How do researcher-community partnerships turn the dial towards greater social connectedness?

Three reflections from “How are you? Moments of connection and Isolation”, and interactive photography exhibition in Vancouver’s West End Neighbourhood.

Isn’t it ironic – a social connectedness researcher who collected data, while isolated in their own home, distanced from their participants? I think so. And that researcher was me.

In April 2020, right after BC declared a state of COVID-19 emergency I partnered with the West End Seniors’ Network (WESN) to understand what was happening in the day-to-day pandemic lives of older adults. We sought to listen and learn about how the government’s shelter-in-place orders impacted older adults’ social connectedness. I interviewed 31 older adults (people aged 55+) via telephone or Zoom. Nine out of ten participants lived in multi-unit housing, and about 60% lived alone, which is 4 times higher than the Vancouver average. Nine people volunteered to take photographs of instances where they felt isolated or connected. 

Fast-forward 2.5 years later, I was honoured to meet some of those participants in person. WESN and I co-curated an interactive photo exhibition to feature participant photographs titled: How are you? Moments of connection and isolation, an interactive photo exhibition. We hosted a launch party that brought together researchers (including Hey Neighbour Collective affiliates), community partners, city planners and participants. We reflected on what happened, where we are at now, and where we are headed in terms of experiences and priorities for older adult social connectedness.  

As readers familiar with the Hey Neighbour Collective (HNC) are likely aware, social connectedness protects against isolation and loneliness and makes us healthier, happier, and live longer. HNC strives to cultivate social connectedness and community resilience to improve well-being in high density neighbourhoods. 

I share key moments from the development and outcomes of How are you? to articulate how researcher-community partnerships are integral to advancing HNC goals. Below I highlight how three aspects of the photo exhibition strengthened the meaningful impact of my research.  

1. Research as intervention

Participants expressed how being part of the research study added to their sense of social connectedness. They felt valued and purposeful while taking photos during the pandemic. The exhibit itself catalyzed social connections. Participants invited friends and family to attend, and made plans to meet for happy hour drinks after.

Some text on a large piece of paper, left by participants: "It was nice to be asked."

The exhibition was open to the general public for two weeks. Attendees of all ages commented how the photographs resonated with their own experiences –even though they weren’t older adults (yet). Through reflecting a shared experience, the public showing of the photographs cultivated belonging, which is a key attribute of social connectedness.

2. Power in partnerships

A cornerstone of HNC’s approach is to foster cross-sectoral partnerships that alleviate loneliness and social isolation. We know loneliness and social isolation are wicked problems with no simple or easy solution; problems that we must address from multiple angles of lived and learned expertise. 

As a community-engaged researcher, I was challenged to actually engage with community during the pandemic. WESN, my main community partner, was designated by the Ministry of Health as a COVID-19 Community Response Hub Agency. Like many neighbourhood-based organizations during the pandemic, they played a vital front-line role to support older people in duress. Needless to say, during this time we didn’t meet for a leisurely tea. 

 The planning and execution of the photo exhibition reinvigorated our relationship. At the project’s outset, I connected with staff to discuss our shared interests and goals. I experienced first-hand the importance of spending time in the physical space of the community with whom you work. Since I spent multiple days at Barclay Manor (home of WESN) to map out and mount the photographs, I got to know staff and volunteers. I listened to the fireside chats of patrons, and the sounds of the ukulele waft through the heritage building walls. I was reminded in a very human way, of why my work as a social connectedness researcher is important. 

A montage of profile photos of various participants in the research and exhibit. Photos by Jess Macaleese Photography.

3. Spark public interest 

One reason I was motivated to undertake this project was to dispel negative stereotypes of older adults. Too often this age group is depicted as homogenous and vulnerable. Research shows that negative stereotypes of aging are detrimental. I also wanted to raise the profile of social connectedness as integral to health. Based on these motivators, the media attention this project garnered was a big success. The Vancouver Sun article highlighted how photography as a research method positioned participants as the leaders towards what is meaningful. I discussed on CTV news how older adults’ experiences during the pandemic were diverse; yes they experienced challenges, but they also demonstrated strength, resilience, and adaptability. 

This media attention did not just happen. It took time, work, and the support of WESN, the Active Aging Research Team and UBC communications. From my perspective, this was time well spent. It made this project exponentially more accessible to the broader public. Professors Joanie-Sims Gould, Meghan Winters and my related academic publication was viewed 245 times in a few weeks. This is 250% more than the average lifetime views of an article. Why does this matter? People are paying attention and reading the research because they increasingly recognize loneliness as a pressing social problem. On the flip-side, they want to learn more about how social connectedness is important for well-being. 

In this regard, HNC and their partners are building evidence and awareness towards greater social connectedness. I am grateful to be a part of the movement.