Learning from Lockdown: Exploring How Older People Participate in Online Activities

Open Age, a membership organisation that champions an active life for older people, made the transition from delivering in-person activities to online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the success of their online programme, Open Age used funding from the National Lottery Community Fund and Dunhill Medical Trust to commission independent researcher Dr Alex Evans to investigate the role of online activities for older people and how they can get the most from them.

We were soon running over 100 hours of activities a week, with around 500-600 older people regularly taking part.

Iain Cassidy, Open Age CEO

Taking part in group activities creates a strong sense of community and offers opportunities for older people to make new friends, rediscover old hobbies or find new ones and – most importantly of all – have fun! In turn, this helps to combat loneliness and isolation, and improves the health and wellbeing of older people.

At the start of 2020, Open Age was providing 350+ weekly activities at more than 60 sites across London, from ballet and boxing to poetry and painting. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we could no longer offer these types of activities in-person so we had to rethink how to continue supporting our members during this difficult time.

Despite having no experience of online delivery, and concerns that older people might not want or be able to engage in online activities, we set about developing a programme of online Zoom classes. We were soon running more than 100 hours of activities a week with around 500-600 older people regularly taking part each month.

Adapting to the changing landscape

The research challenged many of our assumptions that older people wouldn’t be interested in online activities.

Dr Alex Evans, Independent Researcher

To our surprise, transitioning from in-person to online was relatively easy and our online programme was a huge success. We had an overwhelmingly positive response from our members, which challenged many of our assumptions about how older people perceive and participate in online activities.

Curious about what was going on, we secured funding from the Dunhill Medical Trust and the National Lottery Community Fund to dig deeper into the benefits of online services for older people and find out whether there is a need for more online options than are currently on offer.

We interviewed around 50 people who took part in our online classes to hear about their experience, particularly what they liked and what they found challenging. We also ran a literature review and spoke to other organisations who had also made the jump to online activities during the pandemic, publishing our findings in an in-depth report.

How do older people benefit from online activities?

Online should never replace in-person activities, but older people should have more online options.

Iain Cassidy, Open Age CEO

Overall, the research showed that there are two main groups of people: those in favour of online activities and those that aren’t. However, people who were originally against moving online admitted that if their circumstances changed they would want the option to join online.

What really struck us was the diversity of people taking part in these online activities. We assumed they would be comparatively well-off and younger, but this was just not the case.

We also found that online services are particularly beneficial for older people who find it much harder to attend in-person activities because they are frailer or less mobile, or live in very rural areas. Similarly, carers found it easier to join an online session than arrange for respite care.

More broadly, we were blown away by the sheer creativity of all the different types of online activities other organisations came up with to support their members through the pandemic. This proves that when funders are flexible and trust organisations to do what’s best, they are able to innovate and do amazing things.

We’d also like to thank the DMT for helping us reach out to other organisations to be part of our research and for their support with sharing our findings.

Looking ahead

One of the positive things that came out of this project is that people stopped seeing online activities as an either/or scenario, but as an opportunity to be more flexible and expand what’s available.

We want to emphasise that online should never completely replace in-person activities, but that digital technology can offer older people more choice for where, when and how they participate, depending on what suits them.

Our findings have led us to reassess our strategy moving forward and we have now secured funding from UK Research & Innovation’s Healthy Ageing Challenge to develop a new online service, Open Age Online, to expand our digital capabilities.