Combatting loneliness in later life: Online and offline connections and friendships via online photography

Photo by  fotografierende  from  Pexels

Age UK’s latest research has found that if we don’t tackle loneliness in later life, there will
be 2 million people over 50 in England by 2026 who will often feel lonely (Age UK, 2018). Loneliness will have an adverse impact on their wellbeing and quality of their lives.

Loneliness is ‘deprivation of social contact, the lack of people available or willing to share social and emotional experiences, a state where an individual has the potential to interact with others but is not doing so, and there is a discrepancy between the actual and desired interaction with others’ (Victor, et al., 2005). Loneliness can be as harmful to health as obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness causes people to have a greater risk of cognitive decline and an increased chance of developing clinical dementia. There is also evidence that lonely people are more likely to visit a GP or A&E and more likely to enter local authority funded residential care. 

Tackling loneliness in later life is an important way of improving people’s health and wellbeing. The UK government published the loneliness strategy in 2018 and set out an agenda for reducing loneliness. A key aspect of this strategy was the roll-out of social prescribing schemes across England.

Social prescribing

Social prescribing “is a means of enabling GPs and other frontline healthcare professionals to refer patients to a link worker - to provide them with a face to face conversation during which they can learn about the possibilities and design their own personalised solutions, i.e. ‘co-produce’ their ‘social prescription’- so that people with social, emotional or practical needs are empowered to find solutions which will improve their health and wellbeing, often using services provided by the voluntary and community sector” (Social Prescribing Network). The aim of social prescribing is that link workers will help reduce the workload of GPs. A link worker will help patients find suitable community activities to improve their health and wellbeing and for individuals to take control of their mental and physical health. A person who is lonely may not have a medical condition and may just need encouragement to link up with activities (e.g. local walking group, or a pilates class) in their neighbourhood and local community. 

Indeed our previous research (Minocha et al., 2015) has shown if people aged 55 years and over were are out and about in the community – for example, volunteering, or participating in local walking groups, or helping in the local church, felt less lonely than the ones who didn’t have a reason or motivation to venture out from their homes. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence that social prescription initiatives such as arts, creativity, physical activity, learning new skills, volunteering, mutual aid and befriending result in improved mental health and social connectedness of the individuals concerned.

Sharing photographs online

Over the last year, we (researchers at The Open University and Oxford Brookes University) have been investigating how sharing photographs online can help alleviate loneliness in people aged 60 and over. The research programme is funded by Sir Halley Stewart Trust.

Sharing photographs online has improved social connectedness both online and offline. People make new friends when they are out and about in the community to take photos. Then by posting photos online, they are building connections and making friends both online.

There is a common perception that older people find it hard to make new friends and they get lonely as their friends pass away – but our data has shown that it is possible to make new friends through sharing of an artefact such as a photograph on photo-sharing sites. In our research, we have spoken to several users of the blipfoto site, an online photography journal where users post a photo a day.

Mo’s story

One of our participants in late 60s (Mo) has been posting a photo for 10 years on blipfoto explained about the advantages of finding a photo every day to post on the site:

It becomes a bit of a habit. Just something that you do. It encourages me to walk, you know, to find a photo. It encourages me to talk to people that I wouldn’t normally talk to. I’ve made a lot of friends just out on the street.

I live by the sea, along the seafront. If I want to take a photo of somebody doing something I’ll try to ask them is it okay if I do this. So, I’ve actually made quite a few good friends because I’ve taken a photograph of them. Explained why I wanted to do it. They’ve been quite happy for me to post a picture. A couple of years later we’re still speaking. It has made me quite a few good friends.

When I asked Mo whether she struggles to find a photo to post every day, she replied,

No. There’s always something to take a photo of. If you’ve had a boring day it’s perfectly fine to take a boring photo. If you check my journal you will see that some of my pictures are completely boring. If I’ve had a boring day that’s fine to- I never have a problem finding a photo. I’ve never missed a day and thought, “I’ll just give today a miss because I haven’t taken a decent photo.” I take a photo and post it.

Jen’s story 

One of our other participants (Jen) shared the health-status of her husband (who was suffering from cancer and later succumbed to it) with family and friends on WhatsApp through text and pictures. The WhatsApp group was set up by her daughter. She continues to use this group and other WhatsApp groups (for example, one that involves only her daughters and sister) to receive and send photos. While Jen is recovering from a recent operation and is house-bound, the photographs that she receives from her daughters and the ones she sends to them encourage conversation, keep them informed about their welfare and for her close-family to know that she is well.

I suppose it’s about connections, connections with them. …. I think it’s [photograph] an added dimension to keeping in touch, because I was thinking if there weren’t the photos, pre all this WhatsAppery, it was text messages, so it was words. “We’re off to the Anniversary Games. We’ll ring tomorrow,” or something, whereas now there might be a picture from the train. I don’t know. It’s about making connections. It is about feeling less isolated. I’m learning to live on my own.

Jen explained how sharing of photos are keeping her connected with the immediate family (daughters and younger sister).

I suppose it’s reciprocal because they [Jen’s daughters] do like to see, if I go off for a weekend or go out somewhere, they will sometimes nudge me and say, “Hey, where are your pics?” because I expect pics from them. So I sometimes have to say to my friends, “I must take a picture. The girls [daughters] want to know that I’m doing something, I’m having a happy day, or I’m out and about. I’m not just lurking in the house.” No, that’s putting it a bit crudely. It’s hard to specify, quantify the value of it all. 

Concluding thoughts

While we understand that taking photos and then sharing them online may not interest everybody and particularly when it requires digital skills and people may have concerns about privacy and security, it may be worth exploring how creative artefacts when shared (such as old photos), arts or crafts, etc. can stimulate connections, foster friendships and help alleviate loneliness. 

Report

The preliminary results from our project are captured in this report: Report (pdf file, 9 MB) The funding has been kindly provided by Sir Halley Stewart Trust.

References

Age UK, Loneliness Research and Resources, https://www.ageuk.org.uk/our-impact/policy-research/loneliness-research-and-resources/

Victor, C. R., Scambler, S. J., Bowling, A. and Bond, J. (2005) The prevalence of, and risk factors for, loneliness in later life: a survey of older people in Great Britain, Ageing and Society, vol. 25, no. 6, pp. 357 -375.

The Social prescribing network, https://www.socialprescribingnetwork.com

Social prescribing is a vital part of treatment to tackle loneliness, https://www.redcross.org.uk/about-us/news-and-media/media-centre/press-releases/social-prescribing-is-a-vital-part-of-treatment-to-tackle-loneliness or http://bit.ly/2OG9PWn

Minocha, Shailey; Holland, Caroline; McNulty, Catherine; Banks, Duncan and Palmer, Jane (2015). Social isolation and loneliness in people aged 55 and over in Milton Keynes. The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. Available at: http://oro.open.ac.uk/43925/

PROJECT TEAM

Professor Shailey Minocha, The Open University 

Dr Sarah Quinton, Oxford Brookes University

Dr Caroline Holland, The Open University

Ms Catherine McNulty, The Open University