Using the NatCen panel to shine a spotlight on our homes and communities during the pandemic
Safe, accessible homes and well-connected communities are fundamental for ageing better, as the pandemic has made all too clear.
Aideen Young, Senior Evidence Manager at Ageing Better, reflects on the importance of good housing and connected communities in light on the COVID-19 pandemic, ahead of our research with NatCen Social Research.
The Centre for Ageing Better was created with the vision of a society in which everyone enjoys their later life. We set out to achieve this vision by taking action on a number of interconnected and enduring societal issues that people told us matter most to the quality of their lives and where we felt we could make the most difference.
The homes we live in are central to a good later life. Safe, good quality homes that meet our needs can maintain or improve our physical and mental health, wellbeing and social connections. But with housing stock that is among the oldest in Europe and some of the highest associated health and care costs, we have long known that millions of people in this country are living in homes that are damaging to their health and wellbeing.
Communities are also key to the quality of our later lives - supporting social connections, promoting healthy activity and making us feel valued. Helping others is a vital strand that binds communities and importantly it not only benefits the recipient. Those who help out – whether through everyday acts of neighbourliness to more formal volunteering roles – tend to be happier, with a greater sense of purpose as well as more and better quality relationships in their lives. And yet, in spite of the possibilities that our communities present, too many people in later life feel isolated, without any sense of belonging or connection.
In March 2020 – upon the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic – we commissioned NatCen Social Research to undertake some qualitative and quantitative research using the NatCen panel. Along with NatCen, we publish the findings of this research today to coincide with our webinar 'Community connections as we age: lessons from the pandemic'. We wanted to explore the impact and experience of the pandemic and associated lockdowns among people aged 50 to 70, specifically with regards to their homes and communities. Little did we understand at the time just how instrumental a role our homes and communities would come to play in our experiences of the pandemic as the months rolled on and we submitted to repeated lockdowns.
At a time when those who were required to shield could not even get to the supermarket and Zoom became one’s only door into the outside world, our ability to connect with those in our communities was crucial.
It seems barely believable now that at the beginning of the pandemic – when several prominent people had caught and become ill with the virus – that it was being referred to 'the great leveller'.
Soon it became clear that nothing could be further from the truth and the quality of our homes – linked more broadly to poverty and ill health – soon emerged as one of the factors at the heart of the COVID-19 experience.
Overcrowding – more common in certain population groups than others – allowed greater virus transmission and hence higher mortality rates. A lack of space put huge pressure on families at a time when remote working and home schooling were mandatory; many suffered too from a lack of outdoor space when only a brief outing for exercise was permitted. And pre-existing health conditions such as respiratory disease, that can be caused and exacerbated by poor-quality housing, significantly increased the risk of poor outcomes from the disease.
Meanwhile, we came to truly understand what it means to have – or rather not to have – social connections in our communities. At a time when those who were required to shield could not even get to the supermarket and Zoom became one’s only door into the outside world, our ability to connect with those in our communities was crucial. At the same time, with voluntary organisations having had to suspend face to face operations, systems of informal mutual support came to the fore.
As we recover from the pandemic, it's clearer than it has ever been that we must act to address the poor state of existing homes. Too many of the poorest in society are living in non-decent homes that put their health and wellbeing at risk. At the same time, local areas need to create the social infrastructure and physical environment that enable social connections to thrive. They must do more to provide accessible and inclusive opportunities for people to get involved in their communities so that people can build and maintain close connections as well as wider everyday contact.
Importantly, the insights from this research are not specific to catastrophic situations such as a pandemic but are generalisable to our lives even in more mundane times. The pandemic shone a spotlight on our homes and our communities, bringing into sharp relief what are ultimately universal truths about our lives.