Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Finding a Welcoming Neighborhood

By the time a successful lobbyist and his wife, a nurse, reached their 70s, they’d acquired many of the prizes that come with prosperity: an opulent house and a nest egg large enough for a plush retirement. Yet, in their upscale neighborhood they felt isolated, alone and unhappy. So they searched for a place with more of a community feel.

Ultimately, the couple sold their suburban manse and bought a two-bedroom unit in a newly built retirement community that made social interaction a priority. This banished the couple’s feelings of loneliness.

The AARP Foundation, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group, says social isolation is a major challenge for Americans. To help tackle the problem, it recently launched a new program to help older people connect to others in their area through resources for housing, transportation and volunteer activities. It’s called Connect2Affect.

“Social isolation is a complex problem, one that desperately needs our attention,” says Lisa Marsh Ryerson, the foundation’s president.

It’s not only those over age 50 -- AARP’s target audience -- who benefit from life in a friendly community. People of all ages, including young families, enjoy the sort of friendships that can bloom in welcoming neighborhoods, says Helen Dennis, an expert on psychologically healthy living at the University of Southern California.

“Isolation is much more of a problem than it was 10 years ago. It’s especially easy to feel isolated in metropolitan communities,” Dennis says.

Many homebuyers believe that moving to a suburban community with expensive houses will necessarily give them a warm, welcoming neighborhood. But that’s not always the case, says Mark Nash, a real estate analyst and author of “1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home.”

Because there’s no simple formula for finding a friendly neighborhood, Nash urges homebuyers to thoroughly investigate before making a move. Here are a few pointers:

-- Don’t rule out moving to a brand-new development.

Are you interested in moving to a newly constructed community or condo tower, but fear it could prove an unwelcoming place? If so, Nash suggests you learn more about the community before rejecting it based on what could be an unfounded belief.

Granted, many condo buildings are populated by young professionals or busy two-income families. Still, many who move to these new areas are highly motivated to build lasting friendships with neighbors.

“They’re open to making new friends because they have few established relationships,” Nash says.

-- Look into the social dynamics of any neighborhood you’re considering.

Homebuyers who want a friendly, interactive community are well advised to spend some time there looking for less-than-obvious clues about how people relate.

“Even the most prestigious neighborhoods can have real issues,” says Nash, noting that just a few problematic residents can create issues for an entire community.

“It only takes a couple of curmudgeons to make everyone a little sour. A couple of intense ‘partyaholic’ guys could also spoil a neighborhood if they’re always drawing the husbands together for late-night poker parties where too much drinking goes on,” he says.

To learn more about the underlying social dynamics of a community, don’t hesitate to go door-to-door and strike up conversations with residents, or talk to local shopkeepers. Ask them about the pros and cons of living in the area.

-- Visit a community you’re considering on multiple occasions.

Nash suggests that those with a strong interest in a community visit the area at varied hours to look for patterns of human behavior. Also, consider visiting on a weekday as well as the weekend.

“Walk or drive through the neighborhood four times in a day, during the morning, at mid-afternoon, at dinnertime and at 11 p.m. Notice whether people are relating to each other or staying holed up in their homes nearly all of the time,” he says.

In some neighborhoods, residents are superficially friendly yet don’t build in-depth relationships with each other.

“Perhaps you’ll see people out walking their dogs who smile and wave to each other. But they seem too busy to stop and communicate,” Nash says.

-- Never forget that friendship is a two-way street.

Those with a support structure within the immediate radius of their home have many advantages. Not only can they borrow the cup of sugar they need to finish that batch of cookies they’re baking, they can also find neighbors to help ensure the security of their home while they’re away, for example. Most importantly, they can count on help in an emergency situation.

“Suppose there’s a flood in your area while you’re on vacation and you need urgent help until you can fly home,” Nash says.

But as Nash stresses, moving to a friendly neighborhood won’t guarantee that you develop a strong support structure -- unless you invest time and energy in creating positive relationships that are genuinely give-and-take. You need to socialize during times of celebration as well as in times of need.

“All good relationships -- and that includes relationships with fellow residents -- must be reciprocal if they are to be strong and enduring,” he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)