Everybody needs good neighbours—for a whole range of reasons, writes Faye Michelson.
Loneliness is a serious problem for around a third of Australian adults.
This sobering statistic from Relationships Australia is underlined by support service beyondblue’s research showing lonely people are more likely to report symptoms of depression, are admitted to hospital more frequently, have higher blood pressure and are at a greater risk of heart attack than others. Lifeline reports that 55% of those who call its helpline live by themselves and feel socially isolated and lonely.
While Alison Brook, Relationships Australia’s national executive officer, is well aware of these statistics, she also knows that if people have strong connections within their neighbourhoods they will enjoy higher levels of physical and mental health. That’s the reason the organisation is behind the annual Neighbour Day campaign (Sunday 25 March).
“Relationships Australia is committed to the promotion of good relationships and excellent mental health, so we see Neighbour Day as an ongoing opportunity to remind people about the importance of community connection in their lives,” Alison says.
“The event aims to build better relationships with the people who live around us, especially the elderly and vulnerable. Neighbours are important because good relationships can transform communities. Social connection also makes us feel better as it helps prevent loneliness, isolation and depression.”
The concept of Neighbour Day grew out of a tragedy. In March 2003, the remains of an elderly woman were found inside her suburban Melbourne home; police believe she had been dead for two years. Social commentator Andrew Heslop was so shocked that someone could die unnoticed he suggested a National Check on Your Neighbour Day in a letter to Melbourne newspaper The Age.
The idea developed into Neighbour Day because, as Alison puts it simply, being part of a community is good for you.
“Knowing your neighbours provides peace of mind and someone to call on if you are in need,” she says.
“You don’t have to be best buddies, though being friendly and occasionally catching up gives a sense of wellbeing. It's also easier to work out any issues if you are on friendly terms to start with.
“Connecting with others with whom you share a common interest—such as sport, music, gardening, book clubs, environmental groups, churches or volunteering—can give a sense of satisfaction and lead to longer-term friendships.”
One of Neighbour Day’s ambassadors is ABC’s Gardening Australia presenter Sophie Thompson. As you’d expect, she draws strong parallels between caring for both plants and people.
“Just as you would tend a garden with care and attention, so too do we need to nurture the relationships with our neighbours and neighbourhoods,” Sophie says.
“Strong, resilient and peaceful communities grow from social connection and inclusion. In both good and bad times, knowing our neighbours makes us feel content and secure.
“I encourage everyone to do something to celebrate their neighbours. It can be small—perhaps dropping off a note to an elderly neighbour, or something bigger such as opening up your garden to your neighbours for a ‘bring a plate’ afternoon tea.”
Alison adds her encouragement to start fostering community spirit, describing it as “small kindnesses from many”.
“While friendly neighbours may not be a panacea, they may make a significant difference to someone’s wellbeing and appetite for life,” she says.
For more information, go to neighbourday.org.