Christine Theurer, Ph.D., founder and president of Java Group Programs, presented at the American Healthcare Association/National Center for Assisted Living and LeadingAge annual meetings this year on a model for addressing mental health challenges such as loneliness and social isolation among the elderly. living and other long-term care settings. She recently spoke more about the model with McKnight’s Older Life.
Q: Can you talk about the model and how it differs from the approach that some senior living communities may be taking now?
A: Common for the elderly is a pattern of entertainment and distraction – bingo, bus trips, bowling, movie nights, games. I wrote a paper about this in Journal of Aging Studiesalong with some other wonderful authors such as Dr. Robin Stone.
I worked in a senior and lived on my own for many years. We thought that if you do enough of those activities and bring enough residents into those activities, then we’ve done our job. Meanwhile, residents starved for real, meaningful connections.
The approach we’re talking about in the paper is peer mentoring and peer support groups—especially groups, because they provide a sense of community that’s missing from much of the entertainment and distraction programs I’ve mentioned. When a person joins a peer support group, loneliness and depression are reduced. Not just a little, but a lot.
But peer support groups are almost non-existent in the lives of seniors, so we put together this model and then researched the programs and looked at their results.
Q: Can you share some of those results?
A: We worked with the Schlegel-UW Research Institute on Aging in Ontario and the Schlegel Villages. They implemented 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 looked at how many of the socially isolated residents attended multiple programs. We had an average 15% reduction in loneliness, 30% reduction in depression, and a 60% increase in absentee residents leaving their rooms and engaging in the community.
Q: How did your interest in this field begin?
A: When I was a teenager, my older brother committed suicide, and as you can imagine, it was a terrible time for 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 sadness with me into adulthood. I tried counseling, I tried some therapy, and I got busy. I worked hard. And then a dear friend of mine said to me, “Christine, you should go to a grief peer support group.” And I said, “Why would you do that?” I will sit at a table with a bunch of other sad people and we will be sad together. How could that help me?’
But we went to this support group together and it was awesome. I had no idea how wonderful it was to talk to people who knew what I was going through. That changed everything. I healed in that grief support group.
It wasn’t like my brother was coming back. The problem was not solvable that way. But what changed was that I was no longer alone with it, and that made what felt unbearable suddenly bearable.
I was working in seniors 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 for helping people foster peer support and mentoring. What are some steps people can take?
A: When I talk about peer support and peer mentoring, I often talk about Java, but anyone can do them. I would encourage providers, if they do not already have peer support groups, to start them. I am happy to help, because it is very important.
Loneliness is such a terrible thing. There is no pill or vaccine for loneliness, but there is a cure and it can be prevented. And that is through peer support and peer mentoring.
This is a shortened version of a McKnight’s Older Life Newsmakers Podcast Interview. Listen to the entire interview here.
From December 2022 at McKnight’s Senior Living