Virtual Village Shields Vulnerable People from Pandemic Isolation

Summary: Researchers developed a virtual village to combat heightened isolation among older people living with HIV (OPLH) during the COVID-19 pandemic. This online environment provides access to health, community, and personal resources for OPLH aged 50 and above.

The platform enables the creation of support groups to alleviate social isolation’s negative effects. Initial findings suggest that such a virtual village can significantly connect this vulnerable group to services and each other, providing a model for future research.

Key Facts:

  1. The study demonstrated the potential of a virtual village to mitigate the heightened isolation experienced by older people living with HIV during the pandemic.
  2. The researchers identified three key lessons for future studies: the need to consider technology usage difficulties among older populations, the high attendance and demand for interactive social events, and that shared HIV status alone is not enough to bond individuals.
  3. Among the six interventions deployed, social mixers were the most attended, contributing to the formation of interpersonal relationships and a sense of community among participants.

Source: UCR

New psychosocial stressors and widespread lifestyle changes resulted from to the COVID-19 pandemic, contributing to depression, isolation, and anxiety.

Many studies have explored the impact of the pandemic on the general population’s mental health. But what about the impact on increased isolation among the growing number of older people living with HIV (OPLH)?

To explore this question, a team led by scientists at the University of California, Riverside, designed a virtual village — an online space facilitating positive connections among people — to provide health, community-based, and personal resources for OPLH who are at least 50 years old.

The village provides a safe space for participants to create support groups and reduce the negative effects of social isolation.

This shows a virtual village.
According to Brown, virtual villages have gradually gained popularity, especially during the past decade with increased accessibility to the internet through mobile and other devices. Credit: Neuroscience News

“We found the use of a virtual village can be a viable method of connecting vulnerable groups to services and to each other, and provides guidance on how to expand in future research with similar concepts,” said Jasmine Lucero López, the first author of the paper that appears in the Journal of the International AIDS Society.

“We identified three key lessons on how to enhance future studies.” 

The three lessons are:

  • It is important to be mindful that some older populations may experience significant difficulty using newer technology.
  • Interactive social events are frequently attended and requested by participants.
  • Living with HIV is not enough to bond individuals.

The study had 24 participants from the Coachella Valley area, Los Angeles metro area, and Tampa Bay region. The researchers were invited last month to present the results of their study to the National Academy of Medicine.

“COVID-19 has resulted in quickly evolving studies that address unique issues, yet few focus on supporting individuals who are aging in place with HIV,” said López, an undergraduate honors student in the Department of Psychology and lead of the HIV and aging research team.

“Our study reports on the pilot phase of a virtual village and provides insight into the needs of the people aging with HIV during the global pandemic.”

The researchers embedded six interventions — social mixers, a buddy system, expert presentations, resources, guided discussions, and mindful meditation — into the virtual village during the pilot period. They found social mixers, hosted biweekly, were the most attended of the interventions.

During the social mixers, many participants told the researchers that they looked forward to these social events because they promoted the formation of interpersonal relationships. Some even reported that these types of interventions enhanced a sense of community. 

“Whether it was through our buddy system or Bingo nights, these interventions made it easier for participants to empower one another,” López said. “Our proposed social interventions not only assisted with the creation of a virtual village, but also facilitated friendships that extended into in-person meetings.

Brandon Brown, who advises López, explained that older people living with HIV are at a high risk of facing dangerous symptoms of COVID-19, which are attributed to age factors and being immunocompromised. 

“This population has adhered to more strict isolative guidelines,” said Brown, a professor of social medicine, population, and public health in the School of Medicine.

“This social isolation has negatively impacted psychological well-being, which directly influences the overall health of an individual. Mental health comorbidities and AIDS survivor syndrome further intensify the detrimental impact of isolation during a pandemic.

“For these reasons, it is essential to explore new methods to connect vulnerable populations in a manner that prioritizes the improvement of quality of life. We hope our study leads to an expansion of networks and enables this community to connect on a more widespread scale.”

According to Brown, virtual villages have gradually gained popularity, especially during the past decade with increased accessibility to the internet through mobile and other devices. 

“We chose the topic of HIV for this particular virtual village project due to research and advocacy focus of our team, but our process of co-creating a virtual community can be replicated for any health or social topic,” he said.

“As long as there is a common identity and evidence of community cohesion, we believe a virtual village can be useful to bring people together and supplement or even facilitate in-person activities.”

Brown and López were joined in the study by researchers at UC Merced; UC San Diego; University of South Florida; Northeastern University, Mass.; and HIV + Aging Research Project – Palm Springs, Calif.

Funding: The research was supported in part by a grant from Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp and the National Institutes of Health.

About this psychology research news

Author: Iqbal Pittalwala
Source: UCR
Contact: Iqbal Pittalwala – UCR
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Lessons learned in co-creating a Virtual Village for people ageing with HIV” by Brandon Brown et al. Journal of the International AIDS Society


Lessons learned in co-creating a Virtual Village for people ageing with HIV

The COVID-19 pandemic emerged as a global threat in early 2020, resulting in new psychosocial stressors and widespread lifestyle changes. These stressors contributed to heightened depression, isolation, anxiety, and in some cases, exacerbation of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Numerous studies have examined the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health in the general population but research addressing its impact on increased isolation among the growing number of older people living with HIV (OPLH) in the United States is limited.

Long-term survivors have shared trauma stemming from profound losses in their social circle due to HIV/AIDS, which younger people living with HIV may not experience as a result of the development of therapeutics.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.