The front porch, a rediscovered—and needed—social space

My husband and I used to chuckle when my mother-in-law lived with us. She would set up shop inside our open garage with her cup of tea, our dog on a leash, her lawn chair, her Table-Mate tray table and a set of magazines.

It did not matter that our backyard held lovely views of the Conejo Valley; the view she wanted to see was people.

While sitting in the garage over the course of the day, she would see the mail carrier, delivery people, neighbors walking their dogs, Realtors dropping off flyers and the people next door walking to their car.

She would shout out a “Hey, mister!” or “Hey, lady!” and launch right into a conversation with anyone who walked by. I am sure the interaction reminded her of her hometown in Ireland, where neighbors were close and conversation was plentiful. And the exchange fed her soul.

My husband Peter and I were at work all day, so she was lonely.

The growth of COVID-19 has brought unprecedented efforts to practice physical distancing which has upended our normal way of behaving. Seniors are socially isolated in their homes while at the same time possibly experiencing worry, anxiety, stress and fear. This is compounded by the fact that there are no, or limited, in-person outlets to socialize.

As an older adult, is there a safer space to have in-person visits with others?

I have been on Zoom calls recently with friends who are telling me they are rediscovering the friendships of their neighborhoods during this pandemic.

They sit on their front steps and talk to passers-by, or they set their lawn chairs in their front yard or on the street with neighbors physically distanced at least 6 feet apart and bring their own refreshments and snacks. Someone may be the ringleader, inviting others to join, or it may happen organically. Sometimes drive-by events in the neighborhood, like birthdays or graduations, inspire neighbors to come out and see what all the commotion is about.

According to Michael Osterholm, an internationally known expert in infectious disease epidemiology, one of the best things we can do as older adults is get out into the fresh air while maintaining physical distancing.

Getting outside for a few minutes a day can do wonders for your mood. And if you want a safer place to socialize with others, with proper physical distancing, the outside air helps to dissolve the coronavirus droplets, so there is less chance of contracting COVID outside than inside.

As a respite from quarantine, social interaction is food for the soul. It can lighten our mood and make us feel happier. It can lower our risk of dementia, as social interaction is good for our brain health. It promotes a sense of safety, belonging and security. And it allows us to confide in others and let them confide in us.

I think there is also a bit of nostalgia around sitting on the front steps talking with neighbors. I remember doing this as a young girl with my mother. We would sit together after dinner during the summertime and neighbors would stop by to visit on their evening walks.

I soaked in all that I heard— about Mrs. Gordon’s unruly teenager or Mrs. Santos’ carousing husband. I felt so adult and so connected to my neighbors, even though I was really a fly on the wall to my mother’s conversations.

It did give me an emotional connection to the adults in my neighborhood which has endured to this day.

Many of us may be taking this self-quarantine too literally and depriving ourselves of the benefits of fresh air and social interaction.

Why not give it a try?

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Andrea GallagherAndrea Gallagher

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