As the pandemic unfolded in 2020, people around the world found themselves confined to their homes. In some neighbourhoods, social support flourished as people reached out to those who perhaps were not their most dearest but happened to be the nearest. Whilst this was brought on by unusual circumstances, this reflects patterns of neighbourly solidarity and community care that are far from new.
I previously wrote about community care in a blog published online by the Sociological Review. The topic continues to be relevant as the pandemic unfolds.
Communities have long been depicted as sources of various social resources from social capital to social support and informal care. Yet, these resources require communal settings where they can prosper. Months of staying at home have contributed to previous concerns of the negative impacts of loneliness especially for the ageing population. Community care will undoubtedly play a role in the recovery that lies ahead, but it remains to be determined how. Drawing on my doctoral research carried out in Mexico City, I want to highlight the importance of community care as our thoughts turn to a post-pandemic society.
Observations of social support among the elderly
Creating a sense of community is a challenge, especially in contemporary urban settings. While carrying out fieldwork in the most densely populated borough in Mexico City, I was surprised to see the multitude of activities community centres offered, especially for pensioners. The centres were more than just places for activities - they were hubs for sharing informal care among senior citizens.
A group led by a woman in her late 60s who had lived in the neighbourhood since the 1970s met Tuesdays and Thursdays. Between 15 and 30 people aged 60-82 sat along several long tables. Within 15 minutes the room was full of chatter and laughter as the group – mostly women – greeted each other exchanging hugs and kisses. The day started with a ‘bring and share’ breakfast where food was exchanged while people caught up. Formally, the purpose of the group was to do simple handicrafts, but by the time the activity leader turned up the pensioners were immersed in their conversations, making the craft activities a secondary activity.
While sharing food, the pensioners discussed day-to-day life such as what they planned to cook for the family or swapping stories about their youth. At times the conversation turned to recent events, family issues, or personal health. One of the older women asked me how I thought she was doing, explaining that she struggled with depression in addition to visible mobility issues. A problem shared seemed to certainly be a problem halved. The group was a setting for discussing what came to mind, sharing everyday news, or asking for advice with matters such as applying for formal support from the borough. It was a place for giving and receiving, but most of all sharing within means, whether that was emotional or material resources like food or small amounts of money.
The community centre was managed by the borough, who also arranged for activity leaders to teach arts and crafts. Although the borough provided the space, the pensioners were the ones bringing the warmth and the compassion. While providing companionship, the friendships that followed enabled the provision of informal care and support that extended beyond the community centre. Perhaps, this was the aim of the activity group. The groups’ activities were suspended following restrictions relating to the pandemic but caring for one another continues, supported by personal messaging apps. The group was an interesting example of how ‘communities’ can provide different types of informal care, supported by social ties.
Relying upon others encourages mutual support. However, a setting where people can come together to build relationships that can act as the basis of informal care is also required . As we wait to re-emerge from our homes, it is time to ask how those settings where people care about each other can be created. The key to building community capacity lies in providing spaces for people to interact, whether these take place in care homes, community centres in other public places or individuals’ homes.