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The impact of physical activity interventions on bereaved older people (carers and non-carers) in Pennine Lancashire

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  • Full or part time
    Prof C Holland
    Dr Jasper Palmier-Claus
    Dr Sandra Varey
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

This interdisciplinary, mixed-method PhD studentship will combine mental health, public health, and psychology of ageing research to determine the impact of physical activity interventions on physical and psychological resilience in bereaved older people (aged 55 plus). This exciting studentship opportunity will be linked to the existing partnership between Lancaster University and the Together an Active Future (TaAF) programme, a large pilot currently being delivered in Pennine Lancashire and evaluated by Lancaster University. TaAF is an integral part of Sport England’s investment in tackling physical inactivity, with an overarching aim to improve the population’s physical activity levels (1).

Pennine Lancashire is one of the more deprived areas of the UK (2), with a high prevalence of mental ill-health among its population, and over 100,000 adults who are physically inactive (3). Similar to most areas of the UK, older people (aged 55 and over) represent the fastest growing age group, accounting for over a quarter of the Pennine Lancashire population (4). The focus of this PhD is bereaved older people. Older people are more likely to experience bereavement than any other age group. For those caring for a loved one with a life-limiting illness, high levels of psychological distress are often reported throughout the caregiving phase and during bereavement (5), often leading to social isolation (6). However, unexpected loss of a life-time partner may put widowed older adults at greater risk for depression and reduced physical and psychological resilience than bereavement preceded by chronic illness (7). Reduction in resilience in both groups can lead to an increase in risk of frailty.

Previous studies have shown that physical activity can slow the onset of frailty (8) and reduce the psychological and physical impact of bereavement in older age (9). This studentship will take such studies further by examining some of the mechanisms by which physical activity interventions may have this impact, focusing on an accumulative deficit model of frailty in which frailty is seen as both preventable and reversible (10), and a psychological model of resilience.

As part of this PhD, you will join the Division of Health Research at Lancaster University where your research will make an important contribution to understanding the impact of physical activity interventions for bereaved older carers and non-carers. The student will have co-supervisors from the fields of the Psychology and Ageing and from Clinical Psychology.

Aim: The aim of the research is to determine the impact of physical activity interventions on the psychological and physical resilience of carers and non-carers aged 55 or over living in Pennine Lancashire who have experienced a bereavement in the past 6-12 months.

Methods: The proposed studentship will require quantitative and qualitative methods to explore the above aim. You will explore existing evidence regarding the relationship between ageing, bereavement and physical activity interventions to inform the scope and design of later stages of the research. You will use a qualitative life course interview approach to explore older carers’ and non-carers’ relationships and transitions with physical activity across the lifespan, and the impact of physical activity pre- and post-intervention. Using a number of standardised measures, you will measure the impact of the intervention on quality of life, resilience, mental health, frailty, self-perceived health and physical activity.

The student: We are seeking a motivated and enthusiastic student to take up this opportunity. You will have a demonstrable interest in the area of ageing, mental health and/or public health, and a good first degree in Psychology or other relevant subject. You will have some experience and confidence in quantitative and qualitative research methods, although training and support will be provided throughout the studentship, as appropriate. This is an exciting opportunity to develop research skills that will be transferable to other health and social science fields, and to gain valuable experience of how public health and community organisations operate

Funding Notes

Applications should be made directly to Professor Carol Holland, [Email Address Removed] and should include:

CV (max 2 A4 sides), including details of two academic references
A cover letter outlining your qualifications and interest in the studentship (max 2 A4 sides)


1) Sport England (2017) ‘Transforming the delivery of physical activity locally’. Available at:
2) DCLG (2015) ‘English indices of deprivation 2015.’ Available at:
3) Together an Active Future (2019) ‘Pennine Lancashire – June 2019’. Available at:
4) ONS (2011) ‘Census 2011 Population by Age, UK Districts.’ Available at:
5) Thomas, K., Hudson, P., Trauer, T., Remedios, C. & Clarke, D. (2014) ‘Risk factors for developing prolonged grief during bereavement in family carers of cancer patients in palliative care: a longitudinal study.’ Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 47(3), 531-541.
6) Burton, A. M., Haley, W. E. & Small, B. J. (2006) ‘Bereavement after caregiving or unexpected death: Effects on elderly spouses.’ Aging and Mental Health, 10(3), 319-326.
7) Shah, S. M., Carey, I. M., Harris, T., DeWilde, S., Victor, C. R. & Cook, D. G. (2013) ‘The effect of unexpected bereavement on mortality in older couples.’ American Journal of Public Health, 103(6), 1140-1145.
8) Viña, J., Rodriguez‐Mañas, L., Salvador‐Pascual, A., Tarazona‐Santabalbina, F. J. & Gomez‐Cabrera, M. C. (2016) ‘Exercise: the lifelong supplement for healthy ageing and slowing down the onset of frailty.’ The Journal of physiology, 594(8), 1989-1999.
9) Li, C. S., Lee, J. H., Chang, L. Y., Liu, C. C., Chan, Y. L., Wen, C., ... & Tsao, C. K. (2016) ‘Physical activity to overcome the adversity of widowhood: Benefits beyond physical health.’ Medicine, 95(32).
10) Apostolo, J., Cooke, R., Santana, S., … Holland, C. (2018) Effectiveness of interventions to prevent pre-frailty and frailty progression in older adults: a systematic review. JBI Database Syst Revs Implem. Reports, 16(1) 140-232, DOI:10.11124/JBISRIR-2017-003382

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