Helping Seniors in the Fraser Valley through Group Approaches

Reprinted from "Seniors' Mental Health" issue of Visions Journal, 2002, No. 15, pp.34-35

The following is an interview with Dianne Liddle, Director of the Abbotsford Mental Health Centre. Visions asked her about two innovative group programs run by the Centre: the senior ladies’ support group, and the early stage memory loss group, run in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Resource Centre.

Senior Ladies’ Support Group

Visions: Tell us a bit of the history of the senior ladies’ support group.

DL: The senior ladies’ support group has been available to women who are clients on the psychogeriatric team’s caseload since I came to this office in May of 1994. I think it had a start before that. It has been a very successful resource to the team for women who primarily have a diagnosis of depression and/or anxiety. It evolved because it became evident that many of the clients we were seeing had similar stage-of-life issues such as multiple loss, loneliness, feelings of inadequacy, regrets, family issues, etc.

Group work seemed a good way to approach an identified need to offer these women education about their illness, support, empathy, caring (and sometimes some gentle confrontation) from a trained facilitator (nurse/social worker) in a setting with peers with similar characteristics.

Visions: How do people come into the group? How long do they stay?

DL: The women in the group meet weekly at the mental health centre. The group is open and ongoing. The women have bonded, and for many of the women, the group is the major support in their life.

The group is a great way for the case managers to monitor their clients’ progress. As client problems become more manageable and files can be closed, clients will leave the group. Some clients may feel that they no longer need the weekly group work and will come occasionally as issues arise in their lives.

Visions: What kinds of issues typically come up in the meetings?

DL: Case managers are always promoting and assisting clients to meet their emotional and functional optimal levels. Group work has been a great therapeutic tool in dealing with issues that relate to dealing with emotional and functional issues. As I mentioned, the stageof-life issues related to family issues and losses are quite similar and often come up.

Visions: Is there anything else you would like to add about the group?

DL: The women’s group was so successful that a men’s group was started for a time a few years ago. However, the group format was not as comfortable for the men as it is for the women’s group. It seems that most of the men we see in our work would not benefit from this approach.

Early Stage Memory Loss Group

Visions: Has there been a change in attitudes and awareness about people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s or about Alzheimer’s in general, about how capable people are, about what can be done to slow down the progression of the disease, or how to cope with it more effectively?

DL: The public in general is more aware of Alzheimer’s disease. This is likely because of the huge effort in support and education sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Society.

There also has been a lot of research interest in the field of aging, and specifically in the area of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

In the Commentary page of the Vancouver Sun on January 6, 2001, there was an article titled “Flexing our Brains” that talked about recent developments in dealing with dementia in a more preventive manner. The article states that “researchers are discovering the keys to keeping mentally fit ... for example, continuing education throughout life, stimulating the mind by playing difficult games, [and] seeking ways to be creative and tackle a new challenge each day.”

The article goes on to say that “generally this stimulation helps increase self-esteem and confidence and even seems to help people overcome illness or recoup from [dementia], …[and it results in] fewer doctor visits.” The article also notes that “research on rat brains indicated that even an elderly brain, with the right stimulation, can grow more of the connections called dendrites, which are part of neural pathways.”

Visions: How did the early stage memory groups get started?

DL: The Alzheimer’s Society spearheaded this initiative, I believe, from the Langley group, and I think most communities now have these type of groups running.

Visions: How does your partnership with the Alzheimer’s Resource Centre work?

DL: Gwen Pym is the Support and Education Coordinator for the Abbotsford Alzheimer’s Resource Centre. Abbotsford Mental Health has a wonderful working relationship with the Centre. To begin with, we offer our site for her caregivers support group to meet, and we sit on a variety of community networking committees, including our local mental health advisory council. So, when Gwen approached us with the idea, the staff of the psychogeriatric team thought it was a great idea to offer a ‘memory group.’

Visions: How is the group structured?

DL: It is really a support group for people experiencing memory problems. It allows these individuals to be together in a caring and understanding environment. They share experiences, express feelings, learn more about memory problems, learn about helpful resources, and hear about advances in research and advocacy. People are screened before coming to the group. The group is open-ended, and as I said, it focuses on socialization, education and support. The group has goals and rules and they follow a group process model to ensure a safe, trusting and confidential environment. Gwen and Rose Adrian, an RN, facilitate the group.

Visions: What kinds of benefits does the group offer to the participants in dealing with their memory loss?

DL: One of the many benefits of the group is that it offers its participants a shared awareness. Members offer each other tips for what they are doing to remember things. The group also has some mental aerobic exercises (games and such) they do in the group.

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