By Brianne Wenning, Lisa Dikomitis, Kay Polidano and Christian Mallen, Keele University
‘We certainly FaceTime or Houseparty our daughters so we can see the grandchildren. We chat every day with them. So that can be half an hour or however long we’ve got’. The 73-year-old woman, living in England (UK), shared her experiences of the COVID-19 lockdown in an online interview. ‘Then we have another group of friends, there’s several of us. A couple live down just outside London. The other couple don’t [sic] live too far away. We’re all good friends and… Well, that’s only once a week though,’ she added hastily. ‘And then phoning friends. I have a list of friends I phone. So some days I get a bit stressed because I haven’t had time to do what I’d planned to do,’ she exclaimed with a laugh.
I joined in her laughter and the absurdity of it. We were discussing her daily routine in May 2020, just one month into the United Kingdom’s first lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdown restrictions meant that, in addition to strict guidelines on physical distancing, people were only allowed out once a day for exercise or to go to the shops for food or medicine. Many things that commonly used to occupy people’s time had stopped, leading to reflections about how life felt ‘on hold’. So when this study participant told us that her days were so busy it actually caused stress, this declaration came initially as a surprise.
Yet narratives like these were commonplace in our COVID-19 study. Our team – comprised of anthropologists, sociologists and primary care clinicians – interviewed 28 middle-class older adults (those aged 70 and above) between April and June 2020 about their experiences and perceptions during the COVID-19 pandemic and the UK lockdown in Spring 2020. Despite the interruptions brought about by lockdown, stories of bustling social schedules and daily (physically distant) interactions abounded. Many of these interactions had changed to now take place online. Various virtual platforms now provided a source of connection between family and friends and staved off the purported isolation during this time.
Blog all about it
Some of the older adults in our study were maintaining and even extending their social networks. One of the women we spoke with, aged 72, found herself something of a local celebrity after writing and emailing a daily blog post to the other older adults in her village. When asked what she wrote about, she replied: ‘Well, more the stupid little things really, but to do with this lockdown. The things we’re all going through, and the jokes about trying to online shop […]. Or, you know, these sorts of things that we’re all experiencing at the minute. And I try to make them funny. And people are enjoying them. And in fact, now I get phone calls to say, I haven’t received mine, where is it?’
The crafting and writing of this blog became her daily morning routine and provided an avenue to keep her connected. Friends had actually begun acting on her stories. ‘I’ve even had somebody bring me a bottle [of gin] last night,’ she confided. ‘I mentioned it in my stories that I write. And the doorbell rang, and there on the step was a bottle of gin and some tonic. Can’t beat that, can you’ she added with a laugh. Typing and sending out a daily blog from her computer not only kept her connected to friends and acquaintances, but had even expanded her social network to encompass others in the wider community who were experiencing the issues she wrote about and finding comfort in solidarity.
Meetings in ‘The COVID Arms’
While older adults as a whole, in comparison to their younger counterparts, remain less likely to turn to online resources in general and for socialising in particular (e.g. Moult et al 2019; Kharicha et al 2020), nearly all of those in our study were comfortable using the internet and experimenting with online platforms. In fact, some even helped their less confident peers to access online services and platforms. One woman remarked that she had done ‘some remote training’ for some of her less technology-savvy friends to get them online.
The idea behind getting her close social circle online was to reinstate – albeit in a very altered way – their weekly pub night. ‘We meet every Friday now in lieu of our fish and chips at the pub’ she said. ‘We [used to] start in one pub, normally, and have a drink, and then we move to another one. But now we do it online with Zoom, and we have quiz questions. We did a quiz on Friday and everybody had five questions, you know. Kept us old folk entertained,’ she added.
Through technology and the new use of online platforms, friendships could be maintained. In fact, given that most people were effectively ‘locked down’ and forced to be at home, entire friend groups were able to connect for events such as these.
Maintaining pub nights was a common theme among those we spoke with. While many did use various platforms to create quizzes or games to play with one another, others simply enjoyed being able to feel they were in the company of others. One woman admitted that she liked to order takeaways from a local pub and have it delivered. She would then have her meal and a few drinks with a friend over Skype. “We did it in what we called ‘The COVID Arms’, she declared with a hearty laugh. ‘The COVID Arms’ – the online experience of being virtually together – had now become the hub of connection for this woman and her friend during lockdown.
Social connections despite physical distancing
Much research has been done on the social isolation and loneliness of this age group (Cohen-Mansfield et al., 2016; Gardiner, Geldenhuys & Gott, 2018; Moult et al., 2019). In fact, it was initially envisaged that the lockdown would disrupt what little social network and social support older adults received, especially because previous research suggests that older adults in the UK may not be familiar with using online resources such as social media platforms to interact socially (Kharicha et al, 2020; Moult et al, 2019).
While this is undoubtedly true for certain groups of older adults in society, our team found that the older adults in our study (most of whom were white and all of whom were middle class) had in fact found creative and innovative ways to maintain – and even expand – social connections, largely through the use of technology. Despite the disruption to physical connections, older adults were virtually connecting with their social circles. Those in our study did this through engaging in new forms of communication – such as blogging – as well as new social platforms. Zoom, Houseparty and Skype had pervaded everyday conversations and everyday forms of connection.
Through these platforms, some older adults minimised disruption to their lives and, in some cases, even found themselves busier as they had more ways to connect with others. Older adults should not be perceived through a one-size-fits-all lens, assumed to be suffering disproportionately from isolation and loneliness; many are finding new ways of connecting, culminating in the experience of shared drinks at The COVID Arms.
Cohen-Mansfield, J., Hazan, H., Lerman, Y., & Shalom, V. (2016). Correlates and predictors of loneliness in older-adults: a review of quantitative results informed by qualitative insights. International psychogeriatrics, 28(4), 557.
Gardiner, C., Geldenhuys, G., & Gott, M. (2018). Interventions to reduce social isolation and loneliness among older people: an integrative review. Health & social care in the community, 26(2), 147-157.
Kharicha, K., Manthorpe, J., Iliffe, S., Chew-Graham, C. A., Cattan, M., Goodman, C., Kirby-Barr, M., Whitehouse, J.H., & Walters, K. (2020). Managing loneliness: a qualitative study of older people’s views. Aging & Mental Health, 1-8.
Moult, A., Burroughs, H., Kingstone, T. and Chew-Graham, C.A. (2018). How older adults self-manage distress–does the internet have a role? A qualitative study. BMC family practice, 19(1), 1-8.
Dr Brianne Wenning is a medical and social anthropologist currently working in the field of global health at Keele University (UK). Her research interests are in narrative and ethnographic approaches to health, illness and wellbeing, with a current focus on neglected tropical diseases in the Global South.
Dr Kay Polidano is a medical sociologist working mainly in the field of medicine and global health at Keele University (UK). Her research is underpinned by a qualitative methodological approach, and brings together social science and applied health perspectives.
Professor Lisa Dikomitis is a Cypriot-Belgian anthropologist leading global health at Keele University (UK). She has carried out individual ethnographic fieldwork in Cyprus, Belgium and the UK and team ethnographic work in several countries in the Global South. Professor Dikomitis is directing UK-funded programmes of global health research in Brazil, Ethiopia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. This research is underpinned by an ethnographic approach and a robust community engagement model. She is well-known for her work on Cypriot refugees and forced migration, and her current research is situated at the intersection of medicine, development studies, social science and humanities.
Professor Christian Mallen is Head of the School of Medicine at Keele University (UK) and NIHR Research Professor in General Practice. He is also the Director of the Wellcome Trust Doctoral Training Programme for Primary Care. He has 20 years of experience in applied health research and has led a large number of successful research programmes and clinical trials. Professor Mallen is a Fellow of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Fellow of the Faculty of Public Health and a Founding Fellow of the Faculty of Clinical Informatics. He has been awarded both the Yvonne Carter and John Fry Awards for primary care research.
This post is the twenty-fourth post in The Age of COVID-19 series, conceived and co-edited by Celeste Pang, Cristina Douglas, Janelle Taylor, and Narelle Warren. Please send your contribution to Narelle.Warren@monash.edu
All contributions in this series will also be published by Somatosphere