Some Things Never Grow Old - Connecting with Others, Part 3: Starting the Conversations

My mom can start a conversation with anyone. It’s a real gift. When my parents retired and moved from their hometown to mine, I worried that after leaving all their friends behind and moving to a new state, they would become more reliant on me socially. But then I remembered my mom’s gift of gab.

Sure enough, after only a few days I went into the bank with her and she introduced me to one of her new ‘friends’. Since they moved near me, my social life has actually expanded to include some of their new acquaintances. And better, I actually know more about what is going on in my town than I did before. My mom has become a new resource for me.

Starting Conversations from Business Innovation Factory on Vimeo.

Retirement can bring on both feelings of excitement and anxiety. We dream about never having to work, having our days to ourselves. But work is a built-in social system, and while we all value our independence and quiet time, some amount of socialization is key to our emotional well-being. When we leave the workforce, we leave a significant part of what both gave us a sense of purpose, and a continuous flow of connected moments. If we don’t find new ways to stay connected with others as we age, we can become isolated and lose a sense of who we are, what we love, what inspires us, and what makes us excited to get up in the morning.

When older people connect with others they remember what they used to do that made them happy, and that there's no reason they can't still do those things. — Connected Aging study participant

Like my mom, many people adapt beautifully. However, not everyone has the ability to find common ground with a stranger and build from there into a conversation let alone a friendship. How might we — as innovators, civic leaders, organizations — help catalyze a culture of inclusion in our communities so that we can all, young and old, more easily and frequently create moments of belonging when we need them? The World Health Organization (WHO)  has identified Social Participation, Respect, and Social Inclusion among the essential features for cities to address as they strive to respond to the demographic trends of an aging population by creating more aging-friendly cities. Thank you, WHO, for recognizing that social connectedness requires more than senior discounts and handicapped parking spaces to keep our aging citizens as vital participants in their communities!

We can also view the built environment of cities and towns as an opportunity to design chances for social participation into everyday experiences, in addition, of course, to making them safe and manageable to navigate. It doesn’t take much to get people who are looking for a reason to connect to do so. Even a brief ‘together moment’ can give a lonely person a sense of inclusion that can brighten their day. Moments of surprise and humor can work particularly well. A local design student  placed signs on street corners saying “No Mugging, Here to Corner,” as part of an art project. Some found it alarming, some found it amusing, and some found it confusing, but it generated conversation amongst passersby throughout the city.

How can such projects inspire us to design and refresh continual moments of interface, belonging, and connection throughout our cities and towns? This Buddy Bench placed in a schoolyard allowed kids to “buddy up” at recess. Wouldn’t it be fun to re-think seating and walkways in public spaces to encourage more interaction and conversation?

Porch Fests around the country unite communities by creating random collisions of like-minded people around a shared love of music. What other kinds of open-source resources could we build into our towns to encourage the same?

Social technologies in the home can be intimidating for senior citizens living alone, yet they could perform life-changing services for folks who are isolated or lonely. How could we create social technology platforms that invite us in, guide us through  functions with natural interfaces, and encourage interaction? And could the trend of wearable technology create a subtle connection to our world and others by tracking our day and patterns? These wearables can be terrific conversation starters, and like the Livestrong bracelet, could help to unite otherwise disconnected people around a shared topic.

Finally, it is important that we understand the factors that influence a social support network so that we can design more ways to enhance social connection and moments of belonging for the aging., There is wide-open opportunity and a great need to reimagine our future by creating ways to enable our beloved aging to remain active members of their communities after their built-in social systems break down. Examples include:

  • Rewarding individuals who excel at acting as ‘social glue’ with a ‘frequent flier’-type of program, getting inspiration form Berkshares, a local alternative social currency for the Berkshire region of Massachusetts which encourages people to buy local and creates strong relationships between local businesses and the people who frequent them.
  • Creating formal social support networks like the U.K.-based Rochdale Circle, which brings members and certified helpers together in a peer-to-peer exchange system
  • Enabling the formation of groups such as the grassroots Village to Village Network, which uses group purchasing power to organize and deliver programs and services that village members decide they want and need.

It’s all about starting greasing the skids for connection and conversation. The people, tools, and capabilities exist to get creative in our communities and cities; we just need start THAT conversation and then act on it. Who’s in? Mom, do you know anyone in town who can help? 

Links to other posts in the Connected Aging video series.

If you have ideas or just want to discuss further, we would love to hear from you! Please contact leigh -at- Below are some thought-starters to get your wheels turning:

Calling all Entrepreneurs and Community Leaders!

Rethinking Public Seating and Walkways:

  • Take a page out of interactive museums and build digital graffiti into public space walls, to allow for random interaction through play.
  • Make some public seating less square and side-by-side, and more round to promote conversation. Put conversation starters in the center, like collaborative puzzles.
  • Create community write boards with rotating topics at supermarkets.

Open Source resources in communities:

  • Use the Zipcar model to place rentable kiosks for sharing ideas or homemade products, or just for gathering around a topic, like pop-up book clubs.
  • Decentralize the senior center model by having randomly located activities, such as craft projects or lectures, every hour on the hour in public spaces during an extended lunch period.

Wearable Technologies for Seniors:

  • Wearable book club bracelets that automatically link to your e-books, and can interface directly with another bracelet. A new form of random social connection could be created by adding the ability to post and comment throughout the story right on the e-book device and then share with others through the bracelet.
  • Remote "hangout" pods that feature information on local happenings and invite people to touch their wearable to upload areas of interest, which could then connect directly through the cloud to their home computer to update their calendar instantly. 

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