Addressing loneliness in older people through photo-sharing on social media platforms

Scenes from our research workshops involving people aged over 60 years at Oxford Brookes University and at The Open University

About the project

In Sir Halley Stewart Trust-funded project, Mitigating loneliness, social isolation and enhancing wellbeing in older people through photo-sharing on social media platforms, our aim has been to investigate the value of photograph sharing through social media websites as a mitigator of loneliness and enabler of wellbeing of older people, aged 60 years and over.

The project is being conducted at The Open University (OU) and at Oxford Brookes University (OBU). We have been working in close collaboration with local charities such as Age UK Milton Keynes, Silver Robin in Oxford, local camera/photography clubs and with the alumni (retired colleagues) of our individual institutions.

We are addressing the interlinked issues of ageing, loneliness, social isolation and wellbeing in the creative activity of taking photographs and sharing them online via email, cloud-storage applications (e.g. Dropbox, iCloud), photo-sharing applications (e.g. Google Photos) and social media websites and apps (e.g. Flickr, Instagram, blipfoto).

Loneliness in later life

The October 2018 policy paper by government outlines a strategy for tackling loneliness and highlights the importance of social relationships to people’s health and wellbeing. By social wellbeing of people, they imply the personal relationships and social support networks and the way these can bring happiness, comfort and resilience, adding to overall wellbeing. Social engagement, i.e. making social and emotional connections with people and the community, is the primary driver for improved wellbeing in older adults. Social engagement provides older people with resources to cope with life changes associated with ageing.

Our previous research with Age UK Milton Keynes has shown that online social engagement helps in alleviating social isolation and loneliness – especially if older people are able to match online interactions with their interests.

Over the last few years, photography has become easier with cameras integrated into smart mobile phones and Tablets.  Through a pilot study of the online photography journal called blipfoto.com, we found that taking photos and noticing details of life around them makes people feel less alone; and online conversations around pictures with people of all ages enhances their psychological wellbeing.

Interim report

In the preliminary investigations of our current project (following the pilot study mentioned above), our participants conveyed the following benefits:

  • opportunities for improved mental and physical wellbeing,

  • inter-generational communication,

  • for maintaining relationships with the family as well as making new connections, and

  • enhanced creativity skills.

‘now I am retired I am actually finding it [photography] is getting me out, making me go out but it’s also about meeting people all over the world on Flicker and stuff like that. I’m talking to people I would never have dreamed of talking to at any other time’

We are conscious that social benefits of being online can’t be utilised by all – especially, if they are incapacitated by their age, or don’t have the digital skills or access to the internet. Due to continued efforts by local charities such as Age UK and Carers UK, older people are being supported to get online through training and technical support. People who are now retiring (in late 50s or early 60s) would have gained digital skills in their workplaces.

The preliminary results from our project are captured in this report: Report (pdf file, 9 MB)

Next steps

By the end of this project, we aim to provide research-informed evidence to show how photography and online sharing can help towards social connectivity of older people. The results from this project will provide actionable insights for organisations that support older people in later life.

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

Can animals help combat loneliness and dementia?

Can animals help combat loneliness and dementia?

People with dementia "spend a lot of time feeling challenged, and a warm physical presence can cut through that."Could these animals could change how we think about care for all the elderly?

Posted by Channel 4 News on Friday, March 25, 2016

On Channel 4 News tonight (and in this video), they discussed about therapeutic animal handling sessions that are held by Furry Tales in local care homes in the fight against social isolation and loneliness in  older people. 

Another similar venture is Pets as Therapy which is a national charity, that provides therapeutic visits to hospitals, hospices, nursing and care homes, special needs schools and a variety of other venues by volunteers with their own friendly, temperament tested and vaccinated dogs and cats.

In our report for Milton Keynes Council on social isolation and loneliness in people aged 55 and over in Milton Keynes, we have discussed the significance of pets for older people and how independently living older people who have pets tend to have better physical health and mental wellbeing than those that do not (pages 18-19 of the report).  

Also, see this article in the Guardian, 7 October 2014 that discusses how doctors are referring patients to a community pet handling project to reduce social isolation.