For elderly individuals with mental illness or dementia, group therapy activities can produce positive effects. Everything from music to art to storytelling can engage a group of older adults, providing much-needed socialization to counter negative mental conditions.
“Older adults, when they’re not being socialized, tend to shut down, and that’s when depression sets in,” says Paul Falkowski, Ph.D, a gerontologist who teaches at the University of Nebraska and is also president of Community 360, a volunteer organization that provides companionship to institutionalized older adults in Omaha and surrounding communities.
Music as Therapy
One group activity that works very well with older adults is music, such as singing favorite tunes like “Auld Lang Syne” or “Jingle Bells.”
Falkowski’s first experience as a nursing home volunteer, which led to him eventually founding Community 360, was participating in a choir that sang Christmas carols for the residents. This was about 30 years ago, shortly after Falkowski earned his bachelor’s degree in music performance.
“After a few years, I started going to nursing homes on my own with my saxophone,” Falkowski says. “I picked out a few well-known hymns like ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘In the Garden,’ so that everyone could sing at least one verse.”
Asking those in a group setting to sing can be a great way to unify a room, making individuals feel less alone. “It doesn’t have to be religious music—just something familiar that everybody knows,” Falkowski says.
Storytelling as Therapy
Writing a poem or a story also can be an effective group activity. Community 360 participates in a program known as TimeSlips, which brings individuals together for creative storytelling. Several of Community 360’s volunteers are Certified TimeSlips facilitators, and they will often facilitate TimeSlips sessions for dementia patients in memory care units.
Falkowski explains how it works: “Instead of trying to get people to remember things, we tell them that we’re going to write a story. We start by giving everybody a picture that’s somewhat provocative. It might be a baby sitting in a briefcase or a cowboy with a shotgun or two dogs whose heads are hanging out of a car. So, everyone looks at the picture, and the facilitator guides them with questions: What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What are the dogs’ names? What is the cowboy’s name?”
As those in the room begin responding, a volunteer writes down their answers. “Someone might say, ‘His name is Fred,’ and someone else says, ‘That’s not Fred; that’s Joe.’ Soon the banter is going back and forth, and eventually you build a story,” Falkowski says.
The facilitator combines the collective responses into a story that is mounted on a poster board and displayed in the memory care unit. When family members come for a visit, residents can point to the story and say, “I wrote that.” There’s a pride of authorship that transcends the individual’s cognitive or mental disorder.
Some individuals may not perceive themselves as being creative, but Falkowski has seen residents surprise themselves by how creative they become while participating in TimeSlips. “It helps turn a negative self-perception into a positive one,” he says.
Art as Therapy
Artistic outlets such as drawing or painting can likewise be beneficial for older adults. For those who have trouble communicating verbally, art therapy allows them to communicate visually while also expressing their individuality.
This can be especially helpful for institutionalized adults who feel they have lost control of their lives. When they make decisions about what to paint and how to paint it, they may feel like they are regaining some control.
Additional Group Therapy Ideas
Additional group activities that can help older adults include:
- Playing games such as cards or bingo.
- Participating in a dance or exercise class, benefiting both the body and the mind.
- Interacting with therapy animals, which has been associated with a reduced need for medication and improved physical functioning.
- Using humor to connect with others while also experiencing pain-reducing endorphins.
- Group discussions geared toward reducing anxiety and depression while building self-esteem.
Group therapy activities can help build self-esteem, but so, too, can personal interactions.
“We at Community 360 have found that what folks need more than anything is a one-on-one connection,” Falkowski explains. “The best thing you can do is learn about the person’s history and tap into what you’ve learned. Maybe they love to read, so you spend time reading with them. Maybe they love baseball, so you talk baseball.”
Falkowski has such a personal connection with a 75-year-old assisted-living resident who has battled clinical depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. This man, who had almost no social skills when Falkowski met him 15 years ago, has become more engaged and outgoing because someone took an interest in his life. He even participates in Community 360’s annual Christmas event, having become confident enough to recite “The Night Before Christmas” in front of 400 nursing home residents. He’s found an additional sense of self-worth by helping Falkowski at his office with such tasks as emptying the trash and putting postage on the mail.
“The key is to find out the things that someone can do and then give them the opportunity to do those things,” says Falkowski. “That gives them a sense of purpose, which goes a long way toward lifting their self-esteem.”
DISCUSS: What type of group therapy have you or a loved one seen success with?