I’ve been thinking a lot about community, maybe because it seems to be fraying across the country, and maybe because this is the time of year when we most want to be with family, whether it’s our biological tribe or one we created.
I grew up in a large family, so a holiday celebration like Thanksgiving consisted of my parents, my six siblings and my grandparents sitting around a large table laden with food. I know there are families who still get together like that, but most of my friends have created alternatives. If you never had children or your only son lives too far to get home for the holidays, then invite all your friends over—and maybe the next-door neighbors who don’t have any close relatives.
As older people, we share several challenges in creating community. Most of us are retired, so we’ve lost our comrades in labor. As a journalist, I worked with groups of people with shared ideals. That sharing didn’t end after we made our deadlines; often we would go out for drinks after we put the newspaper to bed for the night. But once I retired, that community was gone, although I’ve been lucky to maintain several of those friendships.
For those of us who never had children, we don’t have the instant community that is created by having grandchildren, in-laws and other assorted relatives. My sister had a Thanksgiving dinner with her daughter, her husband and their children plus the husband’s father and his fiancee, and the husband’s mother and son, who himself brought his wife and two children. Without having to try, an instant network of 17 people was created (although not all of them were on speaking terms).
But I have friends who have figured out how to create their own families and communities. One friend and her husband have “adopted” neighbors who are failing in one way or another. They check on them, bring them food and even try to create friendships among these isolated people, which has not always been successful. Still, they persevere.
A recently widowed friend who never had children and whose siblings live elsewhere has joined forces with a nearby family. Denise grew up in rural town where her family was friends with another family of the same ethnicity. Fast forward some 40 years and one of the daughters of that family moved to Denise’s neighborhood in Denver, just a few blocks away. Though Denise is more than 15 years older than Janet, they became close friends. Equally as important, Denise bonded with Janet and her husband’s two young sons, even sharing with them her love of fly fishing, and essentially becoming a third parent. Now Denise is moving into an apartment basement in Janet’s house, where three generations will live together—not of the same family but one created from bonds just as strong.
Another friend, Gail, lost her husband five years ago. The two of them had spent their retirement years traveling across the country in their RV. Like Denise, she has no children; her biological family consists of one brother. But after her husband died, Gail made her own family by becoming friends with two other RVers—a man and a woman—and the three of them now travel together. And wherever they go, they’re part of a larger community of people who love their campers.
My friend Leslie and her husband raised their two children in a historic neighborhood lined with trees. But after she and her husband divorced and her adult children moved out, her highly desirable neighborhood didn’t make up for the fact that she was lonely. So Leslie moved into a high-rise apartment building filled with other seniors but also younger people, where companionship can be found just down the hall. She even joined the HOA board, taking part in all the pleasures and frustrations of governing, further enmeshing herself in the community.
Many people join book clubs, church or spiritual groups, or volunteer at food banks or thrift shops, forming webs of community that sometimes overlap. We build on what connections we have, extending them outward as far as they can go. I think it takes courage to rebuild our lives—after spouses die, after we leave the workplace, after losing friends to illness and death. But in this culture of distrust and alienation, it’s important to bind the world together again—person by person.