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Emma Webster discusses recent online meetings, held with stakeholders to discuss the progress of an AHRC-funded project looking at the role of the cultural sector in social prescribing for older people in the time of COVID-19.

An older man looking on his laptop © Shutterstock

In late February 2021, three online meetings were held with stakeholders to discuss progress on an AHRC-funded project looking at the role of the cultural sector in social prescribing for older people in the time of COVID-19. Two meetings involved colleagues from UK and international cultural settings, and the third was attended by older people (age 60+) and link workers/social prescribers. I was lucky enough to be involved with putting together the initial funding application back at the start of the first lockdown and it was great to hear how much progress has been made.

All three meetings started with a brief overview of the project and initial findings from the rapid realist review, given by the project team. The team then asked participants for their reflections on the presentations, in order to make sure that the review’s findings made sense; how far the findings fit with the participants’ own experiences (or not); and whether there are any areas that had been missed. Feedback from participants in this way is vital to ensure that the project remains relevant for various key stakeholders.

The two meetings with colleagues from the cultural sector had people dialling in from as far afield as Hong Kong, the US and Denmark, all of whom were alumni of the University’s Oxford Cultural Leaders programme. Discussions were lively and varied, with topics including:

  • the purpose of museums and cultural spaces during and post-COVID-19;
  • new ways of working and the advantages and disadvantages of the accelerated shift towards digital approaches;
  • the source of the funding for cultural institutions to work in the sphere of health and wellbeing; and
  • the impact of COVID-19 on cultural spaces. 

When discussing the last item on this list, colleagues from the cultural sector spoke of the deterioration of older people’s cognition and confidence in lockdown. This reminded us all of the need to make our spaces safe for older people: not just by providing hand sanitiser and wearing masks, but also in order that people can re-learn how to feel at ease in the company of others.

The meetings also explored the purpose of museums more widely. Participants agreed that cultural settings (e.g. museums) aren’t simply places for people to gaze passively at objects in glass boxes: they can become vital learning spaces, especially during periods of transition. For example, one museum colleague spoke of a man who had lost his wife and who didn’t have any cooking skills. He ended up learning basic cooking skills at this particular museum, a reminder of how museums can impact on health and wellbeing in a variety of sometimes unexpected ways. More poignantly, colleagues spoke of the need to acknowledge the collective loss caused by the pandemic and to make space for staff and volunteers to acknowledge those who won’t be returning when our cultural spaces re-open.

Many of the themes discussed at the two meetings with cultural workers appeared in the third meeting with link workers and older people. One topic on which link workers and older people agreed was around how difficult it can be to find information about cultural sector offerings if one is not ‘in the loop’. Other practical issues under discussion included the need for adequate toilet facilities and that cultural spaces should be safe and welcoming along intergenerational lines. Those attending also talked about the need for older people to take an active part in activities, not just passively listening and reading. This is particularly important for those who have memory issues as they may forget what they have read or heard; hence, activities which don’t just rely on passively looking and reading and which allow with people to interact with others is key.

A topic I found particularly interesting was around the need for cultural institutions to listen to older people to understand their interests, as well as helping them to explore new activities. This chimed beautifully with a thread from one of the cultural sector meetings, where a participant spoke of the need for organisations to spend time getting to know older people and their histories, interests and skills. This cultural sector colleague spoke eloquently of some of the older people engaged with his museum, who don’t consider themselves to be volunteers per se, but who are engaged with the museum at a high level because the museum values their skills and history. As he said, older people want to show that they are still useful to society, and engagement with cultural spaces can be an opportunity to share their skills.

Sometimes research can feel very abstract and the three meetings were a wonderful reminder of, ultimately, who and what this research project is for. The project team are currently working on an interim policy document, which will share some of the early ideas and recommendations coming out of the research.

This research is funded by UKRI/AHRC (AH/V008781/1). The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not necessarily those of her host institution, organisations mentioned or funding bodies.