Spirituality and Aging Groups Rising Star for Tackling Depression

Angie SzumlinskiHealth, Studies

On Lok, a San Francisco based comprehensive long-term health program for frail adults 55 and older, has been employing Spirituality and Aging Groups since 2013. The primary goal of these groups is to reduce depressive symptoms and increase overall quality of life for older individuals. The groups originated from a partnership between the in-house mental health team and the chaplaincy department with the intent to create a psychospiritual support group.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 20% of people aged 55 or older experience some type of mental health concern, the most common of these is depression. Unfortunately, depression is widely underrecognized in older adults, many of whom go untreated.

Many residents and patients are not comfortable admitting to mental health struggles due to stigmas found in many communities and cultures. Click To Tweet

Many residents and patients are not comfortable admitting to mental health struggles, especially due to stigmas found in many communities and cultures. Spirituality is a way to reach out to those who otherwise might not engage in mental health services. It encourages open and kind interactions within a group, and to reduces stigma around joining the group. Additionally, outside research demonstrates that spiritual practice can enhance mental and physical wellbeing, especially in older adults.

On Lok defines spirituality as nondenominational, so participants of all faiths are welcome. The goal of the S&A group is to reduce depressive symptoms in older adults by strengthening a sense of meaning and purpose, increasing self-awareness, promoting inner peace, and fostering a sense of connectedness with others. The groups are held on site at On Lok’s adult day health centers , maintaining co-location with primary care in order to provide the easiest access for patients who spend 1-5 days a week there already. Groups are presided over by both a chaplain and psychotherapist and are open to new members at any time. They meet once a month for 1 hour.

Members are generally referred by a health care professional, although they can refer themselves. The groups as a whole are exceptionally diverse, reflecting a broad spectrum of faiths and backgrounds. Group topics are aimed at reducing stress and improving the ability to cope with stressful life events. Seasons and holidays often serve as inspiration. Professional interpreters are available if there is a language barrier to ensure the proper message is transmitted.

When a session begins, the psychotherapist will begin with a factual debriefing on the issue at hand and its relevance before the chaplain comes forward and delivers the spiritual “good news” on the topic to increase feelings of comfort among the gathered. The assembly is then given simple questions to respond to in turn on the subject. After this, the assembly is invited to share personal experiences that feel relevant. Although this is a standard overview of proceedings, the hallmark of the program is its adaptability, with time allotted for many adjustments to the setting to make it more inclusive to different backgrounds.

A spirituality group allows participants to join an activity they perceive as less stigmatizing, and possibly more rewarding, than a traditional psychotherapy group. Click To Tweet

In all, the group provides both professional expertise and peer support in an easily accessible location that can be tailored to the needs of all potential participants, regardless of who they are.

For more information, read the article on Spirituality and Aging Support Groups published in Annals of Long Term Care.