Balconies have emerged as being key safe, social distancing, yet communal, spaces in extra care settings during lockdown. They have been creatively re-occupied in order for residents in extra care to do all manner of things in order to stay safe, to stay connected and to maintain good mental health.
In our Bereavement Supporter Diaries research project with Cruse Bereavement Care and The ExtraCare Charitable Trust, the weekly lockdown diaries that are being kept by residents in ‘villages’ run by the Trust often articulate the diarists’ and wider community’s sense of loss over a physical community and loss of public, shared spaces such as the Bistro, gym, coffee-shop and grocery store. This raises the question of where community can be found when these community-building spaces become unavailable or redundant. It also warns extra care housing providers in general of being overly reliant on the central community hub in generating a sense of community.
We were completely taken by surprise, but quite delighted, that the balcony, a feature of an extra care housing development that is sometimes regarded as a symbol of individuality, privacy and luxury, has become so central to fostering social connection and a sense of ‘normality’ during a long period of social isolation behind closed doors.
For example, one of the residents who has been keeping a diary wrote down in their diary that:
“For me one of the best new schemes was balcony Alfresco exercises when the instructor stood outside with microphone and music, and we joined in individually on our balconies, twice a week. The Village is an E shaped block so everything had to be repeated 5 times from different locations, so all could take part. It is only 25 minutes each time, but really appreciated and people who had never joined the previous exercise classes joined in. Later qigong (like tai chi) was added weekly and singing by two gifted staff members. We also meet on the balconies to clap for the NHS.”
It’s a testament to the lengths that The ExtraCare Charitable Trust villages – both residents and staff - are going to recreate a sense of community and doing the many activities from balconies is really appreciated by residents. So much so, that once balcony sessions ceased later into lockdown, residents felt their loss straight away, as another wrote:
“LOSS …loss of balcony exercises now. Fitness Instructor off for several weeks, with 4 other staff including Activities Organiser, so remainder cannot stretch to offer the exercises…Feels a loss of community. Lack of doing any joint activity. Several residents feel the same.”
During lockdown the balcony has become ‘the new front door’ as one of the Extra Care housing managers put it. They have facilitated residents symbolically stepping out to reach out to each other during very stressful and isolating times. They have facilitated social connections between neighbours to remain by doing communal exercise classes from a safe distance and singing, and for others, who may be physically alone, to feel connected by observing the comings and goings of others throughout the day from their balcony.
"The balcony, a feature of Extra Care Housing that is sometimes regarded as a symbol of individuality, privacy and luxury, has become so central to fostering social connection and a sense of ‘normality’ during a long period of social isolation"Given our interest in how individual and collective grief is supported at a time when the usual social and cultural rituals that can support the bereaved are no longer possible, our research has been particularly interested in the way in which the balconies have also become the new sacred space in extra care communities. They have enabled collective hymn singing, allowing others in the community to show respect and say a last goodbye to those residents who have died during lockdown. As another resident observed:
“We said farewell to one of our residents yesterday... many of us from our balconies as the hearse moved off to the very small, family funeral.”
As highlighted in the Housing LIN’s updated factsheet on the design principles of extra care housing last month, balconies are one of the ten HAPPI design principles and have also long been a core feature in ExtraCare villages, providing residents with valued outdoor space, but who of us can claim we had the vision to anticipate the pivotal role balconies would play in offering community at a time when the very heart of physical community is closed off and unobtainable? For many residents during the current pandemic, stepping out onto their balconies has, in some respects, been far more constructive than stepping through their front doors for residents in extra care.
This tentative finding that has arisen from residents’ diaries suggests that in future, extra care housing should ensure all residents have their own access to a balcony so that the door is never closed onto the proverbial street. HAPPI days!
This blog was written by Hannah Rumble, Karen West and Ailsa Cameron at the University of Bristol; Eve Wilson from Cruse Bereavement Care; Michael Spellman from The ExtraCare Charitable Trust, Caity Roleston and Rachel Shaw from Aston University.
If you would like to talk through any of the issues raised in this guest blog and/or find out how the Housing LIN can assist your organisation, email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org