Kristine Theurer, PhD, founder and president of Java Group Programs, presented at the annual meetings of the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living and LeadingAge this year a model for addressing mental health challenges such as loneliness and stress. social isolation in the elderly. residences and other long-term care facilities. She recently spoke more about the model with McKnight Senior Residence.
Q: Can you talk about the model and how it differs from the approach that some older adult communities might be taking now?
A: A typical pattern of senior living is entertainment and distraction – bingo, bus rides, bowling, movie nights, games. I wrote an article about it in the Journal of Aging Studiesas well as other wonderful authors such as Dr. Robyn Stone.
I myself worked in a residence for the elderly for many years. We believed that if you did enough of these activities and enough residents participated in these activities, then we had done our job. Meanwhile, residents were starving for real, meaningful connections.
The approach we talk about in the document is peer mentoring and peer support groups – groups in particular because they provide a sense of community that is lacking in most entertainment and distraction programs that I mentioned. When a person engages in a peer support group, loneliness and depression decrease. Not just a little, but a lot.
But peer support groups are almost non-existent in seniors’ residences, so we set up this model, then studied the programs and looked at their results.
Q: Could you share some of these results?
A: We worked with the Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging in Ontario and Schlegel Villages. They set up the first of our peer support groups, called Java Music Club, in all of their communities. And they added Java Memory Care, which is a peer support group for residents living with more advanced dementia, and then they added our Java Mentorship Program, an outreach program where residents come together with volunteers. The combination of peer support groups and peer mentoring is really powerful.
We looked at loneliness using the UCLA Loneliness Scale and depression using the Geriatric Depression Scale, and we looked at how many socially isolated residents participated in more programs. We had an average 15% reduction in loneliness, a 30% reduction in depression, and a 60% increase in residents not coming to terms with leaving their room and engaging in the community.
Q: How did your interest in this field arise?
A: When I was a teenager my older brother committed suicide and as you can imagine it was a terrible time in our family. In my 13-year-old brain, I decided it was my fault he died, because I wasn’t paying attention.
I carried that grief with me into adulthood. I tried counseling, and I tried therapy, and I got busy. I worked hard. And then a dear friend said to me, ‘Kristine, you should go to a bereavement peer support group.’ And I said, ‘Why would I do that? I’m going to sit at a table with a bunch of other sad people, and we’re going to be sad together. How could this help me?
But we went to this support group together, and it was so wonderful. I had no idea how great it was to talk to people who knew what I was going through. It changed everything. I healed in this bereavement support group.
It wasn’t like my brother was coming back. The problem was not solvable this way. But what changed was that I was no longer alone with it, and what seemed unbearable to me suddenly became bearable.
I was working in a seniors’ residence at the time, and I looked around and thought, “Why don’t we have peer support groups? “They are so good.
Q: In your presentations at the AHCA/NCAL and LeadingAge annual meetings, you shared some tips to help people foster peer support and mentorship. What are some of the steps people can take?
A: When I talk about peer support and peer mentoring, I often mean Java, but anyone can do them. I encourage providers, if they don’t already have peer support groups, to create one. I’m happy to help, because it’s so important.
Loneliness is such a terrible thing. There’s no pill or vaccine for loneliness, but there is a cure, and it’s preventable. And this thanks to peer support and peer mentoring.
This is an abbreviated version of a McKnight Senior Residence Podcast interview with journalists. Listen to the whole interview here.
Excerpt from the December 2022 issue of McKnight’s Senior Living
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