Community as a Technical Term

community social connection Aug 19, 2020
people sitting and eating at a party

The word “unprecedented” has been used a lot during the pandemic. Nearly 75% of public companies reporting their earnings in the spring used this word, including IBM which used it seven times. Google Trends shows that searches for the word have spiked about five times higher than ever before. That is unprecedented.

The fact is that words and their definitions matter. Excessive use dilutes significance. Broad definitions water down meaning. The word unprecedented may have already lost its power.


A Proper Definition of Community            

Consider “community.” According to Webster’s, community is a “unified body of individuals such as people with common interests living in a particular area.” Master plan developers routinely describe subdivisions as communities. Apartment developers do the same for apartments. I’ve even seen empty buildings described as communities by their creators. Has the use and definition of community become too broad?

What if community had a narrower definition? According to Charles Vogl in his book, The Art of Community, community is defined as a “group of individuals who share a mutual concern for one another’s welfare.” This definition would limit the word’s use and give it more significance.

The pandemic has been a reminder that community – the more technical definition – is critical for wellbeing. People with strong social connections have better immune systems, better brain health, and they sleep better. This definition of community is more involved than simply living in an area with people with shared interests.


Does this gated community deserve to be called a community? (Source: RealManage)


Do You Live in a Community?

Do you live in a place where others care for you and, just as important, you care for others? As Warren Buffet says, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” The pandemic has likely revealed the truth on whether you have community or not. If you don’t, it is not necessarily a simple fix.

Community doesn’t just happen. It takes work and relies on reciprocal relationships. It’s one thing to recall the name of your neighbor, but a completely different thing to truly know your neighbor. And, it’s rare: only about a quarter of Americans purport to know all or most of their neighbors. When you know your neighbors, you’re informed about ways to support them. Equally important is for neighbors to get to know you. There’s a level of mutual vulnerability.

It takes time. For nine years, we lived in a neighborhood that is a community. People know each other and are quick to help and receive help. It is a natural back and forth. No one keeps score. A year ago, we moved to a new neighborhood and we are in the process of determining whether it will be a community for us. Our daughter recently delivered care packages to older adults in our neighborhood. I was encouraged when she received a call from a recipient to say thank you and also to see how she was faring. This is mutual concern.


Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C. has a reputation for strong community (Source: The Wandering Road)


Building & Finding Community

If you don’t have community, there are two options: build or join.

Charles Vogl provides tips for community builders. His seven principles include: boundary, initiation, rituals, temple (or place), stories, symbols and inner rings. Vogel’s advice is important because, unlike a passive building, a community is active and changing. It requires investment and leaders to get involved. Community can’t be taken for granted. Places change as do the cultures around them.

An alternative to building community is to join one. There may be opportunities to engage in your area by joining a neighborhood association, connecting into a faith community or volunteering at a local school. In some cases, however, a search for community may require moving.

Finding community can be an important but challenging issue for older adults, particularly when their current home lacks social connection. Jill Vitale-Aussem, CEO of the Eden Alternative, is an expert in creating community for older adults. In her recent book, Disrupting the Status Quo of Senior Living, she highlights that too often senior living errs on the side of safety, like a hospital, or on service like a hotel. It’s not that safety and service are unimportant – particularly during a pandemic – but these approaches often don’t adequately engage the human side. True communities require active engagement where people act as citizens, not patients or consumers. Older adults searching for community need to look far beyond websites and marketing collateral to get a sense of whether a particular senior living location is a community or just a building serving older people.


Use the Narrow Definition of Community

Be on the lookout for “community.” Ask yourself whether the term is properly applied. In my experience, the claim of community is often unsubstantiated. Community anchored in mutual concern is a good thing for your health at all times, but particularly when the next unprecedented event hits.


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