Digital tools are key to combatting loneliness say Essex academics

  • Date

    Tue 15 Jun 21

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University of Essex academics say combating loneliness through sharing digital tools and encouraging online connections is key to building resilience for older people.

The Essex team are evaluating a multi-national effort to implement social prescribing – an innovative and holistic approach to improving health and wellbeing where professionals support people to be active and connect with other people and groups.

They are sharing their initial reflections to coincide with the UK’s Loneliness Awareness Week (14-18 June). The Awareness Week has been organised by the Marmalade Trust and is particularly important as loneliness and isolation have been at an all-time peak for many people during the pandemic.

Professor Gina Yannitell Reinhardt, Department of Government, University of Essex, is leading the evaluation of Connected Communities, a partnership project between English and French councils funded by European Regional Development Fund - INTERREG France Channel England.

She said: "Working with the Connected Communities partnership and Social Prescribing Plus partners has shown us how resilient our communities can be.”

“Digital access to programmes, groups, and resources has grown throughout the pandemic, helping people to connect and interact even during restrictions on social activity. We expect our evaluation to show that an increase in digital access has contributed to reducing loneliness during these difficult times, as well as to alleviating loneliness and isolation among our most vulnerable people."

Finding ways for people to make contact safely with groups who can help them, as well as with friends and family during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge for all organisations working to reduce the effects of loneliness and isolation.

Josie from Melton near Woodbridge in Suffolk is one of the first recipients of a Grandpad, a smart tablet with a SIM card. Josie says that before she received her Grandpad, she only had an old mobile phone with no internet access. She now uses her Grandpad for many things, including video calling her son, keeping in touch with friends in America, and taking photographs. As well as enjoying the photos she has taken, Josie is also having fun with her Grandpad, playing a variety of online games including solitaire.

‘Grandpads’ and other online tools have been central for the Connected Communities Project, which has been designed specifically to increase connectedness amongst older people who are feeling socially isolated and lonely, and to help older people to better manage their own health and social care, with support when needed to help them be more independent for longer.

Grandpads are just one example of the way digital tools have been harnessed by Connected Communities Community Connectors (also called Link Workers). Community Connectors are the professionals who deliver Social Prescribing Plus. They were planning to engage with individuals in person, however due to the COVID-19 social distancing rules, they were pressed to adapt and engage via digital and remote methods of connecting with older people who are facing isolation. v

There are some very good reasons for helping people keep in touch. An academic review of research, done by the University of Essex evaluation team, has shown that connectedness and loneliness reduction improve physical and mental health, enhance resilience and increase the chances of better adapting to unexpected changes forced upon us, such as the pandemic itself.

University of Essex evaluators have seen the project flourish throughout the pandemic, but in a different way than was expected. Five council partners, and their Social Prescribing Plus Community Connectors, have been working hard to design and deliver social prescribing support to people over the age of 60 in France and the age of 65 in England. Each of these partners has seen an increase in digital projects and access with the rise of digital loan devices and support and many local activities and groups transferring to online ways of working. The Community Connectors talk about their experiences of the rise of digital tools and connections to continue with their programmes of support for older people through the pandemic.

Art classes, zoom coffee mornings, mental health workshops, COPD workshops, fitness workouts, knitting circles, book clubs, prayer groups, and telephone befriending services are just some of the ways people have been able to stay in touch, finding new interests or keeping up with existing ones, without leaving their homes. These activities could also be accessed by telephone, for those who are not digitally connected.

Through the evaluation of the impact of the Connected Communities partnership and Social Prescribing Plus activity on people and services, the University of Essex team have seen that social prescribing support via digital access has helped partners address loneliness and isolation. This is captured through blogs, vlogs, case studies, and research snapshots, which share the ‘voice’ of frontline Community Connectors and programme participants, as well as the behind-the-scenes work of the partner local authorities.

The Government’s COVID-19 inquiry predicts that hybrid support will be available in the future, including both face-to-face and digital access. The University of Essex team says that this hybrid support would work well, enabling social prescribing to be a means to address loneliness and isolation for people who like to meet and connect face-to-face, people who prefer digital or virtual interaction, and people who could not access face-to-face activities and groups before the pandemic.

You can follow the University of Essex evaluation project and learn about similar initiatives on Twitter at @ConnectCommune, and by following #LonelinessAwarenessWeek2021.