Neighbourly Blogs

It’s time to reconnect with those around us.

By Alison Brook
National Executive Officer, Relationships Australia
July 19 2017

The terrible discovery in Sydney this week of the deaths of an elderly man and his disabled wife for whom he was carer is a timely reminder of the importance of community connectedness and strong relationships with neighbours.

Without raking over the coals of this tragic story, it reminds us that most of us live near people who are vulnerable. It’s also our individual responsibility to connect with those around us and create communities that are caring and compassionate in a practical way.

If we think that the boundaries of our social obligations finish at the fenceline or shared walls of our respective homes, then the entire community will be deprived of a richness of mutual sharing and service that is available to us all.

It does not take much to reach out to an elderly neighbour.  While the greatest risk is that you may be brusquely rebuffed, it may well be that an offer to look out for them, or to have a weekly cup of tea with them transforms their later years – and helps them to feel cushioned by a sense of safety and belonging in their own homes.

Neighbour Day encourages people to connect with others in their apartment buildings, neighbourhoods or farming communities.  There are resources on the Neighbour Day website to help you break the ice on any day of the year.

Additionally, Relationships Australia (who sponsors the Neighbour Day campaign) has an elder relationships service available in many cities and regional areas around Australia to help families resolve an issue relating to an elder member.  The service, at its most fundamental, is a facilitated family meeting, enabling the family members to come to a common agreement (often about the care of the elder) in an emotionally safe way.  We also work therapeutically with family members during that process to enable them to function effectively and caringly into the future.

It is available to all of us to connect with others in our neighbourhoods to create thriving communities where the vulnerable and elderly feel safe to reach out.  There are also services available to our own families at times of crisis and change to enable us to continue to work and live together in ways that support our elderly family members.

Cyclone Debbie: The human stories

As a large continent, Australia has a range of extreme storms in different climatic areas, some seasonal and others described as a ‘one in [select a number]’ year events.  Although these descriptors seem clinical and dry, the events themselves are anything but regular in the lives of those people living in the path of the storm.

Cyclone Debbie recently had a serious impact on a broad area in Queensland and NSW – and was an excellent example of this:  while it was not the most severe of cyclone categories when it hit Australian soil (then downscaling quickly to a ‘tropical low’ storm), the damage wrought has been measured in billions of dollars, a non-emotive way to calculate and describe the severity of the disaster.  The calculations have been based on the estimated value of crops lost, fencing down, stock drowned, insurable claims and the value of non-insured losses.

I’m not sure how that data sounds to others, but to me (though ‘billions’ do sound a lot), it is what has happened to families and their communities – the human stories – that demonstrate the real loss.  The tragic loss of life.  The loss of family history through ruined photographs, heirlooms and personal treasures.  The loss of a family home that has witnessed a generation or more of laughter, tears, triumphs and tragedies.  The fatigue and grief of cleaning up and starting again.

And it is not just the impact of storm (or floods, or fires) on those who are living in its path.  There are the professional emergency services, emergency volunteers, defence personnel, electricity grid contractors, who work around the clock in the immediate lead up to, and aftermath of, such events.  These are often people living in the same communities they are working to save.  There are countless stories of volunteers losing their homes at the time they are working hard to save others’.  The impact on these people is enormous.

It is no coincidence that, as part of the sadness, anger and frustration that sets in after floods have flowed away and emergency services stood down, the incidence of family violence spikes.  This only adds to the trauma and further erodes a family’s resilience and ability to recover.

As I reflect on Debbie, having just read about her ongoing fury – this time impacting on communities in New Zealand – many people in Eastern Australia are still hurting.  Badly.

Some towns will observe rituals where floods and wind have taken lives of loved family members and neighbours.  Funerals will be held.  In one village in Northern NSW, a community will focus their grief on the coffins of one brave mother and two of her children she died trying to save.  Schools will hold memorial assemblies.  Tears will be shed, hugs will be tighter – their sad hold lingering while each gathers strength from the other.  And yet…

And yet, we all know that these communities will recover.  Neighbours will help neighbours.  Local councils (staffed by each town’s neighbours) will provide support and recovery services.  Someone will hose off and start their barbecue and encourage others to join them for a bit of downtime over a sausage and cold drink.  Stories will be swapped.  Sympathies exchanged.  Kids will step up beyond their young years in their will to be helpful to their families and others close by.  There will be countless kindnesses offered and received in every affected street and town.  In some cases, Debbie’s aftermath will see communities closer than they were before she furiously visited and left.

The value of neighbours, of belonging to a place, of caring for others and being cared for by others – these are universal values and have incalculable benefit.  They’re values that are not front-of-mind most of the time.  But when much is suddenly lost, young and old lives swept away, when material goods are irreparably damaged, when there is a long, hard slog ahead to put homes to rights:  that’s when neighbours are key.  When we know we are not alone.  When we find the energy after sweeping out tonnes of mud from our own homes to lend a hand next door.  This is when we know others are in the same boat and that it takes each community member’s best efforts to renew their sense of ‘us’.

Neighbour Day is a national movement aimed at reminding people of the value of forging good relationships with the people living around them.  There are many, many benefits, individually and collectively, of having strong social capital in all our neighbourhoods.  What is really exciting is that it is in every person’s capacity to help build that capital.  Though the capital cannot be measured in dollar terms, its value is realised in the real richness it brings to every community member when times are tough and the chips are down.

Small kindnesses from many

There have been many times in the past couple of years when I have been asked why Relationships Australia decided in 2013 to take on the annual Neighbour Day campaign.  My response has been that Neighbour Day is about the importance of healthy relationships within communities, and about the promotion of good mental health. Healthy relationships and good mental health are principal aims of Relationships Australia.

I have had an opportunity to reflect on changes to our way of life over decades, changes that mean good community relationships are less likely to occur organically in modern Australia. I reflected on the life of my own family as an illustration of the broader community – because if I have learned anything in this job, it is that people’s stories are powerful metaphors.

My grandmother lived in south-west Victoria all her life.  She was one of thirteen children and herself bore eight. Her life revolved around keeping hungry mouths fed, bodies clothed and caring for her extended family as well as others in the town when they needed nourishment and other help. My grandfather served in World War II and came back with what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. His capacity to earn a good income was limited. Today we would label the family as disadvantaged, and living under the poverty line.

Yet, when I think about my grandmother, I recall a real richness about her – her capacity to love many and the reciprocated love many had for her. That love was expressed in small kindnesses. A casserole wrapped in a towel and left on a doorstep. A batch of scones for a parish morning tea. Caring for a child when his parents were unable.

I recall her funeral. The church was packed. The whole town turned out to honour and farewell a marvellous life well lived. After her burial we were ushered into the church hall to find the local CWA had prepared a truly appropriate send-off: trestle table after trestle table groaning under platters of mouth-watering treats. Scones, cakes, lamingtons, slices, biscuits, pastries and pies – small kindnesses from many.

Small kindnesses from many. Is this a definition of healthy community?

I also reflect on the communities in which I have lived. I found almost no connection in an inner-city apartment, where residents felt a greater need for privacy than connection; suburban living where there was some connection and less privacy, and in a rural area where connection is strong, practical kindnesses many.

Inevitably, things have changed since my grandmother was a young woman raising a family. These include living and employment arrangements in many families where all adults are working for income outside the home, and where child care is provided by paid carers. Adults return at the end of each day tired and depleted. This leaves whole streets with most homes empty during daylight hours. Those who remain are often carers, people with disability, and the elderly. The elderly still living in their homes are left to their own devices except when social services visit, with sometimes lengthy periods between family visits. While this scenario is not the rule, it is common, and illustrates that a need for community connection is likely high and unmet.

In decades past, the local church was a community hub, a place from where social life emanated and social services coordinated. It was a place where children were welcomed into Sunday school, where teenagers met their partners, where adults married, procreated, aged and died. We know that attendance at Christian churches has declined in recent decades and that regular churchgoers are, in many instances, from an ageing demographic.

It is important to acknowledge and honour that we all live on land traditionally owned by the First Peoples of Australia, but it is the plethora of recently arrived cultures and religions that is a major change from my grandmother’s day. Reaching out to a neighbour from a different culture or who speaks a different language can be cause for extra shyness, reserve or even suspicion, and deter people from connecting with others in their neighbourhoods. In some communities, this very diversity has been embraced with dividends for all. One of Neighbour Day’s Very Neighbourly Organisations, the Welcome Dinner Project, brings families recently arrived to Australia into the homes of people who would like to extend a welcome but need a helping hand. Whichever way the hand of friendship is extended, through a wave, smile, cake, offer of help, a lift to the shop – it is the kindness that is universal and which may be transformational.

People living in neighbourhoods that are highly connected enjoy, overall, higher levels of physical and mental health, with the converse also true. 55% of people who ring Lifeline’s help line have been found to live alone and feel socially isolated and lonely. beyondblue’s research shows that lonely people are more likely to report symptoms of depression, are admitted to hospital more frequently, have higher blood pressure and are at a greater risk of heart attack than others. There has been much research into this – and a list of references to recent research can be found at the end of this blog.  While a friendly neighbour may not be the panacea, they may make a significant difference to someone’s wellbeing and appetite for life.

Relationships Australia, committed to the promotion of good relationships and excellent mental health, sees Neighbour Day as an ongoing opportunity to remind people about the importance of community connection in their lives as well as an individual responsibility on each person to create a well-connected neighbourhood. Small kindnesses from many.

This website contains resources and guidance to start connecting in your neighbourhood.  If you have other good ideas, or would like to feed into our understanding of community connection, please provide us with that feedback, and your story. It is the stories about real human connection at the local neighbourhood level that inspire all of us to rise above our reserve and knock on the door of the person down the road whose burden may be lightened, or even life transformed by that small kindness.

Alison Brook
National Executive Officer
Relationships Australia
And big fan of Neighbour Day

Link to research