Art Activities Can Be a Lifeline for Lonely Seniors

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, older adults were at risk for social isolation and loneliness.  Because the elderly are more vulnerable to COVID-19, they are wisely being asked to stay in their homes, retirement centers, and nursing facilities, reducing their potential exposure to the virus.  But with restrictions on their movements as well as visits from their loved ones and caregivers, our elders are at even greater risk of social isolation and loneliness. These conditions are associated with higher mortality and a host of health issues, such as cardiovascular illness, cognitive decline and depression.

While the pandemic may have cut off seniors from the comforts and joys of their social world, art activities remain easily accessible and can help ease loneliness as well as the negative impact on their health and longevity.

The Lonely Brain on Art

Loneliness has its own signature in the brain, correlated with a reduction in neurons in the left posterior superior temporal sulcus, an area tied to picking up on basic social cues.  Neuroimaging has shown that the brains of lonely people appear to be more sensitive to people in distress and less responsive to pleasant social situations.  A recent study even suggests that isolation causes a pattern of activity in the brain similar to food deprivation, where individuals deprived of social contact experience a craving akin to pangs of hunger. Together, the research shows loneliness is associated with profound changes in the brain.

Engaging with the arts reduces and may protect older adults from loneliness.  Arts participation—be it dance, expressive writing, music, theater, or the visual arts—has significant benefits for cognition, mood, and quality of life for the elderly.  The arts are pleasurable and activate areas of the brain involved with reward and emotion.  They can help people better cope with feelings of loneliness, even when experienced as a solo activity.  As a group activity, the arts have the additional power to grow or strengthen social bonds, a process that may involve “mirror neurons” in the brain. Because these neurons respond to and “mirror” the actions of other people, they may explain how the arts are helpful shorthand for communicating our emotions and bringing us closer together.

How to Support Our Seniors Through Art Experiences

One major benefit of art experiences is their diversity and relative ease of access: there are many ways to engage in line with your personal tastes—either on your own or with others.  Technology opens up the possibilities for interacting safely with people and art in its many forms from around the world:

For Seniors (and Care Providers):

For Family and Friends of Seniors:

This is article is a part of IAM Lab’s regularly updated COVID-19 NeuroArts Field Guide. Be sure to check the Guide for the latest, evidence-based tips on how the arts can support our wellbeing during the pandemic.

We would also like to hear from you: Are you, your loved ones or colleagues dealing with specific issues and want to learn more about art-based solutions?  Are you already using the arts to help you cope?   

Please share your thoughts, ideas and concerns with us at  Be well and stay safe.

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