My grandmother’s life story relates to this. Well-educated from Hungary, she and her husband fled as refugees to New York City after World War Two with nothing but their suitcases Not knowing the language, they worked on an assembly line in a paper cup factory. My grandfather tragically died at a young age leaving my grandmother alone to raise their children. After a long career and many years saving, she finally achieved her goal of retiring in Florida. She lived the last 15 years in a retirement condominium where an excellent central management took care of yard work, pool maintenance and even arranged social events for the residents. Residents could theoretically live a life of ease. She had achieved her retirement dream, so I thought.
After my grandmother died, I was helping move out her belongings. I came across a book where she had highlighted some passages. The passage described the author's sense of void from her meaningless retirement community life playing cards and wiling way the time without relatives nearby and without a sense of purpose.
My charming and gregarious grandmother never complained and I always assumed she was entirely happy in her retirement with her retirement village buddies. So this made me think completely differently and with sadness about her later years.
The cohousing lifestyle contrasts to a retirement home life of luxury. In cohousing, everyone, including the retired, cooks and participates in workshare. Even if they can afford to hire others, they do the work for themselves and their neighbors. There is more effort but there is also more reward. By helping their neighbors and in return being helped, they connect with every neighbor, even those that aren’t necessarily friends. And friendships takes an even greater dimension by working together for the greater good of the community.
We live a purposeful life by helping others. As Einstein stated above, we are here primarily for the sake of others. Our main life purpose might be volunteering or mission-oriented career. But we gain a bonus extra meaning in our lives when we also contribute to the lives of the people immediately around us.
I'm writing this at 34,000 feet on my flight to the 2016 Aging in Place conference hosted by Coho/US in Salt Lake City. I like in-flight wi-fi ! ; but I digress...
The topic of Aging in Place got me thinking about the benefits of living in community as we get older. I think of my former neighbor, Betty, who in her vibrant 80s was an active contributing member and cook for the community. Then she broke her hip. Such a setback at that age could easily have sent her to the nursing home. But her neighbors rallied and took turns bringing her meals until she recovered. She lived quite a while longer in that setting than she could have, living alone.
Similarly, the neighborhood recently helped another beloved neighbor as she was recovering from cancer. Key to both of their successes was that they were contributing community members before they got sick. Their years of contributing to the community resulted in appreciation by others who were more than happy to help them in their time of need.
One shouldn't move to a cohousing neighborhood when 85 and frail expecting to be immediately cared for by neighbors who are yet strangers. Contributing to a community while a still active 75 year old has an even more important benefit: a life-extending sense of purpose and belonging.
I'll close on a negative today. A couple months ago, I took the above picture of an assisted living facility in Crozet. Typical to these places, there are hardly any outdoor spaces for the residents. They’re stuck inside in air-conditioning. And outside are just parking lots and the plain grassy field depicted above. Don't people want to enjoy lovely outdoor spaces when they are old as well!? Cohousing contributes a beautiful community both personally and physically for young and old alike.
The above title is tongue-in-cheek but true!
More often than not, after our college days, we become decidedly less social because of all the work to keep up a social life. This is not just because we are busier, but also because of our physical separation. Generally, we can’t just walk outside and be amongst friends like in college. Our car-centric lifestyle has forced our social lives to be more proactive. There’s planning involved before inviting people over. We have to get on peoples' schedules.
More spontaneous socializing happens when people live closer together with pleasant outdoor spaces to congregate.
Imagine a summer early evening in a small rural fishing village. It can be anywhere in the world - be it Southern Europe, Latin America, Asia or Africa. With the aroma of grilled fish in the air, the men and women of the village socialize outside after their hard day while children run around. This happens in the United States, too, when the car is out of the picture and there are nice outdoor spaces to congregate. It's often when not everyone can afford a car. You see neighbors enjoying each others' company outdoors.
It's the same in cohousing neighborhoods. Commonly after work and in nice weather you see a few neighbors sitting on their porches or in a common areas. Eventually more neighbors join them. People bring out drinks and snacks. Someone pulls out a barbeque. Kids run around. Suddenly, you have spontaneous block party with no prior planning. It's the way people have lived for thousands of years and can enjoy today as well.
[Photo: Damian Morys, Creative Commons]
Have you ever felt a “feeling” of loneliness that seems physical and tangible?
Similar to the feeling of hunger, it seems the loneliness feeling serves an evolutionary need: We feel hungry so that we eat and don’t die. Likewise, we physically feel lonely so that we make connections with each other and we can collectively thrive.