The Power of Peer Support

Posted On: April 24, 2018

Innovative Canadian Program Helps Reduce Social Isolation in Residential Care

The Power of Peer Support: Reducing Social Isolation in Residential Care is a collaborative project between the Ontario Centre for Learning, Research and Innovation in Long-Term Care (CLRI) at Bruyère, Java Group Programs, Carleton University’s Department of Health Sciences, and Bruyère Continuing Care. It is funded by the Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation, Carleton University and the Government of Ontario through the Ontario CLRI.

The Issue

It is well established that people who have meaningful social relationships experience better well-being. However, some in society have circumstances that limit opportunities for such interactions, and older adults in residential care are particularly vulnerable. Social isolation and loneliness are common in this population and better strategies are needed to counter its negative health outcomes, including depression, dementia, increased mortality and higher health care costs.[i] Studies show that 55% of residents in care homes experience loneliness.[ii]

Lonely resident

When someone moves into residential care, it is often prompted by a health crisis. There can be a number of other issues that compound the complexity of said crisis. For many new residents, this transition is a very painful and lonely time. These challenges are exacerbated for those living with dementia.

These settings have proven beneficial for people who require physical care, however, research highlights concerns about resident psychosocial well-being.[iii], [iv] An American study found evidence that programs provided tend to be inaccessible or inappropriate for many residents, leading to low participation rates.[ii] Another study explained that 45% of residents with dementia participated in few or no activities, 20% participated only occasionally, and 12% participated in activities that were inappropriate for their needs.v

These numbers show the need for meaningful engagement opportunities, allowing residents to deepen social connections and re-establish a sense of purpose. There is a growing body of research that documents the effectiveness of peer support in alleviating loneliness and depression. Peer support enables individuals to learn new ways of coping through identification with others in a similar position. The Java Group Programs offer a unique model to combat these issues.

The Solution

Residents enjoying Java Music Club Peer support groups are known to benefit individuals with chronic illnesses, yet they are rarely used within senior living. Founded by Kristine Theurer (MA, Gerontology, MTA, PhD(c)), Java Group Programs are the first standardized peer support interventions designed to address the critical rates of depression and loneliness in senior living. Java Music Club is a weekly peer support group for older adults, including those living with mild to moderate dementia. The program is based on the altruistic concept that people are happiest when they are helping one another. It also draws on social psychology and gerontology research findings. Java Memory Care is a vital adaptation for those living with moderate to advanced dementia. These groups are designed to be facilitated by staff, volunteers and/or family members.

Homes that offer Java programs purchase a license and ensure that their staff or volunteers are trained to facilitate Java sessions. Facilitators provide opportunities for residents to unload burdens, learn coping skills, reminisce and increase their sense of belonging. This is done using a standardized facilitation manual which includes themes, questions, photographs, songs, quotes, and an Aboriginal talking stick.

Residents are encouraged to support one another through discussion and to reach out to members who are lonely or isolated. These groups provide opportunities for emotional expression/release, allowing residents to talk in a safe, public setting about complicated topics. There are 52 topics in total covered in the facilitator manual – some other topics include weddings, gratitude and boredom. These topics were originally chosen by residents in long-term care who were consulted as the program was developed. Both programs aim to reduce stigma associated with support groups by reflecting a warm social setting, incorporating coffee and music.

In an effort the enhance residents’ quality of life, many Canadian care homes have introduced Java Music and Java Memory. They have seen residents regain their love of life and sense of purpose, build new relationships and develop increased respect for their peers.

In recent months, a generous grant from the Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation has added 35 new locations (see map below) across Ontario where residents now benefit from this evidence-based peer support program. Committed to knowledge mobilization, interactive training workshops, coaching sessions and public webinars are woven together to elevate facilitators’ skills.

Map of homes involved in project

This map shows the locations of the 35 retirement and LTC homes across Ontario participating in the Power of Peer Support program.

Additionally, a portion of the grant advances the overall understanding of the benefits of Java programs through rigorous research. Both Java Music Club and Java Memory Care have shown success in alleviating loneliness and depression. This project will advance our understanding of the benefits to the individual residents (psychosocial and cognitive health outcomes). Dr. Renate Ysseldyk from Carleton University’s Department of Health Sciences is working with residents and staff at Riverstone Retirement Communities and Élisabeth Bruyère Residence to understand their experiences. The team is delighted to explore the benefits of these programs through the partnerships with Riverstone Retirement Communities and Bruyère Continuing Care.

Social isolation of vulnerable populations is a universal issue in our society. The Java Group Programs aim to reduce this problem among residents who live in long-term care or in retirement settings. When it comes to Java, improving residents’ quality of life will always drive program implementation, research and the design of learning and skill building opportunities.

Explore Our Resources

Tools and learning opportunities for recreation therapy professionals and volunteers in residential care settings:

  • Visit our Resource Page to explore the wealth of resources developed throughout this project (including a series of recorded webinars, a documentary, infographics and newsletter series) and media engagement.



For more information, please contact Michelle Fleming, Knowledge Broker at the Ontario Centres for Learning, Research and Innovation in Long-Term Care at


[i]  Victor, C. R. (2012). Loneliness in care homes: A neglected area of research? Aging Health, 8(6), 637-649. doi: 10.2217/ahe.12.65

[ii] Theurer K, Mortenson WB, Stone R, Suto M, Timonen V, & Rozanova J. (2015). The need for a social revolution in residential care. Journal of Aging Studies, 35, 201-210.

[iii] Kemp, C. L., Ball, M. M., Hollingsworth, C., & Perkins, M. M. (2012). Strangers and friends: Residents’ social careers in assisted living. Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 67(4). doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbs043

[iv] Moon, H. (2012). Risk factors for depression among the oldest-old in urban congregate housing: Contribution of grief. International Social Work, 56(4), 516-533. doi: 10.1177/0020872811429954

[v] L.L. Buettner, S. Fitzsimmons. (2003).  Activity calendars for older adults with dementia: What you see is not what you get. American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, 18 (4) pp. 215-226

About the Ontario Centres for Learning, Research and Innovation in Long-Term Care

The Ontario CLRI is funded by the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Long-Term Care, and hosted at Baycrest Health Sciences, Bruyère, and the Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging.

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