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How museums are helping socially isolated older adults

They say that distance makes the heart grow fonder. Well, that’s certainly been brought into sharp (and painful) focus over recent years.

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted just how important those relationships with our loved ones really are. As communities around the globe look to recover from repeated lockdowns, social restrictions and extreme loneliness, it should make us all think more carefully about those individuals in society who regularly experience feelings of isolation. In particular, the elderly represent a demographic that is significantly more likely to enjoy more infrequent social contact and experience fewer opportunities to engage with others.

Chronic loneliness has been linked to a variety of health problems, including high blood pressure and cholesterol, poor diet, reduced immunity, asthma, and a greater risk of other chronic illnesses and diseases. The prolonged, heightened exposure to cortisol caused by loneliness can also result in a number of other issues, such as depression, anxiety, digestion problems, insomnia, and obesity.

According to Age UK, loneliness affects the lives of some 1.4 million older people in Britain. Whether it’s the death of a partner, poor health, reduced mobility, a lack of community, a rural location, retirement, or living alone that’s the reason behind an older person’s persistent loneliness, it is evident that the work museums are doing with the elderly is more important than it has ever been.

How museums can help

A visit to a museum or art gallery is more than just an opportunity to leave the house. These visits are often the catalyst for isolated older people to break out of patterns that trigger feelings of loneliness.

Interactive and tactile displays play major roles in enhancing engagement amongst the loneliest in society. Similarly, attending workshops and events alongside others can help those most at risk overcome deeply ingrained feelings of solitude.

Known for its diverse, global community, UCL has been an unrelenting advocate of social reform throughout the older population. Their three-year Museums on Prescription research project was instrumental in the use of museums, arts and heritage for tackling loneliness amongst older adults.

Through the project, UCL has developed several prescription schemes for older people deemed at risk of social isolation. These schemes engaged with older adults, giving them the opportunity to connect with peers, improve their wellbeing and enjoy cultural activities simultaneously. The project went onto win two awards as well as a special commendation from Public Health England. Yet the positive impact the schemes had on their 115 participants is thought to be the team’s greatest achievement.

Reaching out to the community

For lonely older people isolated due to mobility issues and health problems, visits to a local museum or gallery may not always be possible, of course. Access to cultural services is made even more difficulty if at-risk individuals reside in remote or rural locations.

Ripon Museums – a group that includes the locally based Workhouse Museum and Garden, Courthouse Museum, and Prison and Police Museum – run a community outreach programme to bring their exhibits and displays to individuals that would otherwise find it difficult to access them. The institution uses interactive activities to engage participants, journeying directly to older people and adults with learning disabilities to tackle rural and social isolation.

Several institutions, including the Royal Cornwall Museum and Falmouth Art Gallery, are also running outreach sessions at care homes and day centres to connect their collections with the elderly. PK Porthcurno went one step further, giving local care home residents the guidance and tools they needed to create their own works of art, creations that were later displayed at the gallery for all to see.

Reaching out to communities makes people feel engaged and connected, and this is a powerful, positive tool, especially for older adults who are beginning to feel socially isolated.

Both on-site and community outreach activities can deliver many benefits, as well as prime opportunities to build connections, confidence and self-esteem amongst society’s loneliest older people.

Find out more about the health and wellbeing issues currently impacting museums at the upcoming Museums, Health and Wellbeing Summit, running 31st January – 2nd February 2022.

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