New Grant: Decreasing social isolation in Virginia*

After many months into the pandemic, a new grant is a much-needed boost for many Virginia nursing homes, where residents have spent months confined amid often-deadly outbreaks.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, social isolation and loneliness were a daily reality for many nursing home residents.

LeadingAge Virginia, an association of nonprofit aging services, is offering the Java peer support and mentoring programs to members — with help from a grant from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. 

“Nursing homes will receive training and all the materials for the programs, along with additional support throughout the year,” said vice president and legislative counsel Dana Parsons. The two-year project will include the Java Music Club and Java Memory Care — a similar program adapted for patients with late-stage dementia — in addition to a peer-to-peer mentorship program for particularly isolated residents. 

More than a year and a half into the pandemic, the grant is a much-needed boost for many Virginia nursing homes, where residents spent months confined amid often-deadly outbreaks. In-person visitation was closed for nearly a year, and many facilities are still phasing in group activities — often while struggling to fill major workforce shortages.

When those programs are running, they typically attract the same 30 percent of residents, according to Theurer. “Those are the social butterflies — the people who would come to everything anyway,” she said. But many facilities struggle to engage the other 70 percent of people living in their communities, who often say they have difficulty connecting with other residents without support.

Much of that traces back to the reality of living in a nursing home, where most residents eat and sleep under the same roof without really knowing one another, said Geneva Bagby, the activities director for Birmingham Green in Manassas. The facility has been running the Java Music Club for nearly five years — excluding much of the pandemic — since Bagby attended one of Theurer’s sessions at a professional conference.

“I just really fell in love with the program,” Bagby said. Typically, eight to 10 people meet once a week for the group, which deliberately includes more social residents and those who are struggling to engage. The program does include music, but most of the activity is centered around conversation on a specific topic.

“There’s a talking stick that goes around, and everyone gets a chance to speak,” Bagby said. At the end of the discussion, the residents recite an affirmation together, and then get a chance to continue chatting over coffee and snacks.

“It’s giving them a chance to develop relationships and something to talk about when they see each other outside the program,” she added. “Like, ‘Hey, how’s your daughter-in-law?’ or ‘How is your son doing with his new job?’ Something personal that helps them connect in a meaningful way.”

Multiple facilities have studied the program and found that it reduces symptoms of loneliness and depression among participants.

Birmingham Green is currently in the process of launching the program, though it paid for the materials and training through a different grant program.

“I think it’s going to really help the people who don’t want to leave their rooms,” Bagby said. “It’s almost like a welcoming committee for them.”

*Adapted from article posted in the Virginia Mercury, August 3, 2021

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