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U of R researchers receive funding to help address isolation in older adults during pandemic

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: September 21, 2020 5:15 a.m.

Social Scientist Dr. Amber Fletcher received SSHRC funding to reduce the social isolation older adults who live alone face during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Social Scientist Dr. Amber Fletcher received SSHRC funding to reduce the social isolation older adults who live alone face during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: U of R Photography

Many aspects of our lives have changed dramatically because of the coronavirus pandemic. Fear of contracting the virus has created unease and anxiety for many, while physical distance from others – even those we love and care about – has been strongly recommended, especially when it comes to older adults, the group most vulnerable to falling ill from COVID-19.  

To help older adults stay safe, governments and health officials have encouraged them to self-isolate. But sustained social distancing and reduced interactions have created challenges for many people over 65, especially for older adults living alone, and especially for those living in rural areas – a situation that has received far less attention than the vulnerability and isolation of individuals living in group facilities, such as assisted living and care homes. 

Dr. Amber Fletcher, a social scientist at the University of Regina, wants to make a difference in the lives of older adults who live alone during the pandemic by creating a special research project aimed at reducing social isolation and increasing socialization through the arts. 

The project, called COVID-19: Older adults in rural communities finding voice and connection through the arts, received $24,124 through the federal government’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s Partnership Engage Grant COVID-19 Special Initiative. 

“Our research team’s goal is to connect artists in Saskatchewan with a small group of older adults – either by mail or phone – and to engage them in some kind of artistic activity,” explains Fletcher, associate professor in the Faculty of Arts and one of the project’s lead researchers. “Then – both before and after these artistic activities – our University team will explore whether the older adult’s involvement made a difference in their feelings of connection to their community.” 

A team of University researchers has partnered with the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance (SAA) for the project, a collaboration which builds upon an existing relationship developed by the University’s Dr. Mary Blackstone, a professional artist and a professor emerita, who worked closely with the SAA on another project exploring the value of the arts in the community. 

Also part of the research team is Dr. Barbara Meneley, a MITACS postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Regina, a research officer for the SAA, and a professional intermedia artist.   

“Right now we are figuring out the different ways that we’ll be able to deliver the program remotely,” says Fletcher. “While ultimately it will be up to the participants what they want to do, we are looking at having artists facilitate group storytelling, singing over the phone, or art projects done by mail, just to name a few examples.” 

Fletcher says another idea is to incorporate a storytelling hotline where the participants submit a story, such as a story from their past, allowing others to then dial in to hear that story and/or share their own. 

“We’re also looking at sending out packages filled with art supplies, then having the artists phone the participants and talk them through how to make something, such as a collage or a painting.”

There will also be regular check-ins with the older adults to see how the project is going, which will add an extra layer of connection.

“We are going to hire students to work with us throughout the project, and they will be the ones to phone and check in on the participants. We know from research that intergenerational relationships are mutually beneficial for both groups, so including students in this project will facilitate this,” says Fletcher.

Dr. Kathleen McNutt says that through this project Fletcher and her team are reflecting the University of Regina’s commitment to serving the needs of the community as laid out in the U of R’s 2020-2025 Strategic Plan, All Our Relations. 

“Our role is to harness our strengths to support our communities,” says McNutt. “This project will allow us to use the arts to enrich the lives of those who may not currently be able to access it themselves. But Dr. Fletcher’s project goes beyond that, to ensuring that these older adults, who have been profoundly impacted by this pandemic, are also being cared for by our University community.” 

The SSHRC Partnership Engage Grants (PEG) COVID-19 Special Initiative provides short-term and timely support for small-scale, stakeholder-driven partnerships, allowing researchers and their partners to address urgent and specific needs, challenges or opportunities through collaborations. It will also provide a unique opportunity to foster a knowledge exchange on COVID-19 crisis related issues, challenges, and impacts between postsecondary researchers and different sectors of society, including graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and other highly qualified personnel.

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