Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D.

Research shows that the rate of depression among elders in senior residences is 24% to 27%. It’s not that every fourth resident you greet in the hallway is depressed.

It’s that we should be more concerned about the people who aren’t in the hallway to greet.

“Depressive symptoms are expected to become a leading cause of the global burden of disease, second only to cardiovascular disease, by the year 2020,” according to Tracy Chippendale, PhD, OTR/L in her 2013 Clinical Gerontologist study.”

Depressed residents are less independent in their activities of daily living, have a decreased quality of life, and tend to use more medical services than peers who aren’t depressed.

Factors reducing depression

According to Chippendale, elders with more education, better self-rated health and more social support are less likely to be depressed. While we can’t necessarily change a person’s health or the level of education they’ve achieved, as senior care providers we can certainly offer opportunities for social support.

An important component of social support — beyond the number of connections in a person’s life — is how much the individual feels valued by others. For a retired elder who has completed raising her children and lost the value of a job and its contacts and income, mattering to others can come from family relationships, friendships, community service, and owning a pet, for example. Studies suggest that moving to a senior residence can reduce some of these opportunities to connect and to be of service.

Creating opportunities to ‘matter’

Knowing the importance of mattering to reduce depression, senior living homes can design programs that focus on increasing the opportunities for residents to be valued within their communities and in the outside world. Here are some ideas:

·      Welcoming committee — Most residents can recall nervous early days in their unfamiliar homes and recognize how valuable it is to offer information and moral support to new members of their community.

·      Visiting ill members — Keeping neighbors connected when illness prevents them from attending their former activities can be an incredibly warm and positive experience for visitors and is greatly appreciated by those that are feeling poorly.

·      Leadership roles — Offering residents the opportunity to participate in community decisions is good for the residents and for the community, which is enhanced by their perspective.

·      Intergenerational programming — Residents who may not have young relatives nearby can form mutually beneficial relationships with local children and adolescents. Programs that offer continuity of connections, such as pairing specific youngsters and seniors for visits across time, are more likely to be successful in this than a group of young volunteers making a yearly holiday call.

·      SCORE mentoring: SCORE.org is a national program of business mentorship that connects young entrepreneurs with an experienced older mentor, allowing senior residents the chance to continue to use their business acumen.

·      Volunteerism for local, national and world causes: While most residents aren’t likely to join the Gray Panthers activist group, many will be interested in the opportunity to participate in raising money for various causes that are important to them. Create events that allow for different levels of involvement and let the residents choose the mission of each fund-raising event.

·      Twelve-Step programming: Residents with many years of sobriety under their belts will appreciate being part of their 12-Step community despite living in a senior home. Other residents may find the programs for the first time, offering experienced members the chance to sponsor a peer. For more on the benefits of hosting Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and other 12-Step programs, read Why Every Nursing Home Should Host AA Meetings (it goes for senior living too).

·      Residence beautification projects such as gardening and woodworking: Those with a green thumb or woodworking expertise can help their communities and their neighbors through talents such as these. My father-in-law not only refinished all the garden benches in his CCRC, he helps fix broken items by request in senior apartments as well.

What programs do you have to help your residents matter?

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, PhD, author of The Savvy Resident’s Guide, is an accomplished speaker and consultant with over 17 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care. This blog complements her award-winning website, MyBetterNursingHome.com, which has more on how to create long-term care where EVERYBODY thrives.