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

Residents of an Ontario nursing home participate in the Java Music Club
Residents of an Ontario nursing home participate in the Java Music Club(Java at the Village of Erin Meadows: Photography by Dan Abramovici)
Published: Aug. 4, 2021 at 7:51 AM EDT
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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 enrolled 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.

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.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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