How can you ease a new resident’s transition into your community? Kristine Theurer of Java Music Club discusses tips and techniques to support your new residents as they make your community their new home.
Most of us relish independence, control over our lives, and social connections with family, neighbours, co-workers, etc. These relationships help create our social identity and are enhanced by an inherent and altruistic to help each other.
Helping others is a deep-seated human trait that adds emotion, meaning, and purpose to our lives—and it’s essential for our sense of wellbeing and safety. Helping others is how we survive and thrive as a species.
Challenges that new residents face
Losing our independence, control, and social identity has a detrimental effect on these connections. It creates feelings of stress, uncertainty and fear. Many new residences experience this fear when they find it necessary to leave their familiar surroundings to move into a senior living community, or are even just contemplating the move.
Even if the move is viewed as a positive change by the resident, doubts and fears can still undermine the process. Life enrichment and activity staff are tasked with socially engaging residents, but research shows that even with activity calendars jam-packed with entertainment, socials, bus trips, and games, a large percentage of residents lack emotional engagement and feel lonely and isolated.
For many this leads to depression, health problems, hospitalizations, aggressiveness and other complications. This image also presents a difficult marketing challenge that adversely impacts occupancy rates and revenue.
Current residents as an untapped resource
Fortunately there is good news! The tools and manpower needed to solve these problems are already available in every senior living community. The solution lies in engaging residents already living within the community. They are a rich resource and have real life experience with the problems and fears that potential residents (and many existing residents), face.
When residents’ attention is focused on helping each other, emotional engagement results and residents feel supported. A sense of safety and community develops. All we have to do is provide the right supports to help facilitate the process, and this is the role of a good peer support program.
Combating social isolation with innovative peer support programs
Peer support programs are very different from typical activities. In these programs there is no task to be accomplished, no set lesson to be learned, and no expert leader. There is structure however, as this provides a sense of safety and openness that helps to facilitate open sharing and caring among the participants.
When problems are shared there is a natural outpouring of empathy and support from members of the group. They’ve all “been there” when it comes to the initial loneliness and fear that accompanies transition to a new environment. Some may share similar experiences such as the loss of a spouse, family that rarely visits, or health concerns. Identifying with the group and contributing creates a sense of belonging and identity. As one group member stated: “It takes the loneliness away.”
The natural desire to help others results in emotional engagement and strong personal bonds that extend beyond the group meeting into other activities, the dining room and social events. Peer support groups will never replace bingo, bus trips or strawberry socials, but once initiated on a regular basis they provide a foundation for positive social engagement throughout the home and all of its functions.
The ideal size for a peer-support group is 8 to 10 residents and they generally meet for 1 hour to discuss open ended topics such as gratitude, helping others, loneliness, happiness, etc. Other components of the program can include music, reading quotations, discussing photographs, etc.
Peer support groups are generally well attended by residents and there is a very low attrition rate. If the group gets too big additional groups are formed. Some homes have 8-10 peer support groups running and some provide these groups daily. Staff report that they too enjoy the sharing in the groups and learn from the experience and wisdom of the residents.
Peer support groups and public tours
I have heard prospective residents say: “That place is full of old people!” During public tours efforts are made to hide walkers and wheelchairs in an attempt to avoid giving a “bad” impression. The reality is of course that the prospects are likely of similar age and may face the same physical challenges as many residents, but do not want to be reminded while visiting an unfamiliar place.
One large senior living provider has begun a unique initiative to invite prospective residents to sit in on a peer support program. Establishing emotional ties between prospects and residents through sharing, or listening to the sharing, helps to ease concerns and prospects are more likely to become residents.
Getting your entire community involved
Peer support programs can be facilitated by existing activity or life enrichment staff, chaplains, volunteers, high functioning residents, etc. This involves your entire community—anyone with an interest in helping others is usually well qualified to lead a group. There are lots of tears in these groups, but lots of laughter too. Facilitators are taught that they are not there to solve problems, just let the group do the healing.
Peer support and dementia
Research shows that residents with dementia can also participate in and receive benefits from peer support groups. As cognitive abilities decline emotional sensitivity increases, along with an increased need for reassurance that the environment is safe and other residents are friends.
Residents with advanced dementia might not share in the group but they do track conversations, especially when they are emotional. Special techniques have been developed to help residents with advanced dementia participate in helping behaviours, such as assisting residents in passing a warm handshake around the group. Additionally, assisting residents’ hand-over-hand in gently playing a set of wind chimes combines connection and music, which can help to reduce agitation in themselves and their peers.
From resident care to resident engagement
The fundamental human need to help others is a powerful instinct that provides important emotional benefits and comfort when exercised. On the contrary, when the opportunity to help or participate is hindered, residents suffer, emotionally, socially, physically, mentally and spiritually.
Moving from a medical model of resident care, to a social model of resident engagement, brings significant benefits to the residents and care home operations. It’s a high return for a low investment.
About the Author
Kristine Theurer is a researcher and founder of the Java Music Club and Java Memory Care peer support group programs (www.javamusicclub.com). She has worked in long term care for over 20 years. She is a published author of numerous research articles, the most recent of which being The Need for a Social Revolution in Residential Care in the Journal of Aging Studies. She facilitates training workshops across Canada and the US and presents regularly at international conferences. She has a Master of Arts in Gerontology and received the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada grants and currently at the University of British Columbia working on her PhD.