Innovative Program Helps Reduce Loneliness in Long-Term Care

Posted On: October 15, 2018

The Ontario Centre for Learning, Research and Innovation in Long-Term Care (CLRI) at Bruyère developed a short documentary series to show the powerful impacts that peer support groups are having on people living in long-term care homes. Our team visited five homes across Ontario to film groups in action and interviewed residents, team members, managers, and researchers. View the video series below:

Over the last two decades, the tides in long-term care have been gradually shifting away from the traditional medical model towards a more social model of care, with the introduction of philosophies like the Eden Alternative, Green House Project, and the Butterfly Model. Despite many improvements, change is slow. Studies show that at least one out of two residents in long-term care homes experience loneliness. Loneliness has been linked to several negative health outcomes – among them depression, dementia, increased hospitalizations, impaired mental health and increased mortality. In fact, loneliness may be as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

Although those living in long-term care are surrounded by people, they often report feeling alone. Often when someone moves into a long-term care home, it is following a crisis situation or major change in health, leading to an overwhelming sense of loss: loss of independence, loss of neighbours, loss of their home, sometimes also a loss of spouse. These losses can result in a profound sense of disconnection and social isolation. The Power of Peer Support project team has spent the past year aiming to reduce the impacts of these realities by supporting and researching meaningful peer support programs.

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. Despite the known benefits of peer support groups for individuals with chronic illnesses, these programs have historically rarely been used in long-term care homes. The Java Group Programs developed a unique model to change this fact. Founded by Kristine Theurer, PhD, Java Group Programs are the first standardized peer support interventions designed to address the critical rates of depression and loneliness in senior living.

The Java Music Club is one of the peer support programs being studied through this collaborative research project. Members are encouraged to meet weekly, fostering camaraderie by sharing stories from their lives, discussing engaging topics, listening to music and supporting one another. The warm atmosphere offers residents the opportunity to unload burdens, learn new coping strategies, reminisce, and develop an increased sense of belonging. 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.

“I consider myself very fortunate to have met [fellow Java Music Club members] and learn something about their life experiences,” explains Luella Lemaire, a resident at the Glebe Centre and member of the Java Music Club. “Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry, but most of all, we smile. We share lives.”

In 2018, a grant from the Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation brought the Java Music Club and Java Memory Care to 33 long-term care and 5 retirement homes across Ontario. Homes have engaged in robust training, including in-person workshops and webinars, covering a variety of topics related to effective group facilitation.

A portion of the grant also advances our understanding of the benefits of peer support for residents through rigorous research. Dr. Renate Ysseldyk from Carleton University’s Department of Health Sciences is leading the research team to understand and monitor both the social and health outcomes in selected homes. The team has been working closely with residents and staff at Élisabeth Bruyère Residence and Riverstone Retirement Communities to understand and document their experiences.

Throughout this project, the team has seen how these peer support group programs offer opportunities for residents to engage with peers in small group settings. Creating these atmospheres where residents are encouraged to open up about their emotions, and share details about themselves and their lives, facilitates powerful opportunities for deeper connections between residents, as well as with staff and volunteers who facilitate the program. Group facilitators have reported this experience to be a professionally enriching experience and volunteers have shared that it has been personally enriching for them. These groups offer a unique way of connecting residents about things that really matter to them personally, and opportunities for them to support one another.”

Loneliness is dangerous for our health, and presents a critical public health crisis, particularly amongst those within our population that are most vulnerable. The opportunity to connect with others meaningfully through peer support groups offers a promising potential antidote to loneliness.

The Power of Peer Support: Reducing Social Isolation in Residential Care project is a collaboration between the Ontario CLRI at Bruyère, Carleton University, Bruyère Continuing Care, and Java Group Programs. This project is funded by the Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation, Carleton University and the government of Ontario through the Ontario CLRI hosted at Bruyère. For further information about this project please click here.

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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