Thursday, March 20, 2008

Health and Community

I recently received an email from Chris Greene, who had these comments about my Dec 29 blog Thinking of Geoph:

"My comment about Geoph's death is this: it just seems odd that it wouldn't be discussed why he died at such a young age. By this I don't mean him personally, but why would anyone in the communities movement die at a young age when I would assume one of the primary reasons to be in "community" would be to live a healthy lifestyle and to be happy, both of which one would assume would lead to a long life.

"Now obviously, I'm quite aware life isn't that perfect. We all have pasts and even the present can oftentimes be less than perfect. Also, I'm not trying to hold "intentional communities movement " up to some sort of perfect standard. But just to shrug it off and say well, "it was just the luck of the draw" or to think maybe one was just unlucky and breathed in a bit of plutonium dust from a nuclear test is somehow, seems to me, conveniently avoiding looking at the "communities movement" with less than a critical eye. A critical eye that might ask, how happy are people in the communities movement, really? How well are they eating, really?

"Death, I suppose, is ripe for ignoring. The young don't even think about it, and the old, perhaps, are rather terrified of it. Actually, I would imagine very old are quite comfortable with it, it's us baby boomers in the say 50 to 65 or 70 age group that death becomes a rather terrifying thing to consider just because we know how possible it is to die at a younger age nowadays.

"Anyway I guess you get the gist of my comment, which is again: does the communities movement need to be a healthier and happier place, or on the darker side, is it not as happy and healthy as it is being made out to be?"

Laird's reply:
I think this is a great topic. I have not given much thought to connecting Geoph's death at 57 to the general question of how healthy is cmty living. Communities magazine did an issue on the theme of Health & Healing back in 1999 (issue #102—available through the FIC website), and the general conclusion was twofold: 1) that cmty living itself is therapeutic (because there is a health benefit to simply being better connected and less alone or alienated); and 2) people living collectively (and under each other's caring, yet watchful eyes?) tend to make healthier choices about diet, exercise, and lifestyle.

As Chris points out, this does not mean that there is no disease or ill health in cmties; only that the incidence is noticeably less (and the home care support is much better). While I can't offer much in the way of statistics about this, it happens that I manage a self-insurance fund for income-sharing cmties (with a combined population of about 200) and I can offer this telling bit of relevant data: over the last 20 years we've experienced an average of just one health care claim per year exceeding $5000 in total costs (though, to be fair, there have been about that many again major health care needs where the bills were covered by insurance or other outside funding). That includes heart attacks, staph infections, hip replacements, breast cancer… you name it. Most people are blown away that our health care needs have been that low. I think it's directly related to cmty living being more healthy
—rather than cmty living being more lucky—though maybe we're both!

As far as death goes, I'm sure there are people in cmty who fear it (just as in the wider society), yet mostly I've been impressed with the touching stories of how cmties have helped create both sensitive and realistic environments in which to enjoy (even celebrate) one's final days and to say goodbye on one's own terms, with loving support and dignity. (Communities also did an issue on Dying—#50 in 1981—while it's a little long in the tooth, the topic, as they say, is ageless.)

I contrast this with the death of my father, who died of a heart attack in his sleep at age 72. While his ending was not protracted or painful, he did not die happy, and 72 isn't looking so old to me any more. By mainstream standards he was a "winner," by which I mean he had a successful business career, made a lot of money, and lived his retired years in a posh gated cmty on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. Yet for all of his money, he was a lonely
man with a drinking problem who had managed to alienate most of the people in his life. I think he was bitter at having "won" so little with his hefty bank account, and there is nothing about his life choices that I envy. For my part, I am looking forward to dying in cmty (though not for a while, I hope).

Chris further wrote:
"I guess I'll know soon if you want these type of comments on your blog. I've been interested in this movement all my life. I spent my 20s searching for the perfect community, living in some and then at 30 I began my life as an organic farmer for the next 20 years, full time. I'm 57 now, I have hep C., I just got divorced, I made some bad decisions and I have no idea what I'm going to do next. But this idea of "intentional community" still fascinates me, I think it has real potential, but I'm also a thinker and I'm thinking a lot more than I did when I was young. I'm thinking a lot more critically and reading a lot more books now. Some think critical thinking is being judgmental. I think judgmental is when it's directed towards an individual and that ideas and theories should be open for critical analysis."

Laird replies:
I think it's good to be a critical thinker. I reckon the key is the extent to which one is open to new input and rethinking earlier conclusions. We all have to make judgments in order to act, and you never have all the information (or can be 100% sure of its accuracy or relevance). The art is "knowing" when you have enough information to decide, and when there's enough new information to look again.

One of the reasons I like cmty living is that it's the best environment I know for fostering an atmosphere of curiosity and inquiry (which is not to say that cmties don't have any blind spots).

Maybe cmty will be a good home for you.


Anonymous said...

Rethinking community health because someone died young is as silly as rethinking the dangers of smoking because ol' Grandpa smoked two packs a day and lived to be 103.

Health is studied through aggregation of many cases (healthier lifestyles tend to produce longer lives); lifestyle choices do not determine lifespan. It is a statistical relationship, not a causal one.

Anonymous said...


Are you saying that lifestyle would have no effect statistically on lifespan? For example, clearly people that drink excessively or smoke excessively or are particularly unhappy must statistically live shorter lives, it would seem.

My questioning wasn't about whether living in "community" shortens one's lifespan, but rather I am just questioning how many people who are talking about community for instance, are actually living in community? How many are truly happy living in community? Obviously unless communities want to publish detailed information about all their members, or the members themselves want to reveal how happy and healthy they are, the questions I'm asking are obviously extremely difficult to answer. I'm just asking them to provoke thought.

Your reference to my question as being "silly", to me, says less about my question being silly and more about possibly someone not wanting to admit that (1) not everyone talking about community is actually living in community (2) not everyone who is talking about community, or living in community is happy. (3) at the actual definition of community, the word itself might be inadequate to describe all permutations and combinations possible.

Am I someone who has no interest in cooperative living and just wants to discredit it? Hardly. I remain absolutely convinced "something" like intentional community living is the answer. But the key there is "something". I and I know a lot of others are not particularly enthralled with what's "out there". And it's not about putting down what's out there, it's about asking what's truly going on and how could we make it better. My particular proposals can be found at and