Neighbour Day began in 2003 through the efforts of one man who was disturbed by the fact that the remains of an elderly woman were found inside her suburban home in Melbourne two years after her death. Alison Brook explains why she’s a big fan of Neighbour Day.
BY Alison Brook
There have been many times in the past couple of years when I have been asked why Relationships Australia decided in 2013 to take on the annual Neighbour Day campaign. My response has been that Neighbour Day is about the importance of healthy relationships within communities, and about the promotion of good mental health. Healthy relationships and good mental health are principal aims of Relationships Australia.
I have had an opportunity to reflect on changes to our way of life over decades, changes that mean good community relationships are less likely to occur organically in modern Australia. I reflected on the life of my own family as an illustration of the broader community – because if I have learned anything in this job, it is that people’s stories are powerful metaphors.
My grandmother lived in south-west Victoria all her life. She was one of 13 children and herself bore eight. Her life revolved around keeping hungry mouths fed, bodies clothed and caring for her extended family as well as others in the town when they needed nourishment and other help. My grandfather served in World War II and came back with what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. His capacity to earn a good income was limited. Today we would label the family as disadvantaged, and living under the poverty line.
Yet, when I think about my grandmother, I recall a real richness about her – her capacity to love many and the reciprocated love many had for her. That love was expressed in small kindnesses. A casserole wrapped in a towel and left on a doorstep. A batch of scones for a parish morning tea. Caring for a child when his parents were unable.
I recall her funeral. The church was packed. The whole town turned out to honour and farewell a marvellous life well lived. After her burial we were ushered into the church hall to find the local CWA had prepared a truly appropriate send-off: trestle table after trestle table groaning under platters of mouth-watering treats. Scones, cakes, lamingtons, slices, biscuits, pastries and pies – small kindnesses from many.
Small kindnesses from many. Is this a definition of healthy community?
I also reflect on the communities in which I have lived. I found almost no connection in an inner-city apartment, where residents felt a greater need for privacy than connection; suburban living where there was some connection and less privacy, and in a rural area where connection is strong, practical kindnesses many.
Inevitably, things have changed since my grandmother was a young woman raising a family. These include living and employment arrangements in many families where all adults are working for income outside the home, and where child care is provided by paid carers. Adults return at the end of each day tired and depleted. This leaves whole streets with most homes empty during daylight hours. Those who remain are often carers, people with disability, and the elderly. The elderly still living in their homes are left to their own devices except when social services visit, with sometimes lengthy periods between family visits. While this scenario is not the rule, it is common, and illustrates that a need for community connection is likely high and unmet.
In decades past, the local church was a community hub, a place from where social life emanated and social services coordinated. It was a place where children were welcomed into Sunday school, where teenagers met their partners, where adults married, procreated, aged and died. We know that attendance at Christian churches has declined in recent decades and that regular churchgoers are, in many instances, from an ageing demographic.
It is important to acknowledge and honour that we all live on land traditionally owned by the First Peoples of Australia, but it is the plethora of recently arrived cultures and religions that is a major change from my grandmother’s day. Reaching out to a neighbour from a different culture or who speaks a different language can be cause for extra shyness, reserve or even suspicion, and deter people from connecting with others in their neighbourhoods.
In some communities, this very diversity has been embraced with dividends for all. One of Neighbour Day’s “Very Neighbourly Organisations”, the Welcome Dinner Project, brings families recently arrived to Australia into the homes of people who would like to extend a welcome but need a helping hand. Whichever way the hand of friendship is extended, through a wave, smile, cake, offer of help, a lift to the shop – it is the kindness that is universal and which may be transformational.
People living in neighbourhoods that are highly connected enjoy, overall, higher levels of physical and mental health, with the converse also true. While a friendly neighbour may not be the panacea, they may make a significant difference to someone’s well-being and appetite for life.
Relationships Australia sees Neighbour Day as an ongoing opportunity to remind people about the importance of community connection in their lives as well as an individual responsibility on each person to create a well-connected neighbourhood. Small kindnesses from many.
The Neighbour Day website contains resources and guidance to start connecting in your neighbourhood. If you have other good ideas, or would like to feed into our understanding of community connection, please provide us with that feedback, and your story.
It is the stories about real human connection at the local neighbourhood level that inspire all of us to rise above our reserve and knock on the door of the person down the road whose burden may be lightened, or even life transformed by that small kindness.
This is an edited version of Alison Brook’s address at the launch of Neighbour Day 2017.