A few days ago, my neighborhood pizza place – the only one my family ever ordered from for as long as I can remember – was destroyed in a fire along with another shop; a hair salon that had stood there with it just as long.
Like most disasters, there was no warning for this.
And because of the way the buildings were constructed, no way to stop the spread of flames in time.
When I heard, I immediately looked to the Internet for information. As it turns out, four firefighters were injured, but everyone inside the shops at the time of the incident was unharmed.
This was comforting news.
Hearing otherwise would have made the story considerably more tragic. Also, many of the people who frequented the pizza place and the hair salon next door are older adults; some have been loyal patrons for 20 or more years.
When patronage continues for that long it says something about the product to be sure, but something even more significant about the service.
Why Community Is Critical As We Age
Like the Cheers bar in Boston, Pete’s-a-Place and Permacut were places where “everybody knows your name.” Far beyond the delicious slice of pizza with the tangy tomato sauce or the “wash and set” that was the preferred choice of many ladies at the salon, the customers were drawn into these establishments by the sense of community fostered by the owners. Each took the time to know their customers and in doing so, became part of their lives.
One woman, a friend of my mother’s for many years who has cerebral palsy, used to go to Pete’s every night for dinner. And every night the staff there would serve her usual slice without her having to ask. At some point they began to cut it up small so she could better manage it on her own. They even draped an apron across her blouse.
In the hair salon, fiercely independent seniors would arrive early for their weekly appointments – rain, sleet, and snow be damned. On the rare occasion when someone didn’t show, fellow patrons and staff alike would call to check-in on her.
Pete’s-a-Place and Permacut were located in New York City’s East Village, but I think they really exist in every town. To your mother or father they may be the small pub down the road where on Saturdays, a piano player comes to play “real music”. Or maybe it’s the coffee shop where old friends gather on Tuesday mornings to shoot the breeze and reminisce.
The value of places like these can’t be overstated. In New York there are countless places to eat pizza or get your hair done but few that nurture a community as these two did. And while getting there can become a significant challenge for older adults as time goes by, the intangible benefits are a powerful motivator that far outweighs the hassle.
If your parent is attached to a place like this, encourage them to keep going for as long as humanly possible.
It may be one of the best things you can do to care for them. I’m willing to bet that they feel they matter there, that they are known and that they belong.
With time and a mix of experiences, I’m now convinced that the sense of being a part of something (and therefore being of value) is the feeling we all crave most.
And when it’s gone, it isn’t easy to replace.