In a study in the American Journal of Health Promotion, Cohen-Mansfield (2014) outlines the health risks linked with loneliness, including a large number of chronic illnesses (increased Alzheimer’ disease, heart disease, impaired physical functioning), as well as increased hopelessness, psychological distress and depression. Indeed, new research is indicating that feelings of loneliness actually contribute directly to the risk of dementia.2 The effects of loneliness are especially severe for older people—seniors in our communities are literally dying of it. For those with dementia, loneliness and isolation is magnified. Although this seems like an insurmountable challenge in times of high resident to staff ratios and severe budget cuts, there is hope. And it comes from the residents themselves. Peers helping peers. It is a shift in focus from what we can do to and for residents, to what they can do for one another.
Mutual support is an approach effectively used in the community, but rarely found in senior living. Residents face so many losses but in mutual support groups, they come together to share coping strategies and find a sense of community. In a positive, structured environment with their peers, they can find acceptance, whether they are lonely, depressed, or struggling with a physical challenge. The paradox is that it is by talking and sharing about their joys and struggles they can find comfort and peace. They are able to see their struggles, and the struggles of others, through a new light – that is – through the shared experience of their peers.
The paradox is facing a fear and finding courage, facing vulnerability and finding strength, facing despair and finding hope and dignity. And in the midst of the paradox, finding they are no longer alone. It seems beyond logic, but by making the effort to reach out, by becoming emotionally engaged with others, participants find the courage and acceptance to let go of the struggle of wanting things to be different. They become part of the group, and the group becomes an important part of their life.
1 Cohen-Mansfield, J. (2014). Interventions for alleviating loneliness among older persons: A critical review. American Journal of Health Promotion, Online first. doi: 10.4278/ajhp.130418-LIT-182
2 Holwerda, T. J., Deeg, D. J. H., Beekman, A. T. F., Theo G. van Tilburg, Stek, M. L., Jonker, C., & Schoevers, R. A. (2014). Feelings of loneliness, but not social isolation, predict dementia onset: Results from the Amsterdam Study of the Elderly (AMSTEL). Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, 85(2), 135-142. doi: 10.1136/jnnp-2012-302755