Community as a Technical Term

Community as a Technical Term

The word “unprecedented” has been used a lot during the pandemic. Nearly 75% of public companies reporting their earnings in the spring used this word, including IBM which used it seven times. Google Trends shows that searches for the word have spiked about five times higher than ever before. That is unprecedented.

The fact is that words and their definitions matter. Excessive use dilutes significance. Broad definitions water down meaning. The word unprecedented may have already lost its power.

A Proper Definition of Community            

Consider “community.” According to Webster’s, community is a “unified body of individuals such as people with common interests living in a particular area.” Master plan developers routinely describe subdivisions as communities. Apartment developers do the same for apartments. I’ve even seen empty buildings described as communities by their creators. Has the use and definition of community become too broad?

What if community had a narrower definition? According to Charles Vogl in his book, The Art of Community, community is defined as a “group of individuals who share a mutual concern for one another’s welfare.” This definition would limit the word’s use and give it more significance.

The pandemic has been a reminder that community – the more technical definition – is critical for wellbeing. People with strong social connections have better immune systems, better brain health, and they sleep better. This definition of community is more involved than simply living in an area with people with shared interests.

Gated community
Does this gated community deserve to be called a community? (Source: RealManage)

Do You Live in a Community?

Do you live in a place where others care for you and, just as important, you care for others? As Warren Buffet says, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” The pandemic has likely revealed the truth on whether you have community or not. If you don’t, it is not necessarily a simple fix.

Community doesn’t just happen. It takes work and relies on reciprocal relationships. It’s one thing to recall the name of your neighbor, but a completely different thing to truly know your neighbor. And, it’s rare: only about a quarter of Americans purport to know all or most of their neighbors. When you know your neighbors, you’re informed about ways to support them. Equally important is for neighbors to get to know you. There’s a level of mutual vulnerability.

It takes time. For nine years, we lived in a neighborhood that is a community. People know each other and are quick to help and receive help. It is a natural back and forth. No one keeps score. A year ago, we moved to a new neighborhood and we are in the process of determining whether it will be a community for us. Our daughter recently delivered care packages to older adults in our neighborhood. I was encouraged when she received a call from a recipient to say thank you and also to see how she was faring. This is mutual concern.

Capitol Hill neighborhood
Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C. has a reputation for strong community (Source: The Wandering Road)

Building & Finding Community

If you don’t have community, there are two options: build or join.

Charles Vogl provides tips for community builders. His seven principles include: boundary, initiation, rituals, temple (or place), stories, symbols and inner rings. Vogel’s advice is important because, unlike a passive building, a community is active and changing. It requires investment and leaders to get involved. Community can’t be taken for granted. Places change as do the cultures around them.

An alternative to building community is to join one. There may be opportunities to engage in your area by joining a neighborhood association, connecting into a faith community or volunteering at a local school. In some cases, however, a search for community may require moving.

Finding community can be an important but challenging issue for older adults, particularly when their current home lacks social connection. Jill Vitale-Aussem, CEO of the Eden Alternative, is an expert in creating community for older adults. In her recent book, Disrupting the Status Quo of Senior Living, she highlights that too often senior living errs on the side of safety, like a hospital, or on service like a hotel. It’s not that safety and service are unimportant – particularly during a pandemic – but these approaches often don’t adequately engage the human side. True communities require active engagement where people act as citizens, not patients or consumers. Older adults searching for community need to look far beyond websites and marketing collateral to get a sense of whether a particular senior living location is a community or just a building serving older people.

Use the Narrow Definition of Community

Be on the lookout for “community.” Ask yourself whether the term is properly applied. In my experience, the claim of community is often unsubstantiated. Community anchored in mutual concern is a good thing for your health at all times, but particularly when the next unprecedented event hits.

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Places change - New York City

Places Change

The coronavirus epidemic has highlighted the importance of place in our lives. Certain countries have been able to contain the outbreak and lower fatality risks associated with the disease. Others have not. In the U.S., we have seen a wide range of outcomes within regions, states and metropolitan areas. In a number of respects, our individual health has had more to do with where we live than how well we practice social distancing.

Places, like people, are not static. They change. Sometimes imperceptibly, other times more obviously. Sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. And, given the fact that where you live matters, ensuring that you are in a spot appropriate for you, particularly as you age, may not be a simple exercise.

Uncertainty of Urban Environments

Take urban environments. I have a friend in her 70s living in the Northeast, who traded a bucolic, suburban lifestyle for an active, urban one. Her suburban life required a car, and she felt socially isolated as she increasingly knew fewer of her neighbors. Her move into a downtown apartment allowed her to walk to various amenities and regularly participate in social events, including seeing nearby friends and family.

Then covid hit. Her place changed dramatically. She has been confined to her apartment and has been unable to meet new acquaintances or see friends and family. She has also felt less safe, with protesting and riots near her home.

While these current conditions may be temporary until the epidemic subsides, there may be lasting changes to urban environments that make living there less compelling. Remote work has been surprisingly productive. Most large companies have not seen any productivity loss and more than quarter have reported a productivity increase. Researchers speculate that nearly half of companies may allow as many as 40% of their employees who switched to remote work during the pandemic to continue doing so after the crisis, at least in part. Fewer workers downtown may result in less congestion, but it also translates to less demand for restaurants and various amenities that help create the energy of cities, as well as a critical loss of tax revenue for city services.

Percentage change in murder and robbery from 2019 to 2020

Safety may become a greater issue for cities, too. For years, crime has fallen dramatically in the U.S. Since 1993, crime in urban environments has fallen nearly 60%. However, in 2020, there has already been a noticeable uptick in crime in various large cities across the country. No doubt, recent rioting contributes to these figures, and this activity may be more of a moment in time than a trend. However, as author and urban studies professor Joel Kotkin points out, “Safety is a prerequisite for urban growth. I can’t see how cities can thrive if they’re unsafe.” Safety, even just its perception, is perhaps even more important as we age.

Given these challenges, coupled with the high cost of living in large cities, more people may opt to live in smaller cities or more dense suburban areas that provide some of the urban lifestyle benefits but without some of the current drawbacks of larger urban environments.

Places Where Healthy Aging is Getting Easier

If certain urban areas may be getting more difficult, where is it getting easier? The network of age-friendly states and communities can be a guide. There are nearly 500 communities covering nearly 1/3 of the country that have signed up for a process to make themselves age-friendly through an assessment, planning, implementation and evaluation. This process can lead to a number of potentially valuable interventions, ranging from better transportations options, improved housing and more age-friendly infrastructure in general, including dedicated walking and biking areas.

Places where healthy aging is getting easier tend to benefit from strong political leadership and available resources for older adults. Cities with strained budgets or other high priority issues, including public safety, may simply not have the bandwidth to make their places work better for an aging population. The Milken Institute’s Mayor’s Pledge is encouraging civic leaders to commit to purposeful, healthy aging at the metropolitan level and is another resource to identify leading places.

Springfield, MA
Springfield, MA has been focused on various age-friendly initiatives (Source NextAvenue via josepha/Flickr)

Springfield, MA, a city with a population of about 150,000, is an interesting example of a city that is operating on all cylinders as an attractive place for older people.  In this case, a mayor is helping to create a momentum for the city and bring together various stakeholders. It is the first city to complete the age-friendly trifecta: Age-Friendly City, Age-Friendly Health System and Dementia-Friendly city.

Implications

Pay attention. See what’s happening in your current environment. If it is becoming better as you age, appreciate your good fortune. If it the environment is getting more difficult, see what you can do to mitigate its effects. It may even become an opportunity to get to know your neighbors better. As crime became a greater concern in our old neighborhood, neighbors banded together to walk the streets and create a text thread for regular communication. This intervention helped.

If you are considering a move to a new place, it is valuable not just to get a sense of how it is today but, perhaps more importantly, in what ways is it changing and how quickly. It is also worth considering how sensitive a new place could be to sudden changes, such as with pandemics and climate change. This research is well worth doing.

We’ve learned a lot from the pandemic. It’s been a reminder of the importance of place. But it’s also a reminder of how our places can change for the worse, and quickly. Best to be prepared.

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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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Physical Distancing with Social Connection, Not Social Distancing

Physical Distancing with Social Connection, Not Social Distancing

One of my closest friends, Mike, lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two young kids. Several months ago, Mike’s mom, a widow, moved a few blocks away, in part to spend more time with her grandkids. “Gramsie” volunteers at their school, ventures with them on city excursions and regularly shares family meals. However, with the coronavirus, these activities have been suspended. Indefinitely. She and they are practicing social distancing. But all still crave connection. So they’re improvising. Over the last few days, she has been reading books to her grandkids over FaceTime. If this crisis continues, she may even need to channel her old school teacher ways and provide some home schooling via video conference from her apartment. I know Mike, like many parents in his spot, juggling kids at home and attempting to work from home, would appreciate the relief. Gramsie will no doubt relish the social company of her grandchildren.

Social distancing – the practice of maintaining a distance between people, typically at least six feet, and minimizing in-person social encounters — may be a key in “flattening the curve” of COVID-19. In the absence of a vaccine, containment coupled with widespread testing are our best bets to minimize the impact of the pandemic.

However, we can do better than social distancing. We need physical distancing. And with it, a very large dose of social connection at the same time. Some are calling this remote connecting.

Take older adults, for example. There are currently about 45 million people 65 years or older, and about a quarter live alone. Studies show that more than 40% feel lonely at least some of the time. Both social isolation and loneliness are linked to a myriad of health risks ranging from depression to heart disease to strokes and more. These are the facts prior to the pandemic. Social distancing will likely make this worse, particularly given that older adults face the dual threat of isolation coupled with the anxiety of a disease that hits their demographic the hardest.

But the risk of social distancing holds true for all of us. Particularly as more measures of disease containment increase to a complete lockdown, or sheltering in place, we will all struggle with the ability to connect with others on a regular basis. It might be hardest for Millennials who are cited as the loneliest group according to a recent Cigna study, or it could be for Gen Xers like Mike, who are squeezed managing their young families at home while attempting to be productive working from home.

Collectively, we’re all going to have to do something about it. We’re going to have to change our behaviors even more than we may initially realize. We need to practice physical distancing with a heavy dose of connection. Fortunately, even though it’s just been a few days of this new reality, we’re already seeing some good examples.

Kids playing their instruments to a self-quarantined older adult neighbor (Source: YouTube)

How about the kids in Ohio who sought out an older neighbor and played their instruments at a safe distance to bring her joy? Or Italians spontaneously singing from their balconies?

My friend, Joy Zhang, is the co-founder of Mon Ami, a venture-backed start-up marketplace that links college students with older adults for social visits. They are tackling the risks of social isolation and loneliness through intergenerational connections. During this current time, they have turned virtual. They have developed a volunteer phone bank to connect isolated older adults with those who wish to call on them.

Alex Smith, a current Encore Public Voices Fellow (Joy and I were part of the initial cohort last year), is getting creative with his efforts to combat loneliness in the UK. His organization, The Cares Family, is tackling loneliness at the present with a combination of technology, such as Zoom and Skype calls, with physical postcards and poems sent by younger people to older adults.

In Canada, the term #caremongering has been trending. What started as a way to help vulnerable people in Toronto has spread throughout the country with more than 35 Facebook groups set up in less than three days encompassing tens of thousands of people. The purpose is to link people who can help with those who need it.

We’ve seen the same thing in our neighborhood in Austin. Nextdoor has been the primary social media vehicle. People are virtually reaching out to neighbors – in some cases for the first time – to see how they can be helpful doing necessary errands. It’s a tech savvy area so it’s not uncommon for people in their 80s to be connected and active. Given that it’s an area that likes to bar-b-que, one of the neighbors has volunteered to cook and deliver BBQ food.

A neighbor offering his BBQ skills for the neighborhood (Nextdoor)

These stories, and plenty of others that we don’t know about, are uplifting at such a critical time. And what’s so important is, while we’re most concerned about our individual and family’s health, these are examples of people reaching out to people outside of their immediate network. This is what contributes to the healthy social fabric of our communities.

But it doesn’t have to stop there. With the ease of today’s technology, we can reach out and virtually connect with people beyond our neighborhood and networks. Maybe it is a time to engage in sites like Mon Ami and make sure people are covered both near and far.

We also need to recognize that some means of communication are more enriching than others. According to former Surgeon General and author of Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Vivek Murty, “Video conferences and phone calls are more rich than texting or emailing alone.” Let’s err on the side of using the video conferencing apps even if we’re having a bad hair day.

Social distancing is markedly better than no social distancing. But we’re far better employing physical distancing with a heavy dose of social connection. Pick up your phone, use your video chatting app or your instrument, and do your part. We’ll all be better for it now and on the other side of this crisis.

Unfortunately, we’re likely in for a long, bumpy ride, but let’s make it an opportunity to bring us all together for the better. Who knows, maybe a person you reach out to would love to virtually read to your kids or, better yet, might be able and willing to remotely home school your kids. Maybe this an opportunity for you and your family to gain a virtual Gramsie.

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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 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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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.