Online cultural events can benefit lonely seniors, study shows

We remember it all too well from the first confinement. Zoom’s obligatory weekly quizzes and stream of cultural events held online.

While most of us can head back down to the local pub and revel in the return of good old Sunday quizzes, some people are still staying at home. And research suggests that online cultural activities, such as visiting museums, can significantly improve the mental and physical health of older people who are confined to their homes.

“Our study showed that art-based activity can be an effective intervention,” said Dr. Olivier Beauchet, a professor at McGill University in Montreal and lead author of a study published in Frontiers in Medicine .

Social isolation and loneliness, which are often more acute in older people, are as bad for health as long-term illness and can lead to premature death. Successive lockdowns during the pandemic only made things worse.

Researchers suggest that just one virtual trip to the museum a week could encourage social inclusion and improve the physical and mental well-being of older people.

The team recruited 106 community-dwelling adults aged 65 and over to investigate the potential health benefits of art-based activities. Half of the participants attended weekly online museum tours followed by informal discussion, while the other half did not participate in any cultural activities before or during the three-month study period.

People who joined the tours reported improved feelings of social inclusion, well-being and quality of life, as well as a decrease in physical frailty, compared to those who did not attend the guided tours.

More than 2 million over-75s live alone in England, and more than a million say they sometimes go more than a month without any social contact, according to the charity Age UK.

“This study shows that with appropriate infrastructure, elderly-friendly access and technical support, digital technology can benefit the mental health and well-being of older people,” said Professor Yang Hu from the University of Lancaster.

However, the necessary technical guidance is often lacking, which is why virtual contact made older people feel more alone than no contact during the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, seniors are often left to their own devices to navigate their use of technology,” Hu said. Unprepared and prolonged digital exposure could lead to stress and burnout in people unfamiliar with the technology, he added.

Dr Snorri Rafnsson, from the University of West London, said: “With the right support, the potential to scale up this type of intervention is great.”

However, not everyone has access to online resources and activities. “There are huge barriers for older people living in the community: lack of internet, knowledge and support, financial problems, etc.,” said Rafnsson. “Studies show that those who have family around them and a supportive social network are more likely to employ and use online technology.”

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