We remember it all too well from the first lockdown. The mandatory weekly Zoom quizzes and the online flow of cultural events.
While most of us can go back to the local pub and enjoy the return of good old Sunday quizzes, some people are still sitting at home. And research suggests 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 a study published in Frontiers in Medicine.
Social isolation and loneliness, which are often more acute in the elderly, are just as bad for health as long-term illness and can lead to premature death. Successive lockdowns during the pandemic only made matters worse.
Researchers suggest that just one virtual trip to the museum per week can promote social inclusion and improve the physical and mental well-being of seniors.
The team recruited 106 community-dwelling adults ages 65 and older to explore the potential health benefits of arts-based activities. Half of the participants took weekly online museum tours followed by an informal discussion, while the other half did not participate in cultural activities before or during the three-month study period.
The people who participated in the visits registered improved feelings of social inclusion, well-being and quality of life, as well as reduced physical frailty, compared to those who did not attend the tours.
More than 2 million over-75s live in England alone, and more than a million say they sometimes go more than a month without social contact, according to the Age UK charity.
“This study shows that digital technology, with adequate infrastructure, age-friendly access and technical support, can benefit the mental health and well-being of older people,” said Professor Yang Hu of Lancaster University.
However, the necessary technical guidance is often lacking, making the elderly feel more lonely during the pandemic than no contact at all.
“Unfortunately, older people are often left to their own devices to navigate the use of technology,” Hu said. Unprepared and prolonged digital exposure can lead to stress and burnout in people unfamiliar with technology, he added.
dr. Snorri Rafnsson, of the University of West London, said: “With enough support, the potential to scale up these types of interventions 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 difficulties and so on,” Rafnsson said. “Studies show that those who have family around them and a supportive social network are more likely to take up and use technology online.”