A new grant aims to decrease social isolation among Virginia nursing home residents

The two-year program will expand services in 30 long-term care facilities

By: - August 3, 2021 12:02 am

Residents of an Ontario nursing home participate in the Java Music Club (Java at the Village of Erin Meadows: Photography by Dan Abramovici)

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

“It’s hard for us to imagine what it’s like to wake up every morning and think, ‘I don’t belong here,’” said Kristine Theurer, a longtime expert in senior care. As a music therapist (and later a recreation director) for a nursing home in British Columbia, she noticed the calendar was filled with bowling, movie nights, and day trips — what Theurer described as “a relentless diet of entertainment and distraction.” Almost none of the activities, though, were designed to help residents connect with each other.

That realization drove her to create the Java Music Club, a peer-support group soon to be unrolled in 30 long-term care facilities across the commonwealth. LeadingAge Virginia, an association of nonprofit aging services, is offering the program to members — along with two additional services developed by Theurer — 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. Theurer said she was inspired to start the group after her own experiences with grief support therapy, which she avoided for years after her older brother died by suicide. 

“I thought, ‘So I’m going to sit around the table with a bunch of other sad people and we’re going to be sad together— how could that possibly help me?’” she said. But sharing her experience, Theurer found, helped her process her own grief. 

She’s witnessed the same effect among residents, including one patient with dementia who was assumed to be nonverbal by most staff at the facility where she was living. The first time Theurer heard the woman speak, it was to comfort another resident mourning the loss of her husband.

The LeadingAge funding will also sponsor the Java Mentorship program, which teams up residents and volunteers to visit more socially isolated patients. The goal, Theurer said, is to encourage those residents to engage and participate in other activities. 

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.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.