Read Paul Born's latest book:
Read Paul Born's latest book:
Recently I had the opportunity to connect with a group of seniors at the Village of Winston Park. This is a retirement community in Kitchener and I must say I was blown away by how nice their space was. When I walked though it, I felt like I was walking down the street in some Italian city. I think how we design our spaces has a big impact on the type of community that forms. This space has a very positive feel to it that invites interaction.
When I walked into the room for the conversation, I was blown away by how many people were waiting for me. The small room was packed with over forty seniors all eagerly awaiting me. I quickly broke them down into smaller groups and many of them dug eagerly into the questions.
It is always interesting engaging with seniors; they have such a wealth of experience and stories that flavour every conversation. At the same time, they wrestle with barriers and challenges that many of us younger folk do not often face. This includes mobility and hearing impairments. Despite these challenges, I was impressed with their energy and vigour with these questions.
Many seniors told stories with vivid detail of experiences of community they had in their youth. Common themes that came up were sports and camp. Several people talked about how these were some of their favorite memories of community, playing games together. Some of the bonds formed through these teams and clubs lasted well into their adult life.
Another common theme was that of war. Several of the men and even a couple of the women were war veterans from WWII and Korea. There is something about war that builds deep experiences of community. When I asked them to unpack this, they talked about how it was a combination of spending every waking minute together, being forced to put their lives in each others' hands and being forced to be completely vulnerable with each other. There is something about looking into the deep abyss together that forms a unique bond of community. I have heard it said that in the face of such overwhelming pain and danger, all that a community can do is laugh together. It is the only sane thing to do in such an insane situation.
To this point, many people stated that a key common theme was essential to anchoring a community. If there is no common theme that holds people together, like a sport or a war, then what is there to come together about ? The deeper this common theme, the stronger the community.
Another key point was the idea of regular interaction. When we talked about the community at Winston Park, many talked about how they had a strong sense of community that was fostered by regular opportunities to spend time together. Here I think it is important to tip my hat to Rebecca and the rest of the program staff, because it is the weekly events they organize like bingo and jeopardy that several seniors cited as watering holes for interaction. It was also cool to see that through this community discussion, a couple new people were invited to join in and encouraged to participate in these weekly highlights.
Because of their wealth of experience, it is always interesting to talk with seniors about how they have seen community change. Their response to this question can be summed up with one word: speed. The world has become so fast. This can be found most prominently in the youth who do everything in fifth gear. They walk fast, talk fast, eat fast and try to build community fast. I was actually given a hard time for the speed at which I spoke to the group. But this speed makes it difficult for people to build community. It takes time and presence to build community. If you are going 50 miles an hour all the while multi-tasking, it is really hard to build community.
There is one more theme that one of the groups explored that I found particularly fascinating. That is the difference between community building in a small town vs. the city. This can be illustrated best by two stories told by members of this group.
One of the ladies in the group was from a small town, she talked about how in her town there was a yearly fundraisning fish fry organized by one of the local clubs. She went every year as did hundreds of others from the community. That is just what you did, you supported each other.
Contrastingly, one of the men in the group was part of the Optimist Club in Hamilton. His group used to organize events as well, but they often found that only their wives and a few friends would show up. When I asked him about this, he said that in the city it is hard to get your information out so others can know and participate.
In cities, there are more people in a smaller areas. In theory, this means that there should be more opportunities for human interaction, connection and community. In practice however, community is most often identified with the country and small towns. I think this has a lot to do with a point made earlier, speed. Cities have a fast pace about them, people are always on the move. This makes it harder to get people to slow down and pay attention. There is also a lot more competition for people's attention.
As more people move from small towns into cities, it will be important for us to find ways to build strong and vibrant communites in these centers.
Seniors have so much to teach us, with their years of experience and wisdom. So often, though, we rush past them with the frenetic pace of our busy lives. It is imperative that we start to slow down and listen to the wisdom of our elders.