When Kate McClelland moved into her Craftsman-style bungalow 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 into the city after a divorce. 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 snowblower, 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 helped raked leaves in a neighbors' yard. She has given baked goods to neighbors when she's stress-baking, and she 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 said.
Neighbors can affect one's happiness. According to a 2018 AARP Foundation study that explored 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 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 clinical 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."
Alex Smith, founder and CEO of the Cares Family, a British-based organization whose mission is to reduce loneliness across generational divides in communities, said the disconnect is growing.
"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."
Chicago residents Maria Diaz and Roland Stewart became friends after they moved into a multiunit building in 2015. The third-floor neighbors are retirees and make it a point to do activities together like movies or dinner. Stewart said that as he's gotten older, he's realized sociability matters. Diaz agreed, but added that respecting a person's privacy is important, too,
"There are some people who like to be by themselves," she said. "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."
Smith said that sometimes just knowing that you have access to other people is enough.
"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."
Smith encourages individuals to recognize the agency they have within their own communities to combat some of those difficulties, and interact with other people who may not be like them on day-to-day basis.
Derichs added that simply making eye contact, smiling and saying "hello" when you see your neighbors will bring about an opportunity to connect with them.
"It's the micro-moments that we have in life that bring us happiness," she said.