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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Are You in the Right Place? SmartLiving 360

Are You in the Right Place? The Importance of Place for Healthy Aging

With Christmas and New Year’s Day so close together, it is understandable that the transition from opening gifts with friends and family to reflecting on the past year and future year can happen rather fast. Inevitably, this reflection prompts the question: Am I where I think I should be? Or, said differently, am I in the right place? Research has shown through the “u-shaped” happiness curve that people tend to be less satisfied when they are younger and more satisfied when they are older. (See The Little Known Happiness Curve).

But there is an important related question: Am I in the right physical place?

For you, the answer may be a resounding “Yes!” I have friends of all ages and stages across the country for which this is the case. They love their cities, their neighborhoods, their friends and their homes. Their physical place is helping them thrive.

For many, however, the honest answer may not be as positive. Their physical environment may hold them back and a change, or at least a tweak, may be needed. But change is hard.

In fact, Americans are moving at an unprecedented pace. An unprecedented slow pace. For a country founded on exploration and adventure with the promise of a better future by moving to find it, we have become sedentary. Indeed, for a variety of reasons, less than 10% of Americans moved in the last year, about half of what it was in the 1950s, and the lowest since the U.S. has tracked this statistic.

An example of one person’s forever house
An example of one person’s forever house

Perhaps part of this slowdown is an underappreciation for the impact of place. Our place influences our relationships, our habits and, ultimately, our well-being. Research has shown that positive lifestyle habits, often influenced by our place, can add years to our lifespan and “healthspan.” (See Power of Place.)

After careful consideration, my family decided to move from Baltimore to Austin earlier this year. We were grateful to find buyers for our Baltimore house who fell in love; they saw the house as their “forever house.” They loved the walkable neighborhood, the charm of an old house built in the 1890s and an open backyard which included chickens.

But, in the Age of Longevity (see Are You Prepared to Live to 100?), the idea of living in one house forever has become less realistic. Although it avoids the hassle of moving, which we all can appreciate, it also underestimates that the fact that at different stages of life there may be better places for us than our forever house.

There are a number of reasons why a different place may in fact be a better place.

For those in growth mode, such as growing families, the desire for more space can be the driver. For single urbanites, the idea of leaving the hustle and bustle of the city can be anathema to their values. But marriage and a few kids later, the sudden allure of the spacious suburbs can be too much to deny.

Sometimes, it is a move to economic opportunity. Go west young man. Geographies of high growth and opportunity often lift all boats. This dynamic can appeal to people of all ages and life stages. For my parents, born and raised in the Rust Belt, their move to Northern California in the 1980s created opportunities unavailable to them in their hometowns.

Other times, a move is triggered by a shift to a more desirable lifestyle. Better weather. Less stuff to maintain. Shorter commute. Walkability. Less expense.

Some people are trading their forever house to be near walkable suburban town squares (Source: Adrmore, PA)
Some people are trading their forever house to be near walkable suburban town squares (Source: Adrmore, PA)

There are also times when a move happens based primarily on loss. Maybe family moved away. Perhaps the neighborhood has changed and you don’t know your neighbors. (See What Does it Mean to be a Neighbor?) Or, there’s a decline in health or loss of a spouse. A move to a new location can lessen social isolation and also provide a living environment that is better set up for aging-specific needs.

In all of these situations, a move may not be necessary. Sometimes the better place is the same place just oriented differently. Maybe it’s a remodel to create more space. Maybe it’s changing the design to be more age-friendly, such as adding slip resistant tiles and grab bars in the bathroom. Maybe it’s welcoming in a roommate to reduce housing costs. Maybe it’s cultivating a strong sense of community around you. (See Why Community Matters.) 

One of the psychological challenges we face is that we can be the last people to recognize a change for something better is needed. It can be easier to see changes that others should make. Unfortunately, this lack of self-awareness can be detrimental to our well-being.

Enjoy your time exchanging gifts and ringing in the new year. But don’t miss your opportunity to reflect on whether you and loved ones are in the right physical place. The decision to choose a new and better place may be the most valuable present you get – or give – this holiday season.

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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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What Will You Do with Your 8,000 Days? Retirement Planning and the Importance of Place

What Will You Do with Your 8,000 Days?

8,000 days and growing. This is the number that Joe Coughlin, head of the MIT AgeLab, uses to estimate the amount of time we’re expected to live beyond the age of 65. It’s roughly the same period as from growing up to graduation from college (early 20s), post-college to mid-life (40s) and from mid-life to retirement age. This “retirement” stage represents 1/3 of adult life today.

It’s great to be living longer but I imagine few of us want to live them as Bill Murray did in the movie Groundhog Day. For 8,000 straight days?

A key question quickly emerges: what will you do with your 8,000 days?

It’s becoming increasingly relevant as more people wish to rewrite the script for retirement planning, particularly as compared to their parents. In some cases, it’s a necessity based on financial realities; in fact, more than half of U.S. workers plan to work past 65, the traditional retirement age. For others, it’s a sense that there is more to life than permanent leisure. The research bears this out: as Dr. Laura Carstensen, Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, states in the Big Idea in 4 Minutes, “There isn’t anything in the psychology literature that suggests that it is good for people to go on vacation for decades.”

The general trend appears to be towards a more active retirement, according to Catherine Collinson, President of the nonprofit Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Work and time for personal pursuits or leisure are not mutually exclusive. This transition to a new stage of life is highly personalized, not as monolithic as the days of receiving a gold watch and moving to Florida.

The 2018 Class of Stanford’s DCI Program - An Effort to Reinvent Retirement Planning
The 2018 Class of Stanford’s DCI Program – An Effort to Reinvent Retirement Planning (Source: Stanford)

Some are looking to go back to school to figure it out. Literally. Five years ago, Stanford started a program called the Distinguished Careers Institute (DCI) that brings together a cohort of “highly accomplished individuals from all walks of life who are eager to transform themselves for roles with social impact at the local, national, and global levels.” As part of the program, these older students enroll in classes across the university. Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative is a similar program with a particular focus on helping leaders’ transition from their main career to their next years of service. More universities across the country, including the University of Texas, are creating similar programs to support this group, often catering to their alumni.

Other resources are becoming available to help think through what to do with these 8,000 days. Designing Your Life was birthed out of an elective class at Stanford University. It applies designing thinking to one’s life (click here for previous SmartLiving 360 blog on the subject). The intended audience is recent college grads but it has struck a chord with older people, too. Faith-based thinkers are entering the conversation as well. Earlier this year, Jeff Haanen released An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life. His book provides a basis for how to think about retirement in the context of faith and a specific approach to create a customized plan.

Another trend is to avoid age-segregation. That’s not to say that older people don’t wish to be around people like themselves but to do so exclusively is less desirable than it may have been in recent generations. Beyond personal preference, there is recognition that age-segregation is not good for one’s health: according to a Harris Poll, 74% of people believe that age-segregation is harmful. Another poll found that the vast majority of people (92%) believe intergenerational activities and relationships are particularly helpful in reducing loneliness for all ages.

Tomorrow, I’m excited to be moderating a discussion with a friend and mentor of mine, Marc Freedman. Marc has given these extra 8,000 days considerable thought as a gifted social entrepreneur and founder of Encore.org. He sees tremendous potential in the longevity revolution for both personal and societal good and envisions a particular opportunity through greater intergenerational connectivity as outlined in his book, How to Live Forever. And, as he enters his early 60s, planning for these 8,000 days is becoming less theoretical for him.

New Retirement Housing Models on College Campuses that Integrate Residents, Students & Faculty
New Retirement Housing Models on College Campuses that Integrate Residents, Students & Faculty (Source: NY Times)

One of things that Marc gets is the importance of proximity. Location, location, location. We can have the best vision for this life stage but place can either hold us back or propel us ahead.

Take housing. Margaritaville has made a splash with their Jimmy Buffett themed age-restricted communities in the southeast. They promise to inject fun and a sense of belonging – both areas often neglected in this life stage.  However, will Buffett songs hold their charm for 8,000 straight days??? And, if you value intergenerational relationships, it’s hard to see how living separate and far away from younger people is conducive to developing and nurturing such relationships.

Others may wish to “age in place”. However, if that increases social isolation and presents physical hazards then it may not be a very effective strategy, regardless of how long one has lived in a home.

Fortunately, new housing models are emerging at a range of price points and locations that offer more choice for people in this life stage. The Stories at Congressional Plaza, an intergenerational community co-developed by SmartLiving 360, is one example. There are also a growing number of retirement housing options near or affiliated with universities. I would expect these and other options, particularly ones that lean more heavily on technology to help people stay healthy, to accelerate in the years ahead.

Simply, it starts with a vision and a plan for how to lean into these 8,000 days – understanding there will need to be flexibility and contingency planning – and to make sure that one’s place and home is aligned with this vision.

No doubt, it’s not easy, but it’s probably better than the alternative of not living as long. As my friend, Paul Irving of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, puts it, “We’re living longer, now what?” That’s for each of us to figure out.

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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.

Cool Uncle Russ, The Millennials and the Deli Shop

Cool Uncle Russ, The Millennials and the Deli Shop

My uncle Russ, or “Cool Uncle Russ” as I called him when I was a youngster, has always been a favorite of mine. In the ‘80s, he wore cool sunglasses, leather jackets and listened to top 40 hits. And even though he and my aunt Donna do not have kids, he’s a professional at dad jokes, ones like “Why do melons have weddings? Because they cantaloupe!”. Younger people seem to enjoy the puns the most, though it can be a painful laugh at any age.

Uncle Russ called a few years ago as he and my aunt were considering relocating to Pennsylvania to move into a retirement community. They were seeking advice. They wanted a living situation that could be flexible as their health needs changed while also ensuring that they live within their means. They moved into a Life Plan community outside of Pittsburgh.

It has worked well. They have a house within the community and friends, and they are involved in activities. They have peace of mind financially and also from a health care perspective.

However, something was missing for Russ. Where were all the younger people?

He decided to go back into the workforce and get a job. He was in his mid-70s at the time. The only problem was that, despite his experience with engineering firms and doing project management, no company would return his emails or phone calls. Firms were hiring but he couldn’t even get an interview. It was nearly a year of fruitless searching. It was his most direct encounter with ageism in the workplace.

He was seeking a job more as an opportunity for greater purpose and to socialize with people of different ages than for a paycheck. What if he dialed back on the pay?

He took a different tact. He saw an ad and sought to return to one of his first jobs: working at the deli counter. He applied, was accepted and started the next day.

Russ has been working at the local deli shop within Bi-Lo Foods of Harmony, Pennsylvania for several years now. He works the early shift from 6:30am to 1:30pm – 7 hours – and is on his feet the entire time. He turns 80 next year.

Cool Uncle Russ, The Millennials and the Deli Shop
Russ flanked by his female co-workers (no ponytail hat this time!)

One of his greatest enjoyments is interacting with his clients and co-workers. He knows many customers by name and remembers their meat and cheese preferences. He also knows their hot buttons – he’s always looking for playful ways to make fun or to trigger a laugh. In the words of his manager, Russ has a “joke for everything.”

He’s befriended his younger co-workers. Some of them are over 60 years younger. He understands the challenges facing younger people, including struggles with social media and loneliness. He’s been able to share his sense of humor and he’s played a number of practical jokes on his colleagues. One time, in order to fit in with the ladies on the team, he wore a hat with a built-in pony tail…

He also brings a strong work ethic. He wakes up before 5am, makes the 5 minute drive and is at the store at 5:40 – nearly an hour before his shift starts – to check the inventory and make sure that everything is set up properly for the day. He’s never called in sick or missed a day. This is how he was taught to work. It’s a different approach as compared to some of his millennial colleagues. He serves as a role model to his younger co-workers.

Understandably, his boss appreciates Russ’ contributions, thoughtfulness and the joy he brings to the team. She is open to Russ working as long as he would like. There’s no end in sight so long as his health cooperates.

Initially, Russ was reticent to share about his job at the deli. It took a year or so before the broader family learned about it. He eventually told his friends at his retirement community, too. Maybe it was not perceived as “cool”. We all admire Russ’ courage to put himself out there and persevere to find something that he values and that values him. Some of his fellow residents at the retirement community are curious if there are job openings.

Cool Uncle Russ, The Millennials and the Deli Shop
Be prepared to get a joke with your salami order

As a society, we’re struggling with having enough social interactions; those that are deep and those that are superficial. They both offer benefits. Russ and his colleagues have become closer friends over time and their joyful interaction with customers provide a well-being boost for all involved. Moreover, for Russ, it’s been an opportunity to tap into an intergenerational environment that would have never been possible within his retirement community.

Next year, there will be a celebration at the Bi-Lo deli counter that will be certain to attract people of all ages. It will be for a certain worker’s 80th birthday. But watch out for the puns. They’ll be coming and, in my experience, it will be hard not to laugh.

When Third Place is Very Best Place to Be, Live & Thrive

On a recent visit to see my best friend in Philadelphia, we visited Grays Ferry Avenue Triangle. It’s a triangle plaza in the Southwest Center City area that didn’t exist a decade ago. Previously, it was home to a handful of parking spots, a historic but inoperative water fountain and an oddly configured side street of little use.

Local residents, including the husband-wife team of Brad Dakake and Chau Winn, came together and formulated a new vision: the creation of a community gathering spot closed to traffic and decorated with planters, painted asphalt, café tables and a bike-sharing station. The vision even includes a working water fountain. Today, the venue hosts an annual neighborhood festival called Palazapoolza, sponsored by over a dozen local business and includes activities for all ages, including live music, face painting and kids’ carnival games, and food and drinks.

The “Triangle” in Southwest Center City that transformed an underused space to a valued neighborhood amenity

The “Triangle” is an example of a “third place.” Third places are physical spaces that allow for connection beyond home (first place) and work (second place). Examples of third places include grocery stores, community parks, libraries, restaurants, entertainment venues and places of worship.

Residents love the Triangle and feel its impact.  In the words of Dave Zega, chairman of the local community planning organization, South of South Neighborhood Association (SOSNA):

“Plazapoola brings together local residents and businesses to activate and celebrate public space. Public spaces capitalize on community assets and promote engagement, happiness and well-being. Each year, Plazapalooza allows residents of all ages to come together and enjoy the SOSNA Triangle.”

It turns out that residents living near the Triangle are not the only people who see the benefit of third places. According to a new study by the American Enterprise Institute, Americans who live close to third places are more content with their neighborhood, more trusting of others, and less lonely regardless of whether they live in large cities, suburbs or small towns.

In other words, place matters. Jane Jacobs, the celebrated urbanist and author who would celebrate her 102nd birthday this month, outlined her vision for the role and importance of creating walkable, mixed-use communities in her 1961 urban planning treatise, The Life and Death of Great American Cities. She believed such communities naturally created social cohesion and neighborliness. 

In recent years, there has been explosion of mixed-use development. Dense, walkable developments are common within urban environments, of course, but are now increasingly common in the suburbs (including “sub-urbs” as some call them – connoting urban density in a suburb) and in some rural areas.

Unfortunately, creating mixed-use places, including third places, is not enough. There needs to be activation and engagement in these spaces. This happened to a high degree with the Triangle as residents literally created the space and formed a committee for its ongoing use and improvement. This is rare. In Baltimore, where I live, there has been significant development on the east side. Eager Park, a five-acre open space created a couple of years ago and developed in part by Johns Hopkins University, is beautiful but has not generated a meaningful sense of community yet. There’s more work to be done.

Creating buildings and spaces is the easy part. Creating communities is the hard part.

We’ve seen this, too. In our intergenerational apartment building, The Stories at Congressional Plaza, there are third places within the building as well as within Congressional Plaza. The building amenities include a state-of-the-art fitness room, kitchen and coffee area and great room. Congressional Plaza, located within a five-minute walk, includes a grocery store, restaurants and other retail. Collectively, these are great amenities.

These spaces are not nice but they don’t become activated on their own.

Keep Calm and Craft On
Resident led event at The Stories

We have found the difference is when residents take ownership and agency in the utilization of these spaces. Game night. Potlucks. Knitting club. Residents get to know one another and are more likely to spread the word. We just help behind the scenes, including helping create flyers.

Engagement with third spaces is helpful at all stages of life, but they may be more important as we age as the second place (work) becomes less important or consistent. It can help avoid social isolation and loneliness, growing challenges for our society but especially as we get older. It’s important to note that third places need not be walkable but they should be accessible. A short drive of 15 minutes or less can make a huge difference.

What are your third places? Do you frequent them enough? Are they close enough?

Better yet, do you see an opportunity to create your own “Triangle”? It might just be the best thing you could do for your long term health and well-being. 

Do You Want to Climb Your Second Mountain?

An Antidote to Social Isolation and Loneliness

In recent years, much has been written about the increase in social isolation and loneliness. While, historically, social isolation and loneliness have been most strongly associated with older adults, recent studies indicate the loneliest generation may be Generation Z, the oldest of whom are in college. Loneliness, it seems, is age agnostic. Research indicates nearly half of Americans are sometimes or always feeling alone or left out.

Much less has been written about what has caused it and what can be done about it. David Brooks, best-selling author and long-time New York Times columnist, offers both theories and solutions in his new book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.

In short, Brooks believes our society has shifted too much toward individualism over commitments to one another. He describes it as a shift from the “We’re All In This Together” moral ecology of the post-war years to the “I’m Free to Be Myself” mentality. The pressures of social conformity of the 1950s had huge drawbacks, not the least of which was limited acceptance and rights of women, minorities and LGBTQ groups. However, a shift to hyperindividualism has lead to a society where people live further and further part from one another – socially, emotionally and physically.

Brooks antidote is a rebellion against the rebellion of the ’50s. He argues that each of us needs to make a commitment to those around us. In so doing, we can reinstitute the social bonds of prior times with a more accepting view of those who are different than us. If enough of us do this at an individual level, the argument goes, this will become a seachange for our broader society that creates new norms.

Do You Want to Climb Your Second Mountain?

Brooks argues that while happiness is good, joy is better. The first mountain, in his view, is about satisfying the ego and achieving worldly success. The second mountain is about a shift in thinking to others and is inherently relational. Summiting the second mountain creates a legacy and an enduring purpose.

The Age of Longevity creates opportunities for us to summit multiple mountains.

One of the questions is whether you wish to challenge the traditional three stage life model:  grow up – work – retire. This is the first mountain mindset. One of the problems with this model can be finding sustained purpose, particularly in the retirement phase. We know purpose is key to long-term health and well-being: Having purpose has been linked to a number of positive outcomes, including better sleep, fewer strokes and heart attacks, and a lower risk of dementia, disability and premature death.

Bethesda Row, Bethesda, Maryland: An example of a walkable mixed-use development that naturally brings people together

The Importance of Place in Ascending the Second Mountain

If you choose to challenge this existing three-stage life model, one of the next questions becomes are you in the right place to climb the second mountain? We are all impacted by the prevailing culture around us. Are you around others who are climbing their second mountain who can help and encourage you? In the case of David Brooks, when he decided to climb the second mountain, he realized he needed to broaden his circle of friends that shared this interest and he was fortunate to be able to find them in his existing metropolitan area.

Physical space matters, too. Do you reside in a home that is too far removed from connecting with others? Are you in a place that naturally brings you in contact with others? We have seen the benefit of creating spaces that make it easier to connect people, including across ages.

Tips on Creating Community

Brooks concludes his book with a series of recommendations to help build community. These steps include:

  1. Make a Commitment. Building a community, like a relationship, is a slow, complex process and requires that you are present and engaged.
  2. See Neighborhood as the Unit of Change. Building community involves seeing the neighborhood, not the individual, as the essential unit of change. Here, a swimming pool metaphor fits: You can’t clean only the part of the pool you are swimming in.
  3. Convene. People need to get together regularly to get to know one another. Potlucks, front porch gatherings, block parties and weekly gatherings over meals are good examples.
A Weekly Meal organized by All Our Kids, a D.C. Based Organization (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

A Transformative Decision