Online cultural events can benefit lonely older people, study shows mental health

We remember everything very well from the first lock. Mandatory weekly Zoom quizzes and a stream of online cultural events.

While most of us can go back to the local pub and enjoy the return of the old Sunday quizzes, some people are still stuck at home. Research shows that online cultural activities, such as museum tours, can significantly improve the mental and physical health of homebound seniors.

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

Social isolation and loneliness are more common in older people as harmful to health as long-term illness and can cause premature death. Sequential lockdowns only during a pandemic made things worse.

Researchers suggest that just one virtual trip to a museum per week can promote social inclusion and improve the physical and mental well-being of older adults.

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

People who participated in the tours reported improved social integration, well-being and quality of life, as well as reduced physical frailty, compared to those who did not participate in the guided tours.

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

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

Necessary technical guidance is often lacking, therefore virtual contact made older people feel more lonely without any contact during the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, older people are often left to their own devices when it comes to using technology,” Hu said. Unprepared and extended digital exposure can cause stress and burnout in people who are not familiar with technology, he said.

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

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 issues, etc.” Rafnsson said. “Studies show that people who have family and a supportive social network around them are more likely to adopt and use online technology.”

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