In addition to the more commonly discussed symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and dementia, seniors suffering from the conditions may be more likely to feel isolated and depressed. According to the Alzheimer's Association, as many as 40 percent of people with the disease may also have severe depression. Making matters worse, it can be difficult to diagnose depression in people with Alzheimer's when their cognitive impairments make them less able to articulate their feelings.
Social support groups may be an effective way of fighting the isolation that's common with dementia. The Mental Health Foundation, a U.K. charity, studied older adults in a form of assisted living facility in England and found that peer groups of seniors with dementia supporting one another may reduce some of the symptoms of all members when assisted by a facilitator. Researchers collected data on how participants felt mentally and physically, how they engaged with one another and whether they were able to keep accurate track of time.
Among the three groups studied, participation was mostly consistent, with group members attending at least three-quarters of sessions held. Interviews held six and nine months after the trial started gauged the progress that they had made. In general, participants felt better subjectively as time went on, but actual physical limitations were more difficult to overcome.
Room to grow
At the end of the study, the seniors involved generally reported that they were more confident in their ability to try new things. Most also exhibited improved communication skills and said that they had learned to cope with anxiety better. In their interactions with one another and with the caregivers at their senior communities, participants were seen to be happier, more engaged and more understanding, researchers said. In addition, staff reported that the groups helped to form a greater sensing of community among the residents. Participants mostly highlighted the chance to meet with other people as the biggest benefit of the study.
However, participants' ability to perform daily tasks mostly declined during the study, due to the deteriorating physical condition of some members. After the study, two of the three groups continued to meet without their facilitators. The participants of the third group were found to have too much cognitive impairment to organize without a facilitator, suggesting one possible limitation to this method of support.
Prevention and protection
Social connections may even help to prevent the onset of dementia, according to the Alzheimer's Association. The group highlighted research showing hobbies that combine physical, mental and social engagement could have the most protective effect on brain health. Satisfying any of these requirements was found to reduce the likelihood of developing dementia in a study of 800 people over the age of 75, but seniors who addressed all three needs had the lowest risk of all. The organization suggested that traveling, volunteering and joining social clubs could help fight the development of dementia.
Retirement communities could support these aims by establishing peer groups such as those used in the recent study, according to the Mental Health Foundation. Since residents have the most direct contact with staff members and other members of their communities, building social interaction into daily life can be easier to accomplish than trying to seek help outside. The group said that the distinguishing feature of these groups was that they were based around residents working through problems with one another rather than working toward some goal imposed upon them. Facilitators can be involved in the process as aides, but should not make decisions on the group's behalf.