COMMUNITIES: Variations on a Theme
(February 28, 2023)

All through February, I kept encountering descriptions and discussions of communities. Ancient and modern, remote and close at hand. I’d like to share some highlights of what I’ve been learning. If you share my interest in this subject, please send your feedback:


            For a town-hall discussion within our elder village, friend and fellow resident Linda Clever offered the fruits of her etymological research. It turns out that our English-language term “community” traces its direct lineage to 14th Century French. In addition to describing residential settlements, communité connoted commonality and everybody. Deeper linguistic roots extended to the Latin of Classical Rome. Communitatem encompassed society, fellowship, courtesy and affability. Not merely a legal or demographic designation but a cluster of shared cultural values and civic virtues.

Origins and Evolution

            Our monthly Zoom circle of Yale64 Bay Area residents tossed around host Owen O’Donnell’s intriguing question: “How important is ‘the community’ to humans and where did the innate set of ground-rules governing that community come from?” Our consensus was that a shared culture, including beliefs, customs and language, is the foundation supporting a community. Upon that platform, local rules and institutions slowly develop to define and enforce permitted and prohibited social behavior.

            Classmate John Wylie had studied this topic much more seriously than the rest of us. Promulgating a revisionist interpretation of human evolution has been his chief intellectual passion in retirement. Here are some main points I took away from his insightful riff:

  • John believes that the prevailing scholarly interpretation of human evolution springs from an oversimplification of the Darwinian principle of Survival of the Fittest. This linchpin concept has been misinterpreted to mean that animals and humans have steadily evolved to reward might over right, violence over morality.
  • John’s contrary conviction relies heavily on the work of psychologist Michael Tomasello. Their key conviction is that what sets humans apart from other primates is collective intentionality, which they evolved for the benefits of coordinating teamwork. When proto-humans “descended from African trees as 60-pound weaklings” six million years ago, they foraged on the veldt where they had to compete with bigger, faster, stronger predators. The newcomers survived and prospered by living and foraging together in groups.
  • These cooperative practices were sustained and refined, first by human ancestors including Neanderthals (between 2.5 million and 40,000 years ago) and then by Homo sapiens (300,000 years ago to the present.)
  • Recent studies of ancient genomes show Africa-wide human mixing 50,000 years ago, compared with contemporary Neanderthals, who remained highly inbred. This unique human gregariousness gradually fragmented into smaller interbreeding populations during the post-glacial period (12,000 years ago.) New archeological discoveries are revealing that the earliest human settlements covered large geographic areas and developed without any signs of a ruling class. More security and prosperity resulted from an explosion of productivity. Crucially for this analysis, these communities predated group conflict.
  • All during this time, cultivation of grains permitted stationary settlements, produced surplus food, and required a division of labor supporting more complex administrative and political hierarchies. Competing communities began pursuing war against “others,” to defend their wealth and control scarce resources. In Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and (later) in the Americas (Incas and Aztecs), existing peaceful settlements were eclipsed by warlike dynasties.
  • Fast-forward to modern times and we see that these elemental societal tensions persist: justice vs conquest; globalization vs nationalism.
  • John suggested that the rolling replacement of religion by secularism in leading industrialized countries is weakening the structures and constraints of moral codes. Economic, political and military conflict is displacing communities’ cooperation and coordination at the national and international levels. Although short-term prospects are grim, over the long term John holds out hope for a rebalancing transition.
  • He closed with a reiteration of his anchoring respect for harmonious communities. “Our evolved inclinations for peaceful and productive associations are much broader and deeper than our us-vs-them antipathies. Unfortunately, the prevailing view among current scholars and probably most national leaders is precisely the opposite — a self-defeating, doomsday view that happens not to be true.”

Community Cousins

            Simultaneously with our Zoom discussion, science journalist Franz Lidz published a stimulating account of Neanderthals’ possible communal activities. (“Elephant Feasts Point to Neanderthals’ Cooperation”. New York Times, Tribe,Of,Hunter-gatherers,Wearing,Animal,Skin,Holding,Stone,Tipped,Tools,February 2, 2023.) Sustained paleontological research is reevaluating conventional wisdom about Neanderthals’ social structures and living patterns. Three thousand bones, tusks and teeth thought to derive from more than 70 straight-tusked elephants living 125,000 years ago have been collected from a single compact site in a heavily forested lake basin in what would become east-central Germany. “The research team offers further proof [including abundant cut marks on the bones and traces of charcoal fires] that our hominid cousins were cooperative hunters who knew how to preserve meat and might have lived a settled existence in large groups.” Smoked meat from a single ancient elephant – twice as big as today’s African descendants – could have fed 100 foragers for a month’s time. Given the huge total volume of bones, the researchers contend that the Neanderthals “either stayed put for months or that groups gathered at intervals to dig traps and feast together, which raises the possibility of a broad social, cultural and genetic exchange.” In other words, a community.


One for All

            I’m attracted to the idea floated in our classmates’ Zoom meeting that each community’s culture underpins its operating manual, setting standards and framing ground-rules for local relationships and public conduct. I will always be charmed by one example that Nancy and I experienced while living in central Italy. We observed it every time we drove from our small farm into Amelia, the nearest ancient hilltown. The practice was so pervasive that it almost seemed “human nature.”

Amelia,,Umbria,,Italy.,Medieval,Village,On,The,Hill            This custom seems too nuanced for many foreigners to understand, much less accept.  La bella figura does not refer to a shapely female body. The closest English equivalent might be “making a considerate appearance.” The deeply-seated cultural value is that we owe it to ourselves, our family, neighbors and community, to spruce up when stepping out in public. Not just to brush our teeth and comb our hair, but to give some thought to our outfit. As a gesture of reciprocal consideration and respect, we should put our best foot forward. This is not a show-off folly for the rich, although large Italian cities undeniably do have their cadre of fashionistas. But in Amelia, it was practiced by the working class as much as by aristocrats. When retired men walked down the hill from the historic center to join their buddies for coffee and a pastry at Bar Leonardi, they put on pressed slacks, sports coats and shined shoes. When a student with little or no money left her parents’ house to run an errand, she tied a festive scarf around her neck, jazzing up her jeans and T-shirt.

            Ten kilometers outside town, in the heart of traditional mom-and-pop agriculture, Paolo and Ornella Zara were our next-door neighbors. Ten hours a day, their working uniforms were overalls and muddy boots. Practical attire for pruning olive trees and grape vines, mowing hay, raising chickens and milk cows. But whenever they had to run into town, they paused for a shower, put on clean, presentable clothes, and set out to take care of business, representing their family to the outside world.

            The agricultural and trading hub of Amelia has been around since 1,100 BC. But la bella figura is no quaint relic. A near-unanimous community practice, it helps sustain and tacitly celebrate modern residents’ shared affiliation and care for each other. This resilient local custom is observable along the full length of the Italian peninsula.

Getting Things Done

            The preceding profiles sketched diverse communities from the ancient and recent past. February also gave me the opportunity to experience and reflect on a present community from the inside out. In the Sequoias Portola Valley Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC), I’m both a resident and a working member of our Resident Association Board. This dual role is obviously more engaging than detached anthropological curiosity. For Nancy and me, as well as our fellow residents, this community is our final home. We plan to transition over time from the campus’s Independent Living apartments to on-site advanced care. As retirees, we need not commute to other locations for work or continuing education. Many residents live, sleep, eat, exercise and socialize almost wholly within the perimeter.

            Our involvement also features a significant and permanent financial commitment. SPV was expensive to join and remains so to remain. Equally important, since residents’ entry fees generate the sponsoring corporation’s chief source of working capital, while our monthly fees are the chief resource covering its operating expenses, we justifiably consider ourselves key investors and partners, not mere tenants or patients.

            In terms of energy, commitment and affiliation, this local level is where residents can have the most input and impact. State and federal institutions are remote and impenetrable. Here, we can meaningfully participate in governing decisions.  How well are we contributing to our community’s harmony and effective operation? Two current challenges affirm that successful stewardship is a moving target.  

            Coping with Resurgent COVID

            SPV has a current population of 410, including 253 residents (Independent Living plus advanced care) and 157 professionals (on-site managers plus staff.)

            Senior citizens like our residents are particularly vulnerable to COVID infections, and to worsening, prolonged medical problems from those illnesses. Nationwide, three-quarters of COVID deaths have occurred in people over 65, mostly over 75. Those percentages are climbing. Front-line care-givers working in close proximity to elders are comparably at risk, as are immune-compromised individuals, several of whom live on our campus.

            During 2022 and 2023, over 100 SPV residents have experienced COVID infections, though thankfully no pandemic-linked deaths. Staff infections have been higher, probably because they have more off-campus interactions and relationships. Our campus management has accordingly been super-vigilant. Almost all residents and staff members have been double-vaccinated and boosted.

            As COVID appeared to be resurging with possible new variants in 2022, this resolute defensive regimen began to show cracks. In form and timing, our campus problems mirrored those in the surrounding society. COVID fatigue was clearly diminishing many residents’ observance of mask-wearing in indoor group settings. All campus professionals and guests were required to wear masks in resident areas. Ditto, all residents in advanced care. However, California law prohibited SPV from imposing a parallel requirement on Independent Living residents (62% of our total population.) 

            On a much smaller scale but with potentially higher risk, a few residents with apparently serious respiratory-tract infections participated in indoor campus meetings or entered the main community buildings without masking or covering their coughs. (Linda Clever, our community’s unofficial etymologist mentioned at the outset of this post, spent her career as an MD, specializing in infectious diseases and community medicine.  She recently reminded fellow residents that COVID and influenza are acute airborne viruses. An unblocked cough can transmit pathogens six feet; a sneeze, 26!) It follows that mask-wearing is at least as much for the protection of others as for our own health and safety. This recognition bumps it from a vexing personal imposition to a civic responsibility.

            To be clear, our cordial campus is not a hotbed of resentful libertarians. Last year’s Resident Survey confirmed that 88% of responding residents gave SPV an overall satisfaction rating of Good or Very Good. But COVID has lasted longer, and with more peaks and troughs, than most of us anticipated. Folks are tired of behavioral constraints. Three years of fogged eyeglasses become a bother and a bore. In this weary climate, our Board and SPV management are jointly wrestling with how best to protect our vulnerable community, both from widespread masking neglect and from a few infected residents’ more serious public thoughtlessness.

           With flat requirement of mask-wearing being legally prohibited, our toolkit of remedies is markedly limited. Thus far, we’ve agreed to repeat public announcements of the need to wear masks, to provide bins of new masks at the doorways of campus meeting rooms and the Dining Room, and to implore residents with respiratory infection symptoms to avoid indoor meetings and get rapidly tested. In addition, we’re authorizing meeting conveners to ask persistently coughing or sneezing participants to return to their apartments’ rather than putting SPV neighbors at risk. If an individual refuses, the chair can recess the meeting and reschedule it on Zoom. A preliminary assessment of these combined responses may be that, while retirement communities can be nurturing environments for elders’ comfort, care and socialization, they may not have an easy time addressing anti-social behavior.    

A Community in Transition?

            Our CCRC was founded nearly 60 years ago by the Presbyterian Church of Northern California. The reputed impetus was to provide a safe and comfortable domicile for the church’s elder (mostly female) parishioners who were outliving their spouses. Over the years, and in conformity with the institutional sponsor’s social values, a strong campus tradition developed that encouraged residents’ volunteerism. By my informal count, there are currently more than 20 residents’ committees, two appointed by management, 10 by our Board and more formed by residents themselves. Staffing these committees and activities with residents is vigorously promoted by campus champions of volunteerism as a community-membership obligation approaching moral duty.

           COVID disrupted these expectations, first by locking us down in our community apartments, then by replacing in-person group meetings with Zoom conversations. As we’ve emerged from pervasive separation, there are signs that full-scale volunteering may not be recovering its pre-pandemic dynamism. Early indications of communal hesitation have included the adjournment of the Education Committee and difficulties encountered in recruiting new leadership for the Resident Association Board and the Vespers program.

            Without bemoaning or applauding this perceived disengagement, it is interesting to identify different factors that may be influencing community change. For volunteering as much as other campus commitments, COVID has certainly created a new normal. Many residents concede that viral infections have inflicted their residual loss of energy. More positively, others have grown accustomed to the pleasurable daily rhythms of privacy. Still more are devoting their priority attention to postponed travel and family gatherings. 

            There is also evidence that the demographic pool of likely recruits for volunteering may be shrinking. Our community’s entrants are becoming older than before. In the three years since Nancy and I arrived, the average age of SPV newcomers has climbed from 78 to 82. COVID aside, older seniors often experience declining stamina and cognitive acuity. Conversations with several newcomers reveal that their expectation on moving here has been to enjoy relaxed retirement, not to plunge into another round of public service. As such, they may join audiences but not taskforces. Then too, if our village mirrors broader societal patterns, one-fourth of our residents are probably introverts, unattracted to Social Hours or weekly croquet.

            Still measuring the pool of potential recruits, several residents in the community’s Independent Living population are experiencing significant immobility, getting by with the support of healthier spouses or private care-givers. Still other old and new residents have not yet taken occupancy of their campus apartments or are here only part-time each year, maintaining distant seasonal domiciles.

            Even the physical plant is evolving. In an effort to keep pace with SPV applicants’ changing space and lifestyle preferences, when old campus apartments become vacant they are being reconfigured into larger, more self-contained living units.

            We may also be witnessing a low-profile transition in residents’ favored activities. The arrival of a talented music-man has sparked the popular convening of Friday-evening singalongs. Small informal gatherings for arts and crafts, charades, hiking, card-table games and other shared enthusiasms have also taken root. Most are spontaneous and informal, with no need for sponsorship by standing committees.

            Tie these trends together and a modified community culture may be evolving, with fresh interests and values. If so, volunteering may hold less appeal for more residents. That change may require creative adjustments and adaptation by resident leaders and their management partners. Thus far, the most successful innovation of which I’m aware has been the 2022 Search Committee for recruiting the new SPV Executive Director. (Full disclosure: I was privileged to be a member of this ad hoc working group.) Our compact team of representatives from corporate headquarters, local management and the Resident Association meshed smoothly to ensure that the selection process accommodated the priorities of all key campus constituencies. The Committee made certain to keep the full resident population regularly informed of its progress.

            Our SPV community is a living organism as much as an institutional structure. As with other opportunities for practicing agile aging, core virtues for sustaining elder-village harmony and effective operations include responsive flexibility and respectful empathy.  

            It’s a pleasure to attempt to contribute to vital local governance. It’s also a marvel that 2,000-year-old Roman examples of successful community qualities – fellowship, courtesy and affability – remain invaluable guidelines today.

Continuing thanks to for the use of their photos.