I grew up near a rural town that had everything we needed: a grocery, the pharmacy and a hardware store. The main drag was lined with a bank and post office, a florist and the barber, our doctor and insurance agent. We even had a bowling alley that served a mean catfish dinner on Friday nights.

My, how things have changed! Today, my hometown is more a county crossroads than a life center. The main thoroughfares of our lives have become our computers, text messaging and Amazon.com.

Wouldn’t it be nostalgic to slow the pace and do errands the old-fashioned way – strolling door to door, chatting with neighbors and then stopping at the coffee counter to see who has what to say about that?

Our Need for Collaboration

Humans are social animals, and screen time is no replacement for face-to-face contact at any age. In his book, The Longevity Bible, Dr. Gary Small cites a Harvard University study indicating socializers may live 20 percent longer than those who spend too much time alone.

Spending all our time with just one other person doesn’t solve the connection conundrum either. We need to gather in groups.

“Staying connected reduces anxiety and lowers the amount of stress hormones released into the body,” Small says. “When we are close to a group of people, it makes us feel part of something and gives us a sense of belonging. It lifts our spirits and builds self-esteem.”

It just goes to reason that strengthening our connections will make our years-to-come more enjoyable. But as we retire and lose touch with work friends, or we move to other cities, belonging takes more effort.

It’s something we might put off until loneliness or adversity stokes our need for connection. Here’s a real-life example.

You might have read about an algae bloom called ‘red tide’ mucking up Florida’s southwest coast. With media showing footage of rotting fish and tourists wearing face masks, our end-of-summer vacation season came to a dead end a couple weeks before the start of school.

Restaurants are off 80 percent, lodgings sit empty and many shops have posted “Gone Fishin’” signs rather than paying help to mind the store. Today’s paper says the county has cleaned the shores of more than 300 tons of dead sea life.

Empathy Is a Face-To-Face Practice

Interestingly, this local disaster is creating a new kind of Main Street in our community. For lack of a coffee counter, it started with a Facebook post about a meet-and-greet at a local pub.

Then there was a brunch for business owners at the pier restaurant and, over the weekend, a musical venue at an oyster house cleverly titled “Shuck You Red Tide.”

Collectively and cooperatively, like-minded people are a powerful force. This group needed a place to share their worries and ideas, to empathize with those in the same boat.

While there is some commiserating, it’s more about brainstorming ways to move forward, to bring tourism back and protect employees’ livelihoods.

We can accomplish a lot interpersonally by sharing sorrows and strengths over a sandwich and a beer. Empathy – taking a walk in the other guy’s shoes – is a skill we hone over a lifetime. It’s good practice listening carefully to others’ perspectives and letting them know we honestly understand how they feel.

As much as I enjoy pics and posts on social media, it’s impossible to empathize with someone on a screen. Rubbing elbows in person puts us back around the coffee counter on Main Street, a place we all need to recreate in our busy, high-speed lives.

The Comeback of Community

In real estate, “town center” and “inviting front porch” are marketing words spelling out a resurgent demand for connectedness. Few of us have stayed where we grew up, and most of us will move another time or two as we age. It’s up to us to find new connections, no matter our life circumstances.

Don’t wait for the neighbors to knock on your door. Research has proven that social connection not only gets us up and moving, it’s good for the brain. Our minds need just as much training now as ever if we want to be successful agers.

To go to that brunch on the pier, I had to park the car and walk a ways, remember names of people I hadn’t seen in years and keep up with a conversation about webpage design with some very cool, but much younger people. Instead of feeling stressed, I had a smile on my face the whole time.

Another great example of community comeback is my sister’s small town in Scott County, IL. A group of civic-minded go-getters have started the Great Scott Community Market where families can buy fresh food and staples without driving to the nearest city.

This is the kind of community people invest in as a place to raise their families.

In my sister’s case, both her adult children live within walking distance. The grandkids can come over anytime to ride horseback and help in the garden. It’s not unusual to set the table for a family dinner of ten or more. Call it clan or call it community. I call it connectedness at its best.

How do you stay connected is our high-speed world? Who could you call right now to set up a meet-and-great? If you are lonely, what kind of group could bring you out? A music group? Silver Sneakers? A Chamber of Commerce card exchange? Let’s stimulate our connectedness in the comments below.

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