Last week I watched a tragic news article about a block of Christchurch flats where, on two separate occasions within the last couple of years, a resident has died in their apartment and not been discovered for over a month.  What does this say about interaction between neighbours and family support structures? 

With steeply rising numbers of elderly people, support structures around the world will need strengthening in the coming years, especially if a greater number than ever before are childless or only have one or two children to rely on for family support.

Good neighbours do not only affect our happiness.  Leading new research published mid last year has also discovered that they may make us healthier. The small things we do for each other really do make a difference.

The University of Michigan team who undertook the study used data from 5276 people aged over 50 with no history of heart problems.  At the start of the observational study, the respondents were graded on the extent to which they felt part of their neighbourhood, could rely on their neighbours, could trust their neighbours, and found their neighbours to be friendly. For those that felt connected to their neighbours the reduced heart attack risk was described as “significant”.  In fact, it was approximately comparable to the reduced heart attack risk of a smoker vs a non-smoker.  Quite remarkable.

The reason for the association was not known, but the study authors thought perhaps neighbourly cohesion could encourage physical activities such as walking, which counter artery clogging and disease.  The authors commented that “If future research replicates these findings, more neighbourhood-level public health approaches that target neighbourhood social cohesion may be warranted,”.

Do you know which of your neighbours might be in need of a helping hand?  In New Zealand Red Cross are encouraging people to get to know their vulnerable neighbours and become humanitarians at a local level. Red Cross has been advocating ‘the good neighbour service’ since 1951.  A snippet from the 1951 archives reads:

“As time goes on it is hoped that the service given to the old, infirm, and to those in need of a friend will become a major part of the programme. One helper has taken her old ladies out for motor rides – another reads to hers. Most of them have now become friends.”

More than sixty years on, we need to be more aware than ever of our vulnerable neighbours.  I have recently subscribed to a website called ‘Neighbourly’ which has really helped me to feel more connected to my neighbourhood.  I have found out about local burglaries, various local fairs and exercise classes, submitted my opinion on a new local playground, and connected with a local neighbour to swap cards we were both collecting for our children from a local supermarket promotion, among other things. Something I find particularly lovely is that many people give away free things such as fruit or firewood – one man’s trash is another man’s treasure so the saying goes, and helping a neighbour out for nothing is a good feeling I’m sure.  

It is initiatives such as this that help to create community.  What other ways can we connect with those around us in an increasingly urban world?

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...