By Brianne Wenning, Lisa Dikomitis, Kay Polidano and Christian Mallen, Keele University
Few things are more stereotypically British than discussing the weather. A sense of national pride seems to pervades this discussion. In fact, during our time in the UK (as three of the co-authors grew up outside the UK), we have viewed it as an art form, and one we very much enjoying trying our hand at. It is almost comforting to settle in to a long, drawn out discussion on temperatures and weather patterns that puts both speakers at ease.
This propensity and preoccupation with the weather was centered in a series of interviews we conducted with older adults on their experiences of the UK’s first COVID-19 related lockdown in Spring 2020. We interviewed 28 older adults (most of whom were white and all of whom were middle-class) over the age of 70. Interviews took place on WhatsApp, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Skype, or over the telephone, depending on accessibility and preference.
Much of the literature on older adults in the UK centers on themes of loneliness, isolation, or ageist ideas of ‘successful’ (and, by default, ‘unsuccessful’) aging (e.g., Calasanti and King, 2020; Newall and Menec, 2019; Rowe and Kahn, 2015; Rozanova, 2010). What struck us about these interviews, however, was not how bad the situation had gotten for this already so-called ‘vulnerable’ population, but rather how so many were appreciating this period of forced reflection, which one participant optimistically described as ‘slow living’. This enjoyment was underpinned by a familiar friend – the weather.
Looking on the bright side
While the UK will never top the list of ‘sand and sun’ destinations, most older adults in our study mentioned the uncharacteristically warm weather during the lockdown of April and May 2020. Though comments on the weather are typical, these remarks held an added layer of importance. Many told us that they could not recall such a warm and sunny spring and admitted they were unsure how they would have coped had the lockdown been in the midst of winter. Discussions of soaring depression rates and potential increases in nationwide suicide rates followed such thoughts. So, while certain segments of the population certainly lamented being forced to stay indoors during such unseasonably warm weather, our participants saw it as a blessing for their mental health and the health of the nation. Yet this warm and sunny spring had another, very salient benefit for our participants: they had gardens.
Our interlocutors were, by and large, retired homeowners. Most of these homes had private gardens and were located in small, close-knit communities. This rather privileged position afforded them protection from the social and medical ravages of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. In fact, it made this time period almost enjoyable, something that was in stark contrast to other research reporting on the fear, anxiety and depression experienced by older adults during this time (Brooks et al., 2020; Losada-Baltar et al., 2020; Wang et al., 2020).
Those who were able to engage in manual tasks in their gardens commented on the joy it brought them. ‘We’ve quite enjoyed being at home. We’ve had some really nice weather and I’ve managed to get a lot of fairly big tasks done in the garden which I was a bit worried I wasn’t going to be able to [because] I kept going away [on holiday],’ one male participant (aged 71) laughed.
Another study participant, a single woman aged 70, was redoing her garden to optimise the time spent in the sun. In fact, she scheduled her day by it: ‘My typical day is a slow start, breakfast. I have to wait for the conservatory to just get a bit of sun, then it’s warm in there. Breakfast and the evening meal in the conservatory. Lunch – it’s too hot [in there].’ Lunch, she told us, is eaten outside before she tends to her garden. During this time, she socialised with others in the adjoining gardens. ‘So, there’s neighbours, and then I garden. I’ve been re-doing a patio area at the bottom of my garden, which gets the last of the sun,’ she remarked with a chuckle. Her day is set by the moving of the sun, and she was currently remodelling to ensure she enjoyed every ray.
Others engaged in birdwatching, reading or even just enjoying the view from their gardens. One woman, an 82-year-old widow who lived on her own, remarked that she had ordered Magnums (a type of ice cream bar) to more fully enjoy the experience of being in her garden: ‘Well, this is a holiday. I can look out at the field. I’m looking at it now, the bird feeder and two fields beyond and trees and lots of sky. I can look at that and I think, ‘Well, aren’t I a lucky so-and-so. I’m sitting here. If I had to pay for this view in a holiday cottage, it would cost me a fortune!’ Her ice cream, her field views, the sunshine – all these afforded her an almost ‘holiday-like’ experience.
A cloud on the horizon
Not all stories of sunshine, gardens, and views were tinged with as much optimism as the previous ones. Others acknowledged the privilege of having a private garden. The positives of having one was then underpinned by an expressed sense of guilt when they thought of those less fortunate.
Much of these conversations centered on direct comparisons – those in homes with gardens and those without. These were inevitably downward social comparisons, such as ‘I feel sorry in my heart for the ones that live in high-rise flats, especially the children’ and ‘I feel sorry for people in high rise blocks, and families that are trapped inside.’ Discussions on the benefits of having a garden during such warm weather was often immediately followed by a sense of guilt or pity for those without such luxuries.
Even conversations between parents and children were tinged with this uncertainty and guilt. One woman, a 71-year-old widow admitted: ‘I’ve found it quite hard to know whether to send her [daughter] images of my growing plants, but she says, no, it’s all right mum, I can cope. And when we chat with Zoom, […] if I’m sitting in the garden she says, ‘Oh, I can hear the birds!’ You know, and it’s just that tone, and, she says, ‘they’re so loud there.’ Even familial comparisons led to feelings of guilt over being able to enjoy the outdoors while others were largely forced to stay inside.
While much of the media attention on older adults has either highlighted their increased risk of mortality from the virus or social isolation from the lockdown, little has been said about how they are coping during the pandemic. While certain groups of older adults are experiencing increased physical and mental distress (e.g. Losada-Baltar, et al., 2020), this is not a uniform experience. Lumping the experience of older adults into one category fails to capture the breadth of coping, resilience, struggles, and challenges of experiences. As our findings show, it fails to capture the way in which people are framing and understanding the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. For our participants, they described the lockdown experience in the best way they knew how – by discussing the weather.
Brooks, S.K., Webster, R.K., Smith, L.E., Woodland, L., Wessely, S., Greenberg, N. and Rubin, G.J. (2020). The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence. The Lancet.
Calasanti, T. and King, N. (2020). Beyond Successful Aging 2.0: Inequalities, Ageism, and the Case for Normalizing Old Ages. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B. Advance Access published March 25, 2020,
Losada-Baltar, A., Jiménez-Gonzalo, L., Gallego-Alberto, L., Pedroso-Chaparro, M.D.S., Fernandes-Pires, J. and Márquez-González, M. (2020). “We’re staying at home”. Association of self-perceptions of aging, personal and family resources and loneliness with psychological distress during the lock-down period of COVID-19. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B. Advance access published 13 April 2020.
Wang, C., Pan, R., Wan, X., Tan, Y., Xu, L., Ho, C.S. and Ho, R.C. (2020). Immediate psychological responses and associated factors during the initial stage of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) epidemic among the general population in China. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(5), 1729.
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-fifth 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