Addressing senior depression through creativity and group interaction

March 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

On March 13, a group of Commonwealth Care Alliance (CCA) Senior Care Options members came together in Springfield, MA for a very special meeting. These seniors, all of whom had been prescreened for depression, learned how emotions are processed in the brain and how understanding the relationship between the mind and the body can help them manage symptoms of depression. Then, they got creative. Some started to paint, others wrote in journals. One member, who once enjoyed photography before becoming wheelchair bound and depressed, vowed to start taking pictures again.

CCA’s Luis Rivera displays a “rock painting” created by a member at the March 13 “Busy Hands, Healing Minds” workshop.

CCA’s Luis Rivera displays a “rock painting” created by a member at the March 13 “Busy Hands, Healing Minds” workshop.

The meeting was the inaugural session of our “Busy Hands, Healing Minds,” a pilot program aimed at addressing senior depression through creative activities and group interaction. Developed by our Health Education and Caregiver Training (HECT) department, in collaboration with our Behavioral Health Team, the six-week, English-language program brings a group of seniors together one day a week for two and a half hours of education and engagement that leads to empowerment.

Understanding the connection between the body and the mind
According to our HECT Director Rosa Palacios, our program uses “patient activation or self-management competency” to “promote the connection between the mind and the body and provide tools and resources to help members self-manage their depression.” Rosa explains that the program confronts depression by incorporating “completely humanistic views and holistic approaches.”

Underlying the program is a belief that creativity stimulates the brain in ways that can combat depression. In describing the philosophy behind our program, Rosa quotes Yale University’s Harlan Krumholz, MD, SM:

“If we can demonstrate that emotion affects outcomes and creative expression affects emotion, then a logical path to better outcomes would involve more attention to engaging people in artistic pursuits.”

With this in mind, our program was crafted to include a number of creative, educational, and social elements. During the course of the program, our senior members will take part in group brainstorming activities to develop strategies for overcoming depression, hear talks by mental health experts, and watch videos on topics such as aging, end-of-life choices, depression, and suicide. To help them express their emotions, members will engage in activities that encourage creative expression, including writing, drawing, painting, and photography. In addition, they will stimulate their minds and bodies by participating in exercise and dance activities, listening to music, and playing games. Many of our program’s “brain-stimulating” activities have been used effectively by the Alzheimer’s Association.

Addressing loneliness and isolation
The workshop’s mixture of creative activity, group discussions, and education, Rosa explains, helps give our members the tools they need to understand and manage their depression. What’s more, simply attending the sessions is helpful to seniors. “Just coming out and being with the group helps them address their feelings of isolation and loneliness,” Rosa says.

In fact, Rosa believes that getting involved in group activities and meeting new people could have a positive, long-term impact on group members.  “One of our goals is to help our senior members connect in class so that they can stay in touch,” she says. “It’s important that we help create a friend-to-friend support system.” To encourage these connections, Rosa says that care is taken to create “an environment where they feel happy, welcome, and loved, without judgment and without restrictions.”

Evaluating the program
At the end of our initial six-week pilot, our HECT and Behavioral Health teams will assess the impact of the workshop on participants. Rosa states that feedback from members, along with a post-session evaluation tool, will help determine if the workshop’s humanistic views and holistic approaches to depression management are effective.

Next, we will hold another pilot for Spanish-speaking SCO members. After those sessions, Rosa explains, her team  will look at member feedback and evaluation results, then compare those results with the English-language sessions to determine if there are cultural differences in depression management that need to be addressed in future sessions.


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