For twelve months we have been isolated, separated from family and friends because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sharing meals, holidays, and hugs with our children or grandchildren who do not live with us, attending civic meetings or religious services, gathering with our friends and neighbors — how often did we take these things for granted until we couldn’t?
As the months have passed, we have come to realize just how important daily in-person caring relationships and community involvement are to our happiness — how fundamental they are to our health and wellbeing. Most vulnerable have been older adults, especially those in long-term care facilities. But whether in their own homes or in a care facility, being physically isolated has been devastating.
I understand this. For years I have been telling the stories of seniors (the name they asked to be called) at Hope Meadows, an intergenerational neighborhood created in Illinois in the mid-1990s to meet the needs of children caught in the quagmire of foster care. Fundamental to this community was the belief that to be happy and fulfilled, to flourish, we need to be connected — to have in our daily life friends and family who understand us, care about us, and want to be with us. Bill Biederman and his wife Fran were the first seniors to move to Hope. Their story encapsulates this belief.
Bill moved to Hope Meadows at age 59. He loved to cook; his specialty was chili. He would make big batches of it and invite kids in for dinner. Bill also enjoyed fixing their bicycles. But most of all he just listened to their stories — sad and happy ones. He loved it when he would be in Walmart and a child from Hope, regardless of race, would come up to him and say, “Hi Grandpa” and give him a big hug.
In Bill’s words:
I’d mostly been sitting home feeling sorry for myself before we moved to Hope. I couldn’t work for fear of having another heart attack. Fran wanted to get me up and going again. Living here has done that. It’s giving me something to do. I’m helping these kids. There is a general loving and caring for each other here. The seniors take care of the children and vice versa.
Caption: A child stops to chat with Bill Biederman in the carport of his apartment at Hope Meadows. (Photo credit:
Bill died of a liver disease two months before his 67th birthday. In the weeks before his death, his neighbors and staff pulled together to support him. We would take Bill back and forth to the hospital 20 miles away; we collected medical equipment and furniture needed to enable him to remain at home; and we sat with him when Fran had to run errands. Recognizing that the end was near, one by one we came to say goodbye. Bill gave back until the end, telling each of us how much we meant to him. What a gift, but especially for the children who, before coming to Hope, had rarely heard words of gratitude or appreciation for just being themselves.
At his funeral two of Bill’s Hope grandchildren served as pallbearers, and another read a poem she and her mother had written titled Grandpa Bill. Later that day, kids gathered at the Hope community center and decided to write sympathy notes to Grandma Fran. In groups of three, they walked across the street to her house to deliver them. Here are just two, from brothers who were ages 14 and 12 at the time:
Dear Grandma Fran, I’m sorry that Grandpa Bill died. He was nice and funny. I enjoyed spending time with him. And we will always remember grandpa bill [sic]. And we will always keep him in our prayers.
Dear Grandma Fran, I want you to know that if you need anything you can call on me. I am very sorry for his death. If you need a liver or something, I’ll find you one. That’s all I can do. But anyway, if you want to talk about anything, you can call me. If you need help moving anything, call me.
Many years later, tears still come to Fran’s eyes when she thinks about these notes.
The Power of Human Connections
Social connectedness and community involvement are two of the most powerful determinants of health and wellbeing while loneliness hastens the declines that come with age. In my book Neighbors: The Power of the People Next Door, I tell many stories that reflect this truth.
Being deeply involved in this community as its director for ten years, I saw daily the joy seniors, parents, and the children brought to each other. While I was writing Neighbors, I contacted the spouses of several of the seniors who had passed away to confirm stories and reminisce. What they told about the power of human connections surprised me and made me realize I had more to learn.
Steve spent the last decade of his life at Hope. During that time he endured four serious strokes. Kathy, his wife, told me he had repeatedly said that the last ten years of his life were “the best years of my life.” I was astounded and asked, “How can that be?” “Because,” she replied softly, “he had so much to do, so many friends, and so many people who cared about him. His life was full and he felt truly blessed.” I had watched the health of many seniors at Hope decline during their last years of life, but never did I think these years would be, as many spouses told me, some of their “happiest” or “most fulfilling.” For them, a true and lasting sense of wellbeing resulted from being an integral part of a neighborhood where a culture of mutual caring and community involvement became a way of life.
Intergenerational Acts of Care and Kindness
In this time when we have too much discord, too many older adults leading lonely lives, too many abused or neglected children, too many overworked and overwhelmed parents, it is the caring intergenerational relationships seniors like Bill, Fran, Steve and so many others had that show us life does not have to be this way.
It is easy to forget just how essential to our own sense of wellbeing are the reciprocal acts of kindness that connect us every day, e.g. making cookies for neighbors, taking time to really listen, writing notes to let people know we care. As we consider how to support our seniors as we come through the pandemic and beyond, including those in long-term care facilities, we must not underestimate the significance of the everyday magic of these reciprocal intergenerational acts of care and kindness — acts that connect us, provide opportunities for community involvement, and frame the context for aging well.
Note: Essay adapted from Neighbors: The Power of the People Next Door (2019) and “Staying Connected as We Age” (Generations of Hope Development Corporation, 2014).
Author: Brenda Krause Eheart is an award-winning authority on Intentional Neighboring and the founder of Hope Meadows, a purpose-driven multigenerational community. It was her research while at the University of Illinois that led to the breakthrough idea to create intergenerational communities where vulnerable people can reengage within a supportive environment while also engaging in service to others. An inspiring worldmaker, Brenda has presented her work at our International Research Symposium and our annual Resilience Summit. We highly recommend Dr. Eheart’s book, Neighbors: The Power of the People Next Door, where she shares lessons from her decades of work to heal and strengthen vulnerable populations – alongside their neighbors. For more information, visit her website.