Where Everybody Knew Our Name

Like many boomers, I grew up in a neighbourhood where everybody knew our names.

Not only did they know our names, they knew exactly where we lived, the names of our parents and pets, and probably what we had for dinner the night before. We played tag and hide and seek until the street lights went on, organized lavish theatre productions in our backyards, skated on ice rinks that stretched across several backyards, and delivered casseroles baked by our mothers to those who were sick or had lost a loved one.

While most of us were second or third generation Canadians, our cultural backgrounds were varied and reflected in the accents of our parents or grandparents – Ukrainian, Italian, Russian, English, French, German and more. Like many others at the time, we couldn’t have told you that someone like Gilles was in a wheelchair as the result of cerebral palsy. However, we did know that when he gestured and waved to the kids too enthusiastically and as a result moved himself too close to the road, we needed to push him back up his driveway to keep him safe. And, although we didn’t know much about Alzheimer’s at the time, we did know that when Gail’s grandma got confused and forgot where she lived, we needed to walk her back to her house. 

With that having been my experience, it’s hard to understand how a 66-year-old Toronto woman with dementia froze to death within a block of her house last week.

According to police, neighbours did hear screams, and one actually looked outside and saw someone stumbling. But, as hard as it is to believe, not a single one tried to help or even call 911.

Apparently the woman had wandered away from her home in -20 degree temperatures about 2:00 am. Her body was found by a newspaper delivery woman at 5:30 am just a block away from her house.

Police called it a “tragic death” that might have had a different outcome, if only someone had called them.

This isn’t, as some might think, just about ensuring strategies to keep those who have Alzheimer’s from harm. It’s a wake-up call to remind each of us that we have a responsibility to do some serious thinking about the broader question of what has happened to our communities. How have we moved so far away from the kind of communities where everyone cared, and everyone watched out for one another?

While being part of a community that cares may not seem to be a necessity, the reality is that if we don’t bond with one another enough to understand, respect, and ultimately care about one another, we too are at risk.

So what can we do about it?

At a broad level it means we need to create an awareness of the importance of community and strengthening our neighourhoods. That will require legitimizing the importance of community building and understanding it is as important an investment as pipes, pavement, and police. Community meeting places, recreation, sports, the arts, and cultural events are safe and non-threatening initiatives that bring us to trusted relationships and ultimately to a caring community.

On a more personal level, if we don’t already know them, we need to get to know our neighbours. It takes one person to initiate a neighbourhood block party, a tobogganing party, or to be a catalyst for cleaning up a park or trail. If that doesn’t do it for you, get involved in your community in a way that does – join a service club, shovel someone’s sidewalk, volunteer for a cause you believe in, or join a political party. If nothing else, smile, wave and say hello to your neighbour. 

Most importantly, we all need to understand that a strong sense of community isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s an essential. There is no other way to ensure the strong, safe, and vibrant communities where we all want to live, work, and play.

Posted on 01-23-11


Well said, Brenda.  Community building IS AS important as pipes, pavement, and police.  While these things are the infrastructure of our communities, the people are the soul.  If we don’t watch out for each other, tragedies like in Toronto are more likely to happen.  Great blog and definitely needed to be said!

•Posted by Janet Naclia  on  01/24/11  at  10:38 AM


This is so true.  More people need to make the effort to know their neighbors.  There are some things that only a neighbor can help you with, like calling 911 when they see something wrong.  Its so sad to hear that no one helped the woman who froze to death.  I hope her family is doing okay.

•Posted by family practitioner  on  01/27/11  at  07:03 PM

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