CHICAGO — When real estate agent Kate McClelland moved into her craftsman style bungalow in Mayfair 10 years ago, she had no idea it would turn out to be a such a great spot for her. A long-term suburbanite, she moved to the Far North Side area after a divorce, having never lived in the city. The move proved fortuitous.
"I ended up with neighbors on either side of me that sort of decided that they were going to help take care of me," McClelland said. "There was an adult son and his elderly father living on one side of me and an elderly mother with an adult son living with her on the other side of me and they've all been in the neighborhood since the '60s."
The son of one neighbor helps her clear the snow with his snow blower, so she doesn't have to shovel. A neighbor down the street makes it a point to text her when she has a package on her porch or when her daughter's vehicle is parked in the wrong area on street cleaning day. And the care is reciprocated. McClelland has raked leaves in a neighbors' yard when doing her own. She has given baked goods to neighbors when she's stress-baking and bonded over political signs with the young couple down the street. She doesn't envision herself moving anytime soon.
"The neighbors on my block watch out for each other," she says of her neighborhood. "It's like a microcosm of the melting pot of Chicago and everybody gets along."
Neighbors can impact one's happiness. According to a 2018 AARP Foundation study that explores the relationship between loneliness and social connections, getting to know one's neighbors can help reduce the former condition. While age and urbanicity are factors of loneliness, 61% of adults aged 45 and older who have never spoken to a neighbor are lonely, compared with 33% of those who have spoken to a neighbor.
"I think that people have different ideas, depending on what their experience has been about what neighbors are good for, what they're bad for, and how much attention to pay to them," said Julienne Derichs, a Highwood-based licensed, clinical professional counselor. "One of the things that surrounds us all the time is our environment, so if you feel disconnected in your environment, that does impact happiness. What we know about happiness is when people are connected with other people, their levels of happiness go up."
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Alex Smith, founder and CEO of The Cares Family, a U.K.-based organization whose mission is to reduce loneliness across generational divides in communities, said the disconnect with neighbors is prevalent in his country and his hometown of Camden Town as well. It's why he started the organization in 2011.
"We know that it's important to connect with our neighbors, but the space to do so is diminishing," Smith said. "It's the pace of the big city. One of the things that makes big cities amazing are there are people and cultures from every corner on earth and that draws people as well as the economic and cultural opportunities, but that same transience and speed in the city is what is increasingly leaving people feeling left out, left behind and lonely."
Maria Diaz and Roland Stewart, residents of the South Loop's Roosevelt Icon Lofts, became friends after they moved into the multi-unit building in 2015. The third-floor neighbors are retirees and make a point to do activities together like movies or dinner. Stewart says as he's gotten older, he's realized sociability matters. It has been difficult getting to know other neighbors in the building due to their work schedules, so he makes it a point to make meaningful connections outside the building while enjoying the city. Diaz, however, attends activities the building's leasing office organizes and connects with her neighbors at those events.
"I think in a dwelling like Roosevelt, you have more chances of connecting with someone," she said. "Mind you, there are some people who like to be by themselves. They like their quiet time. But being in this setting, I have choices: If I want to stay alone, I'll stay alone, but if I want to socialize, I'll socialize. That's the pluses of a building like this; you see these people all the time and they tend to open up more to you."
Neighbor relationships can keep a resident in a neighborhood despite life changes, McClelland attests. She's seen Buena Park residents who have a life change (a new baby), refuse to leave because their sense of belonging and connection to their neighbors is tangible.
"We don't always like to be around people, but we do always want people to be around," Smith said. "Relationships lift us up, particularly in times of challenge and times of change, but somehow our economies have prioritized what's efficient over what's important and the spaces for people to interact face to face meaningfully; to spend time to pause, reflect, have conversations about their days — those spaces are the ones which are feeling squeezed."