Study highlights the negative impacts of social isolation on older people’s health

The lockdown introduced to curb the Covid-19 pandemic has had a tremendous impact on people’s collective health and mental wellbeing, as we all try to find new ways to keep in contact while maintaining social distancing.

The importance of social contact and interaction with others for maintaining good physical and mental health is well established, particularly for older people who may be more prone to isolation and loneliness, and maintaining this interaction has now become more important than ever.

But new research by a Keele psychologist has found that the benefits of such social contact are even more profound than many might expect, with communal groups providing a significant enhancement to older peoples’ wellbeing and sense of community membership.

Before the lockdown began, Dr Katie Wright-Bevans from the School of Psychology was asked to consult with local charity Saltbox, who have contact with more than 20,000 older adults in Stoke-on-Trent and provide the largest telephone befriending scheme across the city.

One of the services the charity offered in the past included six-weekly consultation forums, where older adults could hear about new initiatives from government and community representatives such as the police before discussing them and giving feedback.

Saltbox asked Dr Wright-Bevans to evaluate the forums to assess how effective they were, and with the help of undergraduate and postgraduate Psychology students from Keele she conducted an analysis of the benefits the forums bring.

The researchers attended two forums and facilitated a ‘world cafe’ style discussion session, where 103 participants broke off into smaller groups to discuss the topic in order to obtain multiple perspectives.

Their findings indicated that not only was going to these forums an empowering experience for hearing about new services, but the benefits extended far beyond that by creating a social opportunity, a chance to learn about local clubs, groups and events from others, and a chance to be an active citizen. In other words, these forums were more than just an opportunity for consultation, in that they enhanced participants’ wellbeing, sense of social inclusion, and encouraged active ageing.

Dr Wright-Bevans said: “In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, this study highlights the ill consequences of social isolation for older adults who thrive off coming together physically with others as a primary means of maintaining a sense of community and social inclusion.”

The findings have been published in the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology.