New research published this past week in the Journal of Aging & Mental Health examines the Java Mentorship program as an innovative approach to an ongoing problem of loneliness in long-term care.1
The presence of uncertainty surrounding the spread of COVID and physical distancing is amplifying loneliness among residents. The pandemic is shining a light on the negative social conditions of these homes.
The need to re-position residents as contributing citizens with equal participation and rights in their communities is more critical than ever and has potential to help re-shape this discourse.
Peer Mentoring – Resident Helping Residents
An innovative program called Java Mentorship, developed by Dr. Kristine Theurer, engaged community volunteers and resident volunteers (mentors) as a team. The team met weekly, received education, and provided visits and guidance in pairs to socially disengaged residents (mentees).
This research was a collaboration between the University of British Columbia, Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging and Schlegel Villages in Ontario and used a mixed-methods pre-post study designed to evaluate the mentorship program.
Community volunteers, resident mentors and isolated residents (N = 211) were enrolled in 10 Canadian senior living sites called Schlegel Villages. Feasibility data associated with the program implementation collected, including assessment of residents’ responses and loneliness and depression outcomes.
This article noted a 29% reduction in depression scores and 15% reduction in loneliness scores among the residents doing the mentoring. Resident mentors described the positive benefits associated with mentoring, such as:
‘It makes me feel good—like I’m a different person’
‘It makes life worthwhile!’
The results of this study point to a potentially beneficial role that peer mentoring may serve in improving the quality of life among residents in long-term care. The presence of uncertainty and threat surrounding the spread of the coronavirus pandemic is significant.
COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerability of residents living in long-term care homes. Enforced physical distancing has amplified the risk of social isolation and loneliness in this already susceptible population.
The number of care home resident deaths as a percentage of all COVID-19 deaths in Canada has been as high as 82%.2 Thus, the development of evidence-based tools that support social and emotional engagement while regulating physical distancing is imperative.
Resident Mentoring During COVID-19
The Java Mentorship program can be run without additional staff or outside intervention and can be adapted to respect physical distancing requirements.
While community volunteer visits are restricted during COVID, residents can form a smaller mentorship team when groups are possible. Volunteers and families may participate as mentors remotely using Skype, Zoom or teleconferencing.
The visits may also be adapted with residents staying in the doorways of those they are visiting and be conducted one-to-one. Community mentors may help with the visits as well using the telephone or video calling apps when possible.
Evidence-based psychosocial interventions are urgently needed which will continue to support older adults in a post-COVID-19 reality; a reality that will witness additional pandemics and influenza outbreaks.
Peer mentoring is a marked departure from the traditional psychosocial programs in these settings which tend to focus on entertainment and distraction.
Considering the high resident-to-staff ratios, mentoring offers the possibility of providing an economically viable and sustainable approach to improving psychosocial care and offers a nonpharmacological alternative to the treatment of depression and an approach to loneliness.
The findings of this study are promising and lay the groundwork for more definitive experimental research that enable testing of the causal link between peer mentoring and mental health.
Theurer, K. A., Stone, R. I., Suto, M. J., Timonen, V., Brown, S. G., & Mortenson, W. B. (2020). ‘It Makes Life Worthwhile!’ Peer Mentoring in Long-Term Care—A Feasibility Study. Aging & Mental Health. doi:10.1080/13607863.2020.1849023
Comas-Herrera, A., Zalakain, J., Litwin, C., Hsu, A. T., Lane, N., & Fernandez-Plotka, J. (2020). Mortality associated with COVID-19 outbreaks in care homes: Early international evidence.