Everybody needs good neighbours

By Ruth Limkin

We may enjoy a fabled sense of mateship within Australian, but it seems we’re not so good at neighbourliness. In a Neighbourhood survey in late 2010, nearly 60 of Australians reported that they don’t speak to their neighbours.

Reading those results made me feel just a little better that I can only name five of the people who live around me. A little better, but not much.

Unfortunately, we are becoming an isolated society. In a 2003 study by Central Queensland University, and University of Stirling, UK, it was revealed that more than one third of adults were lonely, peaking in their 40s.

While we may have all come together as a community during recent disasters, it appears that the odds of us staying together are heavily weighted against us, with disconnection and fragmentation a reality for many Australians.

Loneliness has significant social impacts, beyond whether you have someone to borrow a cup of sugar from. Loneliness is a ‘significant risk factor for a wide range of physical illness including the common cold and heart diseases’, according to “A community survey of loneliness” by William Lauder and Siobhan Sharkey.

Loneliness affects people of all ages. Lauder and Sharkey described loneliness as contributing to a depressed mood in the elderly and to a lack of confidence and poor social interaction in schoolchildren.

It’s little ironic that what most of us have in common is loneliness.

However, it seems we are disaffected with our disconnection. The Neighbourhood survey also discovered that 73 percent of respondents would like to get to know their neighbours better.

This weekend affords the perfect opportunity to begin to do just that.

Neighbour Day, which has been running since 2003, started when Melbourne resident, Andrew Heslop, heard that the remains of an elderly woman had been discovered in her home, two years after she died. He suggested a “National Check on Your Neighbour Day”, as a way to combat the increasing isolation experienced by the vulnerable.

Now, according to the Neighbour Day website, “it’s the perfect day to say thanks for being a great neighbour and for being there when I needed you most”.

That’s a brilliant sentiment, but to those of us who don’t normally speak to our neighbours, that may seem too lofty a goal. If you’re part of that silent sixty percent, perhaps simply start by saying hello.

Getting to know your neighbours is an enriching experience. Personally, I’m fortunate to have neighbours with whom we share the occasional chat, and the odd bit of lawn equipment (their mower, our whippersnipper). We’ve given each other a hand at times but can also go a week or more without seeing each other.

Neighbourhood rejuvenation doesn’t have to be onerous. Rebuilding community doesn’t rise and fall on the grand gestures, but on the small, seemingly insignificant interactions that weave our lives together with strands of shared moments.

Start with a smile. Progress to a wave. Offer a name. It’s really as simple as that.

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ruth@ruthlimkin.com