Pathways to Friendship: COVID-19: Spending More Time Closer To Home Means Being Closer To Your Neighbors

In many ways our neighborhoods and communities look and feel very different today than they did twenty years ago. If you think of your parents’ connections in their neighborhoods, they are likely much greater than your own, and your grandparents’ neighborhood connections were likely even greater than your parents. Why is there such a generational switch in the general loss of neighborhood?

Introduction and reflection: Where do we find ourselves in 2020?

Our society has become faster paced than ever. Our day to day routines are often filled with a high level of activity and demands where most households have the necessity to have all adults working full-time hours. We spend less time at home, and we also rely heavily on social media, in many ways to stay connected with others. The combination of these factors has driven further disconnect between many people who live in close proximity. In fact, it is reported through multiple sources, that 1 in 4 people do not know their neighbors. More specific data from a survey conducted in March of 2020 on exploring neighbor relationships in the U.S. can be explored here, https://www.thezebra.com/resources/home/neighbors-survey/.

How does this trend impact us individually and as a community? Overall, being less engaged with our neighbors around us, seems to be connected to a steady decline in our feelings that people can be trusted in general. Despite the increases in our digital connections, loneliness and the related decline to our health and well-being continue to be statistics on the rise in our communities. For those who are at higher risk of vulnerability to isolation, such as elders and those who experience disabilities, these dynamics can make it challenging to build relationships within their own neighborhoods.

However, during pandemic times, our routines have shifted, and most people are spending more time at home, which does present a unique opportunity to become closer with our neighbors. How can we work together to make the most of this time, to develop relationships that will work to build a greater sense of neighborhood and community on the other side of this? This is a great time to remember the importance of home and neighborhood and explore ways we can reinvigorate this component within our culture.

How might we help people safely share with their neighbors what they have, or offer to help? Is there a way people can share skills, gifts, and call on one another to get through this together? Perhaps now is a time that we are more available and open to relate to one another, than we had been before in our typical fast- paced world. For those who live or work in human service settings, this presents an opportunity to lead the charge to renew a sense of community in your local neighborhood. Because although statistically the feeling and sense of community has been declining for all of us, the feeling of community and the importance of community are still just as valued as they ever were, as well as just as important in our lives.

A group of a dozen people gathered in November 2020, and we shared our personal experiences and thoughts as related to this topic.

We discussed the systemic issues that result in the likelihood that people with disabilities are not regularly included as part of their neighborhoods. During pandemic times, this presents more challenges with restrictions in visiting at some living environments, such as group homes. What can be done to get around this safely, so that people get to know their neighbors?

For those who experience disabilities, our history of segregation carries momentum in society and still is an overriding dynamic today. The very nature of residing in a group home environment can create obstacles to getting to know one’s neighbors. However, with some deliberate effort and practical initiation, building relationships between people with and without disabilities within their neighborhoods can be done.

Many people’s routines during this pandemic have shifted. Because more people are experiencing isolation and loneliness, many of us can better empathize with the situation of people who live in a setting composed entirely of other people with disabilities, such as group homes. While people may have more time, invitations to engagement may be received differently. The neighbors on the other side of the fence may be desperately wanting someone to ask them to engage, even if they aren’t aware of the possibility to have a relationship with someone with a disability.

Our discussion group came up with several examples of ways to deliberately get to know one’s neighbors. There are plenty of things that you can do to help people who are more vulnerable to isolation, such as those who experience disabilities, to get to know their neighbors.

Specific Strategies to Get Started:

  • Wave, smile, and say hello. This seems like a natural first step, but if we don’t make the first move, then nothing else will follow. Many people are walking more, as a safe activity to do outdoors. Get outside and plan to make greetings along the way. Set a goal to see how many neighbors you can get to know by name. Look for the opportunities to stop and smell the roses, pausing with an added compliment on your neighbor’s flowers while they are gardening. A simple conversation such as this could be the start of cultivating a connection. This could begin a relationship built upon sharing gardening tips, bulbs, and time together, that could blossom into a real friendship over time.
  • Handwritten and handmade. Sending cards along with contact information to neighbors is a friendly way to invite further connection. Personalization details on cards, that include a photo or artwork, can share someone’s gifts, talents, and help to build connection. We may have done this for family and close friends in an ordinary holiday season, but this year, push yourself to reach out to the neighbors who wouldn’t typically be on your holiday card list. Make this a deliberate step to expand contacts and connections.
  • Leaving notes can also be done throughout the year. A kind note left on your neighbors door or in their mailbox with a simple, “I am thinking of you,” or “Hello from your neighbor, ” may brighten someone’s day and open the door a bit further to sustain, deepen, and even build neighborly connections.
  • Bake and share. Baking fresh goods and sharing with a neighbor may seem like a bit of an old fashioned strategy, but it provides an opportunity to connect by sharing customs and traditions. One of our group shared an example how they used to prepare fresh braided bread for all of their neighbors and bake on Christmas morning, delivering while still warm. Through this conversation, they decided this year they will bring back this tradition. It will require preparation, and deliberation, but what a wonderful way to share kindness and Christmas spirit amongst neighbors. Sharing a meal, a treat, a recipe, or a craft with your neighbor would be a wonderful way to reach out.
  • Initiate outdoor physically distanced activities. Some of our group proposed hosting an outdoor movie, backyard yoga, yard games, or even playing cards with masks and disinfectant to be connected with neighbors. Outdoor coffee, cider, hot cocoa, and conversations, where people sit in their own driveways, yet still socialize, can overcome physical distance by maintaining social engagement.
  • Think outside the box. Many gifts and talents shared within a group home may be opportunities to share with neighbors. Perhaps there is a staff member who is wonderfully gifted in music or art, and organizes activities for the people who live within that home. Many neighbors are also looking for things to do, and this could present an opportunity to offer shared activities and invite others to join, even virtually to start. This has the potential to connect people over shared interests and build foundations for future connections. Perhaps there is a person who receives services who could host a virtual cooking class or paint night for neighbors to join. This approach would create a space designed specifically to bring people with and without disabilities together, to have fun, and to get to know one another as neighbors.

Our group also explored more deeply, how we can build valued roles close to home that would lead to in-person contact that may develop into friendship.

Strategies to Support Valued Roles:

  • Get involved and build community. Each neighborhood has unique needs, and when neighbors work together to solve a problem or make an improvement, relationships develop. Discovering what your neighbors are invested in, and what you share may help spark an idea, or create an opening for someone to become an ally in a shared project. A few examples included neighbors coming together to advocate for town tree removal, for a place for people to freely walk their dogs, or sharing resources for snow removal. What is “waiting to be born” in your neighborhood?
  • Be a “good neighbor.” Find ways to help those in need. What can you offer to share by way of resources or abilities? Perhaps picking up a few groceries for a vulnerable neighbor while you are going for groceries anyway. If someone is skilled in the use of technology, every neighborhood could certainly tap into a tech guru during these days of heavy reliance on computer use for work, school, and communication.
  • Be a caring neighbor. Do you know your neighbors’ birthdays? You could create a neighborhood birthday calendar and ask others to join in and share in celebrating one another. Birthday parades have become a newer tradition during these times of physical distancing. One of our group shared a story about neighbors who came together to organize a birthday parade for a woman who lived on her own. This woman was adamant that she wanted no part of celebrating, however when her whole neighborhood had arrived in a wave to celebrate her on her special day, she was overwhelmed with joy and appreciation.
  • Spread positivity. This is a challenging time for many, and we could all use a reason to stop and smile throughout our days. People have been getting creative in these times by organizing scavenger hunts in neighborhoods, where people seek to find treasures such as teddy bears in unique displays. There have been other movements that have gained popularity, such as “chalk your walk,” where people make creative chalk murals or quotes along their walk to inspire those that may follow in their footsteps. Kindness rocks are another project where people paint and leave rocks upon their path for others to take, contribute, and share. You may not make an instant neighborly connection as you participate in or lead such projects within your neighborhood, but you will be actively contributing to the happiness of others. To be known as the house with “the best holiday light display”, or to have gained the reputation as the “good neighbor among good neighbors”, enhances your probabilities for future friendly connections with those who live around you.
  • Connect with “the gatekeeper” in your neighborhood. In most neighborhoods there is a person who is the most connected to the other neighbors and the needs of the community. Introduce yourself or the person you support to this person, and ask their advice for becoming more connected with others in the neighborhood. This could lead you to become an active volunteer, organizer, fundraiser, or you may discover other ways to share interests and contributions through initiating and following up on this conversation.
  • Explore the volunteer opportunities and mutual aid efforts within the neighborhood. Sites such as volunteer match, https://www.volunteermatch.org/, have lists of opportunities to become involved locally and even virtually, even during this time. Contributions made could lead to future in-person connections. Participation in mutual aid efforts push us to think about what we all can do to support people with and without disabilities to safely contribute to build stronger communities and neighborhoods. These provide clear examples of people contributing directly during this crisis to serve others. For example, becoming involved deliberately in projects, such as mask making for others, not only is a great opportunity to fulfill a need, but it also has the potential to build or deepen relationships.
  • Start a neighborhood group. In some neighborhoods, people have banded together in voluntary neighborhood associations. If there are not already groups established, perhaps you could start a walking club, a book club, or a neighborhood photography club. A group member shared the idea of a “walking book club.” Members listen to books on tape while they walk, and then later connect on zoom to share book content and their walking encounters. Encouraging neighbors to share local photographs around the neighborhood may help bring people together over a shared activity, but also share the pride of the neighborhoods’ special beauties that perhaps may have been previously overlooked.

Together we asked one another, what neighborly actions could we commit to help someone we know with a disability to be a good neighbor? And also how could we be a good neighbor and also get to know someone with a disability and build community?

Strategies to Build Community:

  • Learn from neighborhoods that have enhanced their sense of community. One member shared their experience from living in a senior community that has intentionally brought back some of that “old neighborhood” feel. They bring people together safely through organized activities that encourage driveway dinner pickups, where people wear masks and physically distance, but are still brought together. We can learn from these settings and aim to replicate them in other neighborhoods and community spaces.
  • Online resources to support virtual connections are a practical way to get connected virtually to others, in a way that could lead to future in-person connections. The AARP has started a program specifically to connect isolated elders to their neighbors during COVID; https://connect2affect.org/. Depending on where you reside, there are many neighborhood apps available. Here is a link to explore some of the most common and popular sites used to connect with neighbors. https://newdream.org/blog/top-10-neighborhood-platforms-for-connecting-and-collaborating.
  • Get your local town or city involved to develop ways for citizens to connect. Most communities have town newsletters that could become a resource to support connections. Discuss the importance of connections with editors, town officials, and state representatives to help advertise events such as virtual block parties, Zoom tea times, or wine and cheese socials to get to know neighbors. Perhaps there may even be a dedicated “Community Connections Corner” established on a town or neighborhood association website to stay connected during these times of physical distance.
  • Look for partnerships. Local libraries, churches, and non-profits are looking for ways to keep people engaged during this pandemic. There are pen-pal programs and other efforts in supporting some level of engagement to be fostered between people across our communities. Become an active participant of this conversation with town leaders, clergy, activists, to bring people together to talk about what actions can be made for all people to be included and connected in meaningful ways to foster friendship and belonging, while prioritizing people who are most vulnerable to isolation.
  • The time to reciprocate is now. A group member pointed out that some people supported who experience disabilities may traditionally have benefited from the generosity of other people in their neighborhoods and in the community in the past. This would be a wonderful time to encourage people to be deliberate to reach out and reciprocate to others in this time of need, paying it forward, while strengthening and building relationships.
  • Make “the ask” by inviting someone directly to connect with someone you know with a disability. It may feel unnatural to make the first step and to initiate a neighborly ask to help build connections for yourself or someone you know with a disability, but the time is now, and we must persist past our hesitations and invite and recruit others to connect, share interests, and build relationships.

Final Thoughts to Remember:

Celebrate all of your efforts in building community along the way by supporting individual connections. Celebrate all of the invitations you are extending, and keep on making them. Building relationships between people with and without disabilities, takes leadership and persistence. Starting close to home within an individual neighborhood has great opportunity to have a positive cascading effect, with stronger communities on the other side of this where people know, care, and share in relationship with their neighbors. Through these challenging times of pandemic, we have the opportunity to build stronger neighborhoods, and reinvigorate our neighborly spirit. It is important for all people to be connected, and it is possible for people with and without disabilities to be connected as neighbors, and as friends.

These have been hard times for all of our communities, but this is also an unprecedented opportunity for those of us in the world of disability to create the spark to regenerate community for us all.

Article by Katie Driscoll.

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