunately, neither did enough of our public officials.

My friend, Jeff, and his family live in Seattle. They love it. A number of years ago his brother moved to be near him and, a few years later, his widowed mom left North Carolina to join them. She moved to a well-appointed, high-rise senior living residence downtown. Everyone was pleased with the situation. They had separate spaces and social circles, but also had the ability to regularly get together in person.

When Seattle became the first coronavirus hotspot, Jeff and his family had to act fast. Concerned that his mom would not fare well in a small apartment during a period of quarantine, they swooped in and made accommodations for her to live with Jeff’s brother. It’s been a couple of months now and the new living situation has been better than imagined. Their choice to change places was a good one.

Where you live matters, Los Angeles has been safer than New York City
Place Matters: Living in Los Angeles during the coronavirus has been spectacularly safer than New York City

On the other side of the country, my aunt and uncle in their early 80s live in a retirement community outside of Pittsburgh. (See Cool Uncle Russ, The Millennials and the Deli Shop.) They are so grateful to be there during this time. Several years ago, they moved from a remote, single-family house in Wyoming. Their home had a spectacular view of the neighboring mountains but a grocery store of any size was an hour away, as was medical care. Now, they live in a cottage, have healthy food reliably delivered to them and care, if they need it, is close by. They moved seeking peace of mind which they have found in their community.

We live in a neighborhood in Austin with ample space for walking, running and biking. We’ve been sheltering-in-place for 28 days (who’s counting!?!) and have survived okay thus far. However, on the surface, our neighborhood is not ideal for older adults. A number of older adults live alone and are understandably concerned about venturing out for anything. Social isolation is a concern, but so is procuring the basic provisions for living.

Living alone during a crisis is difficult, but is made better with helping hands
Living alone during the crisis is difficult, especially for older adults, but is made better with helping hands

This is where the neighborhood, another component of place, has stepped in. An engaged member of the neighborhood, Roseann, is working with the local police department to coordinate with older neighbors who live alone or could use help. The list is about twenty households. Roseann has created a network through Nextdoor of nearly the same number of people in the neighborhood willing to help. We’ve pitched in to buy a trash can for an older neighbor, and made and delivered a dinner for a widow. We’re not unusual; this is a cultural norm for the neighborhood.

Our neighborhood has what sociologists call social capital. Neighbors generally seek to know and help each other. (See What Does It Mean to be a Neighbor?) The social networks may not show up in economic figures but they matter. Living alone is tough, but it’s certainly worse in places where social capital is low.

The reality is that place has always mattered. It’s just getting a lot more attention now. As we get through this crisis, if you’re in a great living situation, you should feel grateful. Use it as an opportunity to help those who may not be as fortunate. If you’re not in a great situation, please reach out to others. Perhaps a family member could sweep in, like Jeff did for his mom, or others can come alongside to help provide physical distancing with social connection, or needed provisions, like meals.

There’s not any one right answer for place, but some are better than others. It comes down to individual preference as well as age and stage. Regardless, it’s hard to see the downside of having good neighbors willing to chip in and help no matter what. It’s also valuable to have options. Planning ahead has benefits. (See What Will You Do with Your 8,000 Days? and Are You Prepared to Live to 100?)

Once this crisis passes, an important question will loom: how will you think differently about place post-covid-19? How should your loved ones think about place? It may be one of the most important questions that we collectively and individually face. It’s not fun getting caught naked in general, but especially during a crisis.

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Finding Your Kin - the importance of friendships as we age

Finding Your Kin: The Importance of Friendship as You Age

Approaching eighteen years ago, my wife and I were married over the July 4th holiday weekend in Southern California. Many made a vacation of it and we were fortunate to be surrounded by a large number of family and friends. Our parents’ “chosen family” – their collection of close friends – was also well-represented. I took note.

Both sets of our parents shared a similar life’s journey, moving from the Rust Belt – a mix of Pennsylvania and upper state New York – to California, with stops along the way. With each life chapter they picked up friends. From childhood, college, the military, work, neighbors, kids’ school, volunteering, church and more. Some of these friendships became as deep as blood lines. They became chosen family. The people you would choose as family if you could. Chosen family was necessary because their extended family – parents, siblings, aunts and uncles – were thousands of miles away.

In the cover article of the March issue of The Atlantic, The Nuclear Family was a Mistake, the author, David Brooks, outlines a narrative of family formation from the early days of our country to the present. In short, when our society was agrarian, our families were large – 8 or 9 kids was not uncommon – and extended family lived close by. Kids and family were necessary for the economic engine of farming. With industrialization, young people pursued economic opportunity and left for the city and burgeoning suburbs. They formed their own nuclear families, often far from extended family. Until 1850, roughly three-quarters of Americans lived with their kids and grandkids. By 1960, the ratio flipped, with 77.5% of all children living with two parents who were married, and apart from their extended family. Our parents fit into Brooks’s description.

Finding your kin - A nuclear family is great, but where’s the extended family?
A nuclear family is great, but where’s the extended family?

Along the course, Brooks argues, we traded family stability and loyalty for convenience, privacy and mobility, with important benefits but also often overlooked costs.

In short, the good news about our modern culture: you are on your own. You are free to choose your path in life. Manifest destiny. Carpe diem.

Conversely, the bad news about our modern culture: you are on your own. Life will surely knock you down and you may not have someone alongside to pick you up. It should come as no surprise that loneliness and depression are rising.

What’s one to do, particularly in a life that may span a century and be full of the inevitable ups and downs?

We need to find our people. Our kin. Our chosen family.

Friendships take chemistry and they take time. Researchers suggest that it takes about 50 hours to move from an acquaintance to a friend and as many as 200 hours to consider somebody a best friend. Chosen family are more akin to best friends. You should feel comfortable to reach out to them at any time and they should be responsive.

Many of us need chosen family throughout life, but some chapters are more critical than others. Some of us are caught in the sandwich generation: caring for kids and parents simultaneously. This can be extraordinarily stressful and often the burden falls on the adult daughter. My good friend, Anne Tumlinson, started and runs Daughterhood.org, which provides content and support for women supporting their parents. Daughterhood.org organizes circle groups that allow women with common challenges to come together in person and support each other. For some, this can be the beginning of finding chosen family at a key time.

Older adults often need chosen family, too. We are new to Austin but our neighbor in her early 80s, Colleen, has sought us out. She has asked my wife to stop in to help out around the house and to run some errands for her. I’ve provided some training on Google Sheets at her request. Maybe that’s just what a good neighbor does. Or maybe it’s the beginning of adding chosen family.

Finding your kin - Chosen family is particularly powerful when it spans generations
Chosen family is particularly powerful when it spans generations

In other situations, we need to be aware of people who need chosen family, and take action. Paige, part of our chosen family from our years in San Francisco, now lives in Richmond, Virginia. She and her young daughters have made a friendship with an older widow on their street, Miss Polly. Paige could tell that Miss Polly was lonely and so she started visiting with no set agenda. Just to say hi. These visits became more regular – at least weekly – and a special, intergenerational bond has formed.

Place matters. Chosen family – at least some of it – must be close enough so you can spend time together and be there for life’s various twists and turns. Finding your kin can happen virtually anywhere, but some places are easier than others. If you don’t have your kin and you’ve been trying for some time, maybe it’s time to change places. Maybe you are just not in the right place for you now.

I should mention that chosen family ought not to replace family but to augment it. While our family lives across the country and beyond, we’re still able to get our extended family together most years. A couple of years ago, we started a text thread that includes about a dozen family members across three generations. People share funny stories, memorable pictures and prayer requests. It’s a way to keep in touch even though we’re not physically close.

With two teenagers and an aspiring teenager, our immediate family is not planning any weddings in the near future. However, when the time comes, I’ll be eager to celebrate with our family, our chosen family and chosen family that we have yet to meet. There will be much to be grateful for.

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Are You Too Efficient?

Are You Too Efficient?

I stayed with some good friends recently and the strangest thing happened. My friend, Ted, picked me up at the airport. And then he dropped me off at the airport at the end of the weekend. Surely he’s heard of Uber, right?

Ted is a busy guy. He’s got a full house of kids, pets and a wife. He’s got a job with a lot of responsibility. He’s got an old house that has an endless list of projects to demand his attention. What’s he doing taking 90 minutes out of his day on two occasions on one weekend? Why not Lyft? And why did it feel so counter-cultural?

We live in an amazing time. If you want it and can afford it then it’s yours. Now. Instantaneously. We’re in the midst of our whole life becoming Amazon Primed. Transport: Uber & Lyft. Food: DoorDash, GrubHub. Entertainment: Netflix, Hulu and now Apple. Projects at home: TaskRabbit, Takl. Healthcare on demand is just around the corner.

We can even pay people to be our friends. Yes, there’s such a service: www.rentafriend.com.

What’s not to like?

An efficiency tool from the ‘90s: The Sharp YO-600

If efficiency is a god, then I am a worshipper – front pew. When I was in college in the ‘90s, PDA meant public display of affection. But not for me, I was an electrical engineer. I was one of the first adopters of the real PDAs: personal digital assistants. I purchased a Sharp PDA with a keyboard to keep all of my contacts. There was no way to get data off of it, it was slow and battery life was miserable. But, in my mind, it made me more efficient so I picked it up and became a power user.

Of course, the ‘90s was mere child’s play compared to today. My old phone died recently and I upgraded to the latest iPhone. It’s got it all. Email. Video. Movies. Sports. Kindle. Camera. Strava. Endless battery life. All on a 5G network. I can maximize every minute of my day in line with my highest priorities; it’s Heaven for those that praise efficiency.

But not all cultures elevate efficiency to deity status. Take Africa for example. A friend who has traveled there frequently sums it up well: Americans have watches, Africans have time. Hmm.

Ted lived for a stretch in Africa well before today’s heyday of efficiency in the States. He said that in his experience much of the economy was based on doing things for others. Someone would do a favor for another. No money would be exchanged, but a tacit agreement was formed. One would be indebted to the other until a return favor was provided. Then the tables were turned. This could back and forth for years and span generations. I’m sure it could get messy when accounting is subject to interpretation and memories fade, but it links services rendered to relationships with others.

When life becomes pure transactions – pure digital transactions – we lose the opportunity for a transaction to become a relationship. It doesn’t have to necessarily be a deep relationship – there’s plenty of evidence of the value of weak tie connections. However, some weak ties grow to strong ties with more time spent and the right bit of chemistry. These deep connections are priceless.

People and relationships are messy but the alternative is worse. At this point, everyone is talking and writing about the damaging impact of social isolation and loneliness. The former US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, was one of the first to declare our country facing a loneliness epidemic in 2017. His book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, comes out in the spring. My bet is these conversations have only begun. None of us are equipped to thrive in this gilded age of efficiency.

Example of neighbors helping neighbors to improve a home – an alternative to TaskRabbit (source: Argus Observer)

So what should we do?

We should err on the side of becoming intentionally inefficient. As a friend and mentor of mine once summed up his life’s advice: ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.

A strange thing happens when we become intentionally inefficient: we get to experience life. We’re not double booked and running from one event to another. We’re able to be present and connect with those around us. We’re able to see the person, not just the transaction.

We have an opportunity to take advantage of place. Have a front porch? Use it. A kitchen to host people? Use it. Have a basketball hoop that goes underused? Invite some kids in the neighborhood to use it. Need some help around the house? Eschew the latest app and reach out to a neighbor. As my mom told me growing up, the best way to make a friend is to ask for help.

Turn the TV off, put the phone down and get involved in your community. More groups are making it easier to connect with people of all ages to help each other. For example, Encore.org just launched a Gen2Gen Cities report to help share best practices for creating intergenerational connectivity. This is productive intentional inefficiency.

And, when you have a need that could be serviced by an app, pause for just a moment and consider if it’s too efficient, or if there’s another way. Because, in the end, our on demand world has huge advantages but not if we rely on it exclusively.

And, let me know if you visit Austin and need a ride. I’ll do my best to pick you up.

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How to be a neighbor

What Does It Mean to be a Neighbor?

When our now teenage daughter was ten years old, she was walking our dog and noticed that a neighbor’s car was broken into: shattered glass was on the ground and papers from the car were scattered about the street. She knocked on the door but no one was home. She collected the papers, clipped them together and left a note for the neighbors, describing the situation. She also left them her giving money – $20 at the time – as a contribution towards fixing the broken car window. Our neighbors were touched by the thoughtfulness, returned our daughter’s donation and wrote a thank you note back to her. Our daughter behaved like a good neighbor and our family made new friends a few doors down.

For decades, Fred Rogers, better known as Mister Rogers, created a platform to remind kids, but really all of us, of the power of kindness. He invited people to become part of his neighborhood by asking, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Nearly all of us are neighbors – i.e. we live adjacent or physically close to others – but not many of us are necessarily good neighbors. It’s an unfortunate reality for our neighbors, but also for us. Research indicates that knowing your neighbors reduces loneliness, increases trust and elevates overall well-being.

A quote attributed to poet William Butler Yeats

So, what does it mean to be a good neighbor?

Step one for becoming a good neighbor is to actually know your neighbor. By this measure, there is significant room for improvement. According to research from the Pew Research Center, only about a quarter of people living in cities and suburbs profess to know all or most of their neighbors. For older adults, according to a recent study, nearly half report to know few or none of their neighbors. A clear relationship exists between loneliness among midlife and older adults and connections with their neighbors: Only 25% of those who know most or all of their neighbors are lonely as compared to 64% of those who know none of them.

Good neighbors are also more trusting of their neighbors. About two-thirds of people who know their neighbors would trust their neighbors with their house keys. Interestingly, older and wealthier people are more likely to trust neighbors who they know.

Being a good neighbor helps our well-being overall, too. A study found that people who felt connected to their neighbors had significantly fewer strokes than those who felt alienated. Researchers found the difference to be similar to that of a current smoker as compared to someone who has never smoked.

It’s unrealistic for most of us to be best friends with our neighbors. In our modern era, our social circles are often too large and our lives too busy (see why it’s good to Stay with Friends when traveling) to have our social circles revolve around our neighbors the way it did generations ago. But getting to know our immediate neighbors shouldn’t be too much of a chore.

What can be done to facilitate being a good neighbor?

Some of the responsibility falls on each of us. We have to make time and take the initiative to introduce ourselves. Bringing cookies doesn’t hurt, either. Research indicates that just introducing yourself to someone you don’t know generally improves the self-reported well-being of both parties. Odds are your neighbor may just be a friend you haven’t met yet.

Institutions can also play a part. I have a friend in Richmond whose church surveyed the congregation and found that few knew the names of their neighbors. Far fewer knew anything of personal substance about their neighbors. They were falling short on the biblical principle of loving your neighbor. In response, the church launched a challenge to the congregation to get to know their neighbors. Partially as a result, my friend and her daughters now have an adopted grandmother next door. They made the effort and all have been rewarded.

Seaside, Florida is an example of New Urbanism design to help promote neighborliness

The design of our places can help, too. New Urbanism, for example, promotes sidewalks, front porches and bike lanes to promote interaction among residents of a community. Third places, such as parks and green spaces, libraries and community pools, can also provide opportunities for regular neighbor interaction. (See When Third Place is Very Best Place to Be, Live & Thrive.) The World Health Organization (WHO) and AARP are helping educate urban planners on ways to make our places work better for people of all ages. We have found neighborhood schools to be a particularly effective way to get to know those around us; it has even been helpful to get to know older neighbors as there are ample opportunities for people of all ages to volunteer, including as judges for school projects.

Apartments, given their density of residents, can be a particularly ripe opportunity for cultivating good neighbors. We found this at The Stories at Congressional Plaza where creating a friendly culture was a clear benefit, as a recent Forbes article describes. I love the four-minute video Eat Together which casts a vision of what can happen when people come together to share a potluck meal. I have used this video for several keynote talks and it always get an emotional response from the audience.

We recently moved to Austin from Baltimore and, frankly, I haven’t been a very good neighbor. We’re renting a house before we move into a permanent home this summer, and I haven’t made the effort of introducing myself. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by some good neighbors. The neighbor to our left, Colleen, is a long-time resident and she introduced herself to us. She also alerted us to a pending problem with our sewer. It’s possible that she didn’t need to read the research to understand that that making a connection was important to both of our well-being.

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Stay with friends - packed luggage

Stay With Friends

This weekend I am getting together with several of my closest friends. These are lifelong friends from college. We’ve been through a lot over the decades – from international adventures and weddings to the loss or physical decline of parents and other challenges life has put in our way. We live in different parts of the country, from Seattle to Philadelphia to New York City to Austin, so getting together in person is a rare treat.

These friendships weren’t forged in 45-minute coffee meetings or 60-minute lunch dates. These friendships weren’t driven by efficiency and ROI; they were forged by circumstance and inconvenience. They happened because we were roommates and we imposed on each other’s spaces and schedules. We sacrificed sleep for important conversations. We shared pizza at 2am when none of us were hungry but just wanted to be together. We planned practical jokes that took precedence over studying.

I may have done worse in a given class because of these misadventures, but I am certain I got more out of college.

Stay with friends - old friends on the beach
Some of the best friendships are forged through spontaneous conversations

But things are different now. We are busy. Not just in the family life stage busy, but in new modern life busy.

And people don’t answer their phones anymore. Maybe it’s just me, but I get sent to voicemail more often than in the past. This is a phenomenon among my good friends, too. It’s even happening with my mom. When my mom doesn’t take my calls, it gets my attention.

But I don’t think it’s me. As a society, we are becoming increasingly enslaved by efficiency: we’re plagued by busyness.

Writer Judith Shulevitz unpacks this issue in her article Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore in the Atlantic. Part of the dynamic is driven by hectic work schedules, either through the increasing prevalence of ad hoc demands of gig economy workers or the 24×7 nature of many work environments. She highlights how enterprise work tools, like Slack, Trello and online group calendaring, are now being used in the home to help manage the chaos. Somehow, the technology that promised to create freedom and time has done just the opposite. She suggests that many of us need to do a better job of creating boundaries and elevating the most important.

For example, have we reached a point that talking to a good friend requires a scheduled call, possibly weeks out?

My antidote: I impose. I travel frequently and my new mandate is to stay with friends wherever possible. It can be inconvenient – sometimes it’s nice to relax with room service and a movie in a hotel or to feel the accomplishment of being on top of my email – but there is no equivalent to catching up with a friend in person and in their own environment. And it can be inconvenient for those hosting, too. Life can be busy enough on a given weekday night, and making a bed and an extra meal can be a bit much.

Stay with friends - guest room
No one is going to confuse this with a contemporary hotel room, but you get to stay with friends

The experiment is going well so far. I’ve been able to drop in on birthday parties and neighborhood get-togethers, grab a late night beer and go on morning runs. I’ve been able to get a window into a friend’s life that Facebook, Instagram and text messaging won’t allow. I have some friends going through harder times, and spending time with them in person and off the clock has been a gift.

Sometimes, staying with friends hasn’t worked. When schedules haven’t aligned, the gesture of asking to stay with friends has signaled that these friends matter to me. In an age of disconnection, even that message can be valuable.

The reality is that proximity matters in relationships and in your overall well-being (see The Power of Place blog for more on the research.) As Susan Pinker reminds us in her book, The Village Effect: Why Face-to-Face Contact Matters, there is simply no adequate substitute for seeing people in person. Sometimes, you just need to take full advantage of when you are physically close to friends.

I urge you to consider staying with friends when you have the chance. And make it easier for people to stay with you. Make it known that you have space and would welcome a visit. Not everyone is as comfortable imposing as I am, bless my heart, and that nudge can make all the difference.

These considerations are important as we plan our lives and our investment in place and space, too. Do you have space for a friend or family member to visit? If not, what can be changed to make it possible? For example, can an office be converted to be a makeshift guest room? If you are looking to downsize, will your new space have room for guests? In our modern era of busyness, making it easy for people to impose can make all the difference to stay close to your friends.

So be careful. I may soon be coming to your city and you may be on my hit list.

In fact, it’s happening this weekend. For our reunion, we’re not staying in a hotel or at a resort. We’re staying at our friend’s home in the Philadelphia area. I don’t expect to get the surgeon general’s recommended hours of sleep or really much sleep at all. And I already know I won’t be taking many calls (sorry, Mom) because I’ll be with friends. That’s a good kind of busy.

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The First Day of School is Not Just For Kids: A Thirst for Belonging in Us All

Back to school is often a chaotic time as kids and families shift gears from the slow days of summer to the routine and rigors of school. Our kids started school this week – new schools for each of them as we recently relocated to Austin, Texas. There was a mixture of excitement and anxiety. And an underlying tension of belonging vs. fitting in.

But that feeling of the first day of school is not just for kids. The longer we live, the more likely we will encounter many “first days of school”. Whether by choice or circumstance, we will need to step out and create new chapters of our lives. Some chapters occur from positive life changes, such as getting married, having babies or sending kids to college; other chapters are sparked by loss, such as divorce, the loss of a spouse or financial hardship.

For at least some of us, these chapters can feel more awkward and scary than the first day of middle school. At least when we’re young we enter these stages as a cohort. Later in life, we’re more often navigating our new schedules on our own. With each new chapter, we are presented with opportunities to find our true belonging or means of fitting in. Our attitude and choices can go a long way towards finding the right situation or not.

Brene Brown has been a leading voice on the importance of
belonging through her books and TED talks

Brene Brown is a leading voice on the significance of finding true belonging. Ms. Brown and her research rose to prominence with her TEDx talk on The Power of Vulnerability which has been viewed over 40 million times.  Her book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, provides a framework for thinking about belonging in our modern society. She defines belonging as:

The innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it.

In short, belonging is of greater value than fitting in, and fitting in can get in the way of finding belonging. Ironically, middle schoolers seem to clearly understand the difference. In Brown’s work, kids provided the following distinction:

“Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.”

Through her research, Brown believes that true belonging can be achieved through a combination of better understanding others, speaking truth but in a civil way, seeking shared experiences with others (including seizing the power of moments) and being vulnerable yet committed to who you are.

While Brown’s principles and supporting anecdotes are helpful, her research overlooks the importance of place.

In our search for belonging, our choice of place matters. Sometimes, our understanding of place focuses exclusively on the look and feel of our home. These physical dimensions are important and, for some, critical. However, they aren’t the complete picture.

Understanding how our place ties us into a broader community is critical. Key questions to consider include:  What are people like around us? Are people sufficiently similar to us? Sufficiently different? Are there people of all ages? Can we engage and learn from each other? How available can we make ourselves for real connection? Can we be ourselves?

Potluck meals can be magical in bringing people together
creating a sense of connection and belonging

I have experienced how physical place can help create a sense of connection and belonging. At The Stories at Congressional Plaza in Rockville, Maryland, a joint development between SmartLiving 360 and Federal Realty Investment Trust, we designed amenity spaces to facilitate interaction and our lifestyle ambassador serves as a catalyst for connection, often of an intergenerational nature. In one case, a family moved across the country and found babysitters and tutors for their kids among residents within the community. Spontaneous potlucks formed. A sense of belonging was forged. It was more than an apartment.

I have also seen where it does not come together. I advise senior living communities on how to be more successful. In one instance, a resident of a community was also a member of the board of directors and helped in a strategic planning process. He appreciated what the community offered but, after several years, he realized it wasn’t for him. He concluded that he did not belong or fit in so he left. At age 83. Being committed to belonging takes courage.

While our kids officially experienced their first day of school this week, our recent move to Austin from Baltimore has evoked that feeling of the first day of school for all of us. Individually and collectively, we are searching for our sense of belonging in a new environment. Using Brown’s principles and selecting the right to place to live will help us now and in future life chapters.