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Life at home in extraordinary times – Part 3: Shared experiences

Throughout 2020, we dipped into the lives and experiences of 20 households, to discover how people in different types of homes coped with the constantly changing landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic. In doing so, we learned what they did to thrive during challenging times, by asking them: what does home mean to you?

In part one and part two of our ‘Life at home in extraordinary times’ series, we caught up with a select group of families and homes, learning about some of the different ways in which their lives at home had changed over the year. For this third and final part of the series, we look at what these households all have in common.

Read on to learn more about the shared experiences of Susanne, Margareta, Ilenia, Alessio and Shay.

A man wearing a navy blue sweater with white stripes is busy making a fire in a fireplace.
A man wearing a navy blue sweater with white stripes is busy making a fire in a fireplace.

The slow return to normality

When we caught up with Susanne earlier in 2020, she was, finding life to be “a struggle every day”. She quit her job as an air hostess at the start of the year and was living with two of her children in her apartment in Stockholm, Sweden. Being unemployed and job-hunting at the height of a global pandemic and the resulting economic crisis was, unsurprisingly, very hard. And indeed, the research we recently published found that money worries were a critical factor in people’s emotional relationships with their homes and with each other during this time.

But as autumn arrived in Sweden, Susanne’s fortunes changed. She found a new office job only a five-minute walk from her apartment, making things feel almost normal again. And as Sweden’s national coronavirus restrictions did not include the closure of bars, restaurants and cafés, she continued to see her friends – at a distance.

Back to work

Susanne feels relieved to be working again, and very lucky to have secured a job, especially because being back at work has also helped her establish what we found to be essential to almost everyone we spoke to at the start of the corona crisis: a routine. She gets up at 5-ish most days to go to the gym. She also runs, does some yoga, and tries to keep as active as she can.

On the other side of the world, Shay in Sydney, Australia, has been having similar feelings. She enjoyed spending time at home with her parents, brothers and fiancé during COVID-19 restrictions. But even so, it was a huge relief when she was finally able to go back into work.

Missing human contact

What did everyone miss the most during 2020? Margareta in Milan, Italy, singled out dancing with other people, sharing with us her strong belief that dancing is part of being human and that not being allowed to move your body with others is “just not right”. Susanne agrees. Going out to dance and having what she describes as “that nightclub feeling” is something she’s craved from life before the pandemic.

Staying physically distant from loved ones has also been hard for everyone we talked to. Susanne’s parents are elderly and continue to self-isolate. When she was unemployed, she’d take them their groceries every week, but always had to keep her distance. “I’ve missed hugging them,” she says, “of course I have.”

Ilenia, also in Milan, has said the same. For her, being able to see – but not touch – her parents is one of the strangest, hardest things she experienced when COVID-19 restrictions in Italy first lifted.

Sharing space in a different way

From mid-March 2020, universities and schools for students aged 16 and up in Sweden were closed. So, Susanne and her children had to adapt their space for home schooling. “The boys were really good about this. They were structured. They’d go off to their own rooms to work and then we’d all come together for lunch,” she says.

Alessio also had to get used to sharing living space differently. At the beginning of the pandemic, he moved with his wife and daughter to his parents’ house on the Isle of Arran, where he’s been living since alongside three generations of extended family. “I had to learn not to overstep into other people’s space,” he explains. “At first, I was nesting, decorating...but I don’t think my dad liked me changing things. We talked about it, and everything was fine. Now I really like having everyone under one roof.”

Shay’s had similar issues moving back into the family home: “Sometimes everybody is literally stepping all over each other, especially with all of us working from home. At mealtimes, the kitchen is crazy.” Even so, she’s enjoyed being closer to her family, while at the same time eagerly looking forward to a future where she and her fiancé can create a new life together in their own home.

Dreams of something different

It’s fascinating how often the aspirations people shared with us involved being in a different space. For Shay, it’s a married home with a backyard. For Margareta, a garden in the countryside, far away from her cramped Milan suburb. For Alessio, it’s about scaling the mountain he can see from his front door – and venturing into the Scottish countryside beyond it.

But we also heard how the pandemic clouded people’s dreams and made it difficult-to-impossible to plan ahead. Susanne had hopes of going skiing at Christmas, for example, but when she spoke to us, wasn’t sure it could happen because there was so much uncertainty.

Ilenia shares this view: “The virus keeps surprising us, so I don’t know what’s going to happen in the months ahead.” The one thing she feels able to prepare for is a return to stay-at-home restrictions. “This is why it’s important for me that my apartment is a happy place full of memories,” she says. “Because whatever happens, I know that while I’m at home, I can feel strongly connected with my parents and friends.”

Final thoughts

From our extensive research into life at home during 2020, we know that it is being re-evaluated all over the world. Whatever restrictions people faced, they’ve had to think about and use their homes in ways they perhaps haven’t done before. And, while everybody has had a unique experience of the pandemic, there are some clear themes that emerge time and again.

One thing we’ve heard throughout our research is how the importance of home has grown in people’s lives. Before COVID, home was merely somewhere to come back to at the end of the day. But in the home of now – and of the future – it’s where we’ll focus on connection with family and friends. Where we’ll continue to at least partly work – and to work out. And where we’ll treasure the simple pleasures of cooking, eating, relaxing and playing. Where, above all else, we’ll continue to prioritise creating a feeling of sanctuary.

Missed the other parts of the ‘Life at home in extraordinary times’ series? Go to part one or part two.

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