We must rise to the challenge of engaging older people during Covid

Lockdown reinforced digital exclusion of the elderly
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Michael Fryer
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Face-to-face workshops and programmes for older people have been replaced by digital activity as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic

As lockdown restrictions continue to ease across the UK, we are only now fully beginning to understand the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on older people. Many over-70s have been shielding, leading to increased social isolation and anxiety, while the Alzheimer’s Society found in a recent survey that nearly half of all people living with dementia reported a decline in their mental health during lockdown. Dementia has been the most common pre-existing condition in deaths from coronavirus and care homes have been hard hit in the number of fatalities. It is a grim picture.

Older people, including those living with dementia, are key audiences for museums. Not only do they visit and donate to our institutions, and take part in our programmes, they also volunteer in large numbers, making a huge contribution by sharing their time and expertise. The challenges this demographic has faced during lockdown have therefore resonated with museums. We know the benefits for health and wellbeing that museums can offer, and our older visitors are the poorer for having to stay at home, just as we have missed them coming through our doors. 

Yet museums have also risen to the challenges of lockdown. So much of what was once face-to-face has become digital, from Zoom workshops to YouTube videos. Museum websites have been revamped and social media accounts are busier than ever. 

The move to digital engagement has undoubtedly allowed us to connect with older audiences, many of who may never have engaged with us before. We have been able to bring our museums into the safety of people’s homes, providing much-needed enjoyment in difficult times. 

However, we cannot forget the reality of digital poverty. Research from Age UK has found that more than half of those aged 75+ are not online, and there is every reason to believe that lockdown has reinforced digital exclusion among this group. As a result, it’s never been more important for museums to find creative ways to reach out to the elderly.

The Northern Ireland War Memorial team has been doing its best to engage with older people over the past few months. We created a free singalong CD and songbook based on our dementia-friendly 1940s singing and reminiscence workshops for people to enjoy at home, and care home residents took part in virtual singing workshops for the 75th anniversary of VE Day. We also partnered with a care home on a digital pilot project that combined music, movement and reminiscence based on Love to Move, a British Gymnastics Foundation seated-exercise programme for older people. Our oral history project has continued to record memories of the second world war through phone interviews and written accounts.

According to one care home manager, our engagement work came “just when needed, with the isolation of lockdown”. What museums offer has arguably never been more vital; let us continue to find ways to connect with our communities, especially our older citizens.

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Michael Fryer is the outreach officer at the Northern Ireland War Memorial Museum, Belfast

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