University of Helsinki: Research on the effects of nature-related experiences on the loneliness of elderly people

Already before the Covid-19 pandemic, 30 million Europeans reported often experiencing feelings of loneliness. Research has shown that loneliness shortens the lifespan and can be as detrimental to health as smoking or obesity. At the same time, research indicates that loneliness and its adverse health effects can be alleviated.

The Covid-19 pandemic has emphatically highlighted both the negative aspects of loneliness and the positive aspects of nature. The RECETAS project, funded by the EU, aims to tackle this topical phenomenon and investigate how loneliness could be alleviated by enabling social activity related to urban natural environments. Biodiversity loss and climate change are further increasing the topicality of the project and the demand for research-based knowledge.

“Through our everyday experience, we know that nature boosts wellbeing, but there is limited scientific evidence on this effect or the possible mechanisms,” says Kaisu Pitkälä, professor of general practice at the University of Helsinki.

“Admitting to being lonely and talking about it have become easier during the pandemic, which is why it is important to investigate the issue and increase awareness of it now in order to do something about it,” she adds.

Models under development for the global promotion of wellbeing
The project, which launched in spring 2021, aims to collect information on the best nature-based interventions and develop new influential models that reduce loneliness and promote wellbeing.

“The goal is for RECETAS to offer healthcare operators and professionals impactful intervention options for alleviating loneliness in a cost-efficient manner,” Pitkälä sums up.

The project wishes to promote practices and their adoption globally. For this purpose, related studies will be carried out in six cities around the world: Barcelona, Marseille, Prague, Helsinki, Cuenca (Ecuador) and Melbourne.

Improved health for care home residents through nature-related experiences
In Helsinki, the focus is on group activities related to nature-based experiences among lonely elderly people living in round-the-clock assisted living facility. The impact and cost of these activities will be surveyed by employing a randomised research design. Other project partners will also be trained to use the model.

“Research will provide us with scientific evidence on whether social, nature-based interventions can boost health and wellbeing. At the same time, these solutions are aimed at reducing the strain on the healthcare system,” Pitkälä says.

In Finland, much experience of alleviating the loneliness of elderly people has been gained over 20 years through the Circle of Friends scheme organised by the Finnish Association for the Welfare of Older People.

“Studies on the scheme have demonstrated that the utilisation rate of social welfare and healthcare services by people who take part in group activities drops by 30%, in addition to which their health improves and their wellbeing increases,” says Pitkälä.

According to Pitkälä, group activities make it easier for the elderly to talk about their loneliness. Art-based techniques and other tools that work well in groups have been developed for this purpose.

“It’s important to get people to share their experiences of loneliness. Through action, we wish to strengthen the participants’ sense of being capable and to support their budding friendships,” Pitkälä sums up.

A total of nine countries and 13 organisations from around the world are participating in the Re-imagining Environments for Connection and Engagement: Testing Actions for Social Prescribing in Natural Spaces (RECETAS) project. The project is coordinated by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) and supported by the La Caixa foundation. The EU’s Horizon 2020 programme provides funding totalling €5 million for the five-year project.

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