older people

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

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

Perspective of medical professionals on the role of activity trackers in health and well-being of people aged over 55 years

Figure: Role of activity monitors, as discussed by medical professionals in our empirical research

Figure: Role of activity monitors, as discussed by medical professionals in our empirical research

Project details

In our digital health wearables research programme funded by Sir Halley Stewart Trust and the ESRC Impact Acceleration Award, we have been investigating the role of wearable activity monitoring technologies in the health and well-being of people - aged 55 years and over, carers, and the people being cared for.

Example technologies include activity trackers from Fitbit, Garmin and Samsung, and smart watches. Typically, these devices record steps walked, floors climbed, sleep patterns, calories expended and heart rate.

Research strand involving medical professionals

In this blog-post, we discuss the views of medical professionals on the role of activity monitors of medical professionals:

  • for keeping fit and as a preventative measure towards medical conditions;
  • for increasing physical activity  during prehabilitation; the process of enhancing functional capacity of the individual before an operation to enable him or her to withstand the stress of surgery has been termed as prehabilitation;
  • for monitoring of activity during rehabilitation; and
  • for monitoring of mobility when suffering from a medical condition.

RESEARCH DATA SOURCES

  • Survey with medical professionals where we received  84 responses.
  • Interviews with 10 medical professionals including a physiotherapist, GPs, a geriatrician and A&E consultants. All the interviews were audio-recorded and the data was transcribed verbatim. The data was analysed inductively in NVivo, a qualitative data analysis software package, through thematic analysis and axial coding.

RESULTS

From the survey, we learned that the majority of medical professionals find activity monitors to be useful for people aged over 55. However, they have never recommended such devices to patients, due to ethical considerations related to costs and lack of available support with using this technology. The biggest concern of medical professionals is the accuracy of the data from these off-the-shelf activity monitors, their reliability, and the possible difficulty of interpreting the data from these devices by the users.

We have analysed the our interviews with medical professionals by applying the method of thematic analysis.

For each of the roles that the medical professionals have identified for activity monitors, we have included some example-quotes from our interview data to illustrate the theme. Although the context of the interviews was for people aged over 55 years, you will note that the comments of medical professionals are, in fact, applicable for people of all ages.

Keeping fit

Medical professionals identified the role of activity monitors in supporting people to keep fit and in the prevention of various medical conditions that are normally associated with weight and lack of physical activity. They mentioned diabetes, obesity, and heart and circulatory diseases, and how the risks of suffering from these conditions increase as people age.

An A&E consultant said:

"Obesity and diabetes go together, so if you can keep the population more mobile, then you’d hope that their obesity levels would fall and that their diabetes would be less prevalent…then, on top of that, there would be all the secondary cardiovascular things like strokes, high blood pressure and other things."  [A&E consultant]

The physiotherapist in our participant-set said:

“I think the older population in particular, we know everyone’s living longer, we know we’re getting more medical conditions and increased medical dependency. The evidence shows that the more active- the benefits of exercise in reducing the risk of diabetes, osteoporosis, and improving balance.”  [Physiotherapist]

A General Practitioner [GP] said:

“That’s quite important because the point of the wearable is to have activity and to be more active than usual and to get healthy. That’s the point you wear a wearable.” [GP]

Pre-surgery preparation

For an elective surgery, patients have to be optimised for the surgery – checking on nutrition levels and maintaining some physical activity. A physical activity programme aims to increase aerobic capacity, and muscle and core strength ahead of the surgery. 

A surgeon mentioned about the role of activity monitors in this pre-surgery optimisation.

“about the optimisation of patients for surgery, so pre-optimisation is giving nutrition and doing many things including physical exercise. So, it has been shown that if you want to decrease, for example, the anastomatic leakage, if you make the patient have physical exercise two or three weeks before surgery, it is very effective as well as it’s effective to stop smoking or to take milkshakes for nutrition and so on. So, in elective surgery it will be very useful to say to other patients before surgery, “You are having an operation in three weeks, every day you have to do at least half an hour of activity.” It has been proved that it works.” [Surgeon]

Rehabilitation

For post-surgery rehabilitation or for maintaining some physical activity after a medical incident, the activity monitors could be useful for monitoring the necessary level of mobility that is required.

“Okay. Let’s say after a heart attack, so cardiac rehab. Again, there’s a very important part of recovery where they have exercise and have physio. That might be useful. Again, pneumonia rehab after a bad episode of COPD or something. Any sort of rehab programme where they are doing activities, this would be useful.” [GP]
“If you have the device, and you are able to walk, even inside your home, then, after being inside the home, I can see them going out in the garden. Then, aiming to the local shop and then, aiming to something more.” [Geriatrician]

For monitoring of medical condition

For patients, an activity monitor helps them to monitor their physical activity and to check whether they are keeping up with the level of activity that they have been advised. For medical professionals, these devices can give them an insight into their patients’ level of activity.

“In my Parkinson’s patients, … I would be using it [the activity tracker] for them to show me that they [patients] were gradually increasing their activity levels. I would be looking for trend[s]. Most of my Parkinson’s patients are very inactive and they shouldn’t be. I would be looking at using that during a six-week block of physiotherapy treatment to show an increase trend of how they’re moving. Also, an ideal situation, over six months I’d like them to maintain the levels I achieve after a six-week block.” [Physiotherapist]

CONCLUSIONS

All the medical professionals with whom we have interacted in this project have discussed the role of physical activity and especially walking in staying fit and healthy for people of all ages. As we have discussed in our previous blog-post, activity monitors enable people aged over 55 years :

  • to raise awareness of their activity levels; and
  • to improve and maintain their activity levels.

One of the GPs summarised the significance of walking for people of all ages by saying:

“Obviously we say to people that walking is free, doesn’t cost much and it’s very good exercise, because once you tell somebody how inactive [they] are, they say, “I can’t afford going to the gym,” or they say, “I just joined the gym.” As you know, joining a gym does not necessarily mean that they are active at all; they just pay the money and they don’t go, so we say, “Walking.” Walking is just simple and doesn’t cost money, and you can do it and so on.” [GP]

As we continue with our data analysis, we will share the results with you through this blog.

PROJECT TEAM

Academics: Dr. Duncan Banks (OU), Dr. Kate Hamblin (Oxford University) Dr. Caroline Holland (OU), Dr. George Leeson (Oxford University) Ms. Catherine McNulty (OU), Professor Shailey Minocha (OU) and Dr. Ana-Despina Tudor (OU)

Collaborators: Age UK MK (Jane Palmer), Carers MK (Sue Bowering and Robert Benn) and Samsung UK (Rohit Ail and Qian Shen)

Research Managers: Louise Thomas (OU) and Katia Padvalkava (Oxford University)

Role of wearable activity monitors in improving the level of activity in people aged over 55 years

Pictures: Dashboard of a activity tracker, a wearable activity tracker, a participant who we interviewed on Skype showing us the clip-on activity tracker, and another participant who we interviewed in a face-to-face setting

Project details

In our digital health wearables research programme funded by Sir Halley Stewart Trust and the ESRC Impact Acceleration Award, we have been investigating the role of wearable activity monitoring technologies in the health and well-being of people - aged 55 years and over, carers, and the people being cared for.

Example technologies include activity trackers from Fitbit, Garmin and Samsung, and smart watches. Typically, these devices record steps walked, floors climbed, sleep patterns, calories expended and heart rate.

In this blog-post, we discuss how the activity monitors are helping people aged over 55 years towards their activity and fitness:

  • to raise awareness of their activity levels;
  • to improve and maintain their activity levels.

Research Data sources

  • Survey with people aged over 55 years who are using the activity trackers on their experience of using activity monitors for self-monitoring and self-management of health: n=516 (female: 341; male: 173; 2 respondents didn't specify their gender) of the following age groups: 
    • 55-64 years: 362;
    • 65-74 years: 139;
    • 75-84 years: 13; and
    • 85 and older: 1.
  • Interviews with 10 participants aged over 55 years.

How the use of devices has influenced people over 55 years?

The survey results for question 13 (n=476) show that, out of all the participants, 375 said that they are now  more conscious of their level of activity; followed by 256 who said that they compared their own progress in time, and 217 who had become more active now (please see the data-chart below).

Q13: How has the use of devices influenced you? (please choose ALL that apply)

Answered: 476, skipped: 40

Presentation1.jpg

Some of the comments from the survey-participants on how the use of activity monitors have influenced them:

It is very useful for me to understand how the type of activity I'm involved helps me to build my level of fitness. (65-74 years, female, survey)

I am more informed on what I am eating, how much sleep I am getting and how active I am. (55-64 years, female, survey)

The device motivates me to be active through beating challenges and meeting targets. (55-64 years, male, survey)

People find it helpful to compare their fitness and health levels over previous days, weeks or months (256 participants in the survey and in the data-chart above):

“So I wear it all the time and the [tracker] sends me a weekly report so I can look at what my heart rate has been doing for the whole week, which is a really useful function.” (65-74 age, male, interview)

Improving and maintaining activity levels and health

On a day-to-day basis, the activity trackers make them aware of their inactivity/activity:

“I haven’t gone very far today. And I’ll look at it, like now, and I’ll say, “I’ve only done 1,000 steps”. Come on, come on, get up and move around, do something”. (55-64 years, female, interview)

In terms of monitoring health related issues, activity trackers have helped people monitor their activity if they suffer from any heart-related conditions and lung conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Trackers have helped them to stay active, which has had a positive influence on their medical condition.

A male user who has an untreatable lung condition has used his activity tracker to improve his step count which in turn has improved his condition over time:

When I first got the activity tracker, I had a poor period of health for about three months. […] Then got really busy. […] this year […] I’m well online to meet my minimum target of 20,000 a day. I’ll probably exceed that by the end of the year unless my health turns bad and knocks me back a bit. […]

...but the one [thing] I can say is that since I started with the lung condition the more I’ve been walking the less problem I’ve had with it. Whether that’s a proper correlation or not, I don’t know. That’s certainly been the fact, the more walking I’ve done the less problems my lungs have been.” (65-74 years, male, interview)

ESRC Impact Acceleration Award

Despite the wide-spread use of wearable activity monitors by older people (e.g. gifts by concerned relatives) and carers, our research has shown that the functionality of these devices is not informed by the kinds of activities that these users undertake, their digital skills, their data requirements, data management and security. In the project that has received the ESRC Impact Acceleration Award, we are involved in a knowledge exchange programme to communicate the requirements to manufacturers for improving the design of activity monitoring technologies (and digital health wearables, in general) for older users, carers and medical professionals.

Project team

Academics: Dr. Duncan Banks (OU), Dr. Kate Hamblin (Oxford University) Dr. Caroline Holland (OU), Dr. George Leeson (Oxford University) Ms. Catherine McNulty (OU), Professor Shailey Minocha (OU) and Dr. Ana-Despina Tudor (OU)

Collaborators: Age UK MK (Jane Palmer), Carers MK (Sue Bowering and Robert Benn) and Samsung UK (Rohit Ail and Qian Shen)

Research Managers: Louise Thomas (OU) and Katia Padvalkava (Oxford University)

Role of wearable activity-tracking technologies on the well-being and quality of life of people aged 55 and over

About the project

In our Sir Halley Stewart Trust-funded digital health wearables project (May 2016 - April 2017) and in collaboration with Age UK Milton Keynes, we are investigating whether and how wearable activity-tracking technologies can acceptably contribute towards self-monitoring of activity and health by people aged 55 years and over. Example technologies include those from Fitbit, Jawbone, or smart watches from Apple or Samsung. Typically, these devices record steps walked, sleep patterns, or calories expended.

Empirical research

Our aim has been to determine the potential of these technologies in improving the physical and mental well-being of older people through active lifestyles, and the possible use of data by medical professionals for diagnosis and timely interventions. We have applied a number of data-collection methods such as workshops, surveys and diaries to investigate:

  • experiences of the people aged 55 and over who are already using these technologies;
  • experiences of people aged 55 and over who haven’t used these activity-trackers before and who were given devices in this project – challenges of adoption, whether/how the behaviours of these participants changes; and
  • usability aspects related to the design and use of these devices.

Some preliminary observations from our data

People aged 55 years and over who are already using these activity-trackers (from a month to over an year) and who filled up our survey (n=510) reported that the use of these technologies had ‘made them more conscious of their level of activity’:

  • (79.24%) and 45.55% of the participants said that they were more active since using these devices;
  • 27.75% felt more fit since using these devices and 42.58% reported that they felt better informed about their diet, sleep and activity-levels; and
  • 31.83% of the participants stated that they shared the data with family, friends, activity groups (e.g. walking groups), medical/healthcare professionals and even insurance companies.

We gave activity-trackers to 21 participants in the 55 - 82 age-range. Through monthly workshops, diaries, and one-to-one interviews, we investigated the changes in behaviours of our participants.

Our investigations show:

  • an increase in activity levels in all the participants;
  • increased awareness of food intake; and
  • sharing of data with the GPs to diagnose some specific conditions related to the data from these devices – e.g. the non-optimal sleep patterns (one of them now has a sleep-treatment plan in place). 

The workshop-discussions since June 2016 have uncovered a number of challenges people over 55 years experience with using the activity-trackers - from opening the packaging, accessing the instructions/manuals online, knowing about and using the features of the device, making sense of the data and knowing what is optimal for them (10,000 steps/day might not be a target for somebody recovering from a knee surgery, for example).

Conclusions

Given the UK’s ageing profile and as part of the agendas of Active and Healthy Ageing and digital NHS, there is an increasing focus on maintaining health in later life and encouraging physical activity to preserve mobility and motor skills, and self-monitoring of health and medical conditions. The wider implications of our project are in determining how digital health wearables can be used for self-monitoring and self-management of health by older people; for remote-monitoring of specific conditions such as Parkinson's by carers and doctors, challenges for adoption of such devices; and the ethical/privacy dilemmas of sharing and usage of data.

Authors

  • Professor Shailey Minocha, Dr Duncan Banks, Dr Caroline Holland and Catherine McNulty, The Open University, UK
  • Jane Palmer, Age UK Milton Keynes

This project (May 2016 - April 2017) has been funded by the Sir Halley Stewart Trust. The views expressed in this blog-post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Trust.

Role of wearable activity-tracking technologies on the well-being and quality of life of people aged 55 and over

About the project

Our research project at UK’s Open University and in collaboration with Age UK Milton Keynes aims to investigate whether there are changes in behaviour in people aged over 55 years through the use of wearable activity-tracking technologies. Example technologies include those from Fitbit, Jawbone, or smart watches from Apple or Samsung. Typically, these devices record steps walked, sleep patterns, or calories expended.  

The benefits of regular physical activity for older adults and those with chronic disease and/or mobility limitations are indisputable. Regular physical activity attenuates many of the health risks associated with obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety, and cognitive decline. As physical activity levels among older adults (both with and without chronic disease) are low, facilitating an increase in activity levels is an important public health issue. Walking has been identified as an ideal means of low-impact, low-risk physical activity that can boost physical and mental wellbeing. Our previous research has shown that walking with others can help reduce social isolation and loneliness among people aged 55 and over.

Research strand related to participants trying out activity trackers

In our year-long project (May 2016 – April 2017), in collaboration with Age UK Milton Keynes and funded by the Sir Halley Stewart Trust, we have given activity-trackers to 21 participants in the age range from 55 – 82. Through monthly workshops, diaries that the participants are maintaining and sharing with us on a weekly basis, and through one-to-one interviews with them, we are investigating how the behaviours of our participants is changing – whether there is an increase in their activity such as walking or gardening, lifestyle changes, attitudes towards food/diet, and so on.

Our preliminary data analysis shows: increase in activity levels in all the participants; increased awareness of food intake; and sharing of data with the GPs to diagnose the non-optimal sleep patterns (one of them now has a treatment plan in place for poor sleep). A couple of participants have joined the gym when they realised that their desk-based work-life doesn’t give them the opportunity to stay active during the week. One of the participants who as high-sensitivity to ultraviolet rays is able to plan her outings by viewing the snapshot of the current UV level and by setting an exposure reminder to help protect herself. An 80+ participant is able to plan her days based on the activity levels that her device provides – having some rest-days in between hectic days so as not to over-tire herself.

A couple of quotes from our participants:

“I have been thinking about how the Fitbit has changed my daily routine and there is no doubt that it has changed my view of exercise. I am feeling better and the additional exercise continues to help with the osteoarthritis in my knees.  I have set my daily target as 5000 steps and I am now achieving this on most days, I feel I have failed if I don’t.” 
“I am still checking the number of steps but I don’t feel as disappointed if I haven’t reached my target.  There is no doubt that it has made me more aware of the need for exercise and I now park at the far side of the car park and walk to the shop – not much but its progress.”

Latest news about our project

We have launched a survey that is aimed at medical professionals to explore whether they use the data from these devices for diagnosis and intervention. Most importantly, do medical professionals use data from these devices to determine the behaviour or lifestyle changes in people aged over 55 years?  If you are a doctor or healthcare professional, please visit https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/role-in-medical-consultations or http://bit.ly/2cPr852 to participate in this survey. It will take 3-5 minutes to complete this survey.

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.