Stay happy by staying connected
As the saying goes, no one is an island. We all need the counsel, support and friendship of other people to lead happy, healthy and productive lives.
As we age, it’s especially important to avoid loneliness and isolation. That’s because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “social isolation [is] associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia and other serious medical conditions.”
Fortunately, older adults in the Baltimore metropolitan region have a number of options for support and socialization.
As the leader of several groups for older adults, Baltimore County resident Lee Richmond, 87, has seen firsthand the transformative power of connection.
“The groups become cohesive. Members become friends and form important bonds,” she said.
In person or via Zoom
The Mental Health Association of Maryland offers several different types of groups for older adults, according to Casey Saylor, MSW, Older Adult Project Manager at MHAMD.
Mind Your Mind Mondays, a Zoom group that began at the start of the pandemic, is one. The peer-facilitated weekly group focuses on issues related to brain health including mindfulness, memory, addiction and creativity.
“We find that the folks that participate, they like the science,” Saylor said. “So we try to bring in a spirit of easy-to-understand brain science in every presentation.”
Typically, Mind Your Mind group meetings include a 20- to 30-minute presentation followed by break-out sessions where participants can discuss the topic of the week in small groups.
Though Mind Your Mind was meant to be short-term, the meetings have proven so popular that Saylor said they plan to continue offering them after the pandemic ends.
In addition to bringing educational presentations on mental health to venues around the state — something MHAMD is known for — the organization offers Encouraging Conversations, “a space for folks to get together and check in about how they’re doing. It’s open ended and [participants] provide support to one another,” Saylor said. Currently, the monthly Conversations group is also being held over Zoom.
Study group uses guidebook
MHAMD also offers a Mental Health in Later Life study group. Participants use a guidebook, created by MHAMD and available for download on the organization’s website, to spur discussions.
The book covers brain and behavioral health; common mental health concerns; grief and bereavement; cognitive impairment and dementia; substance abuse and more. When prospective participants register for the group, they receive a free, hard copy of the guidebook.
In group meetings, Saylor said, “We go through [the book] section by section and just kind of touch base every month about what was interesting…What did you relate to?”
Individuals are welcome to launch their own study groups using the guidebooks, Saylor said, and the organization provides training on how to run a study group.
“One of the things that we really try to tap into in our programming is the peer support network that exists throughout the county and throughout the state. And these are folks of all ages with lived experience around mental health and addiction,” Saylor said.
Seeking more spirituality
Older adults seeking greater spirituality may benefit from joining a Wise Aging group. Wise Aging, a program of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, is based on the book Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience and Spirit by the late Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Linda Thal.
Currently, the program is offered at several Baltimore County synagogues, but facilitator Lee Richmond, who facilitates Wise Aging groups at Beth El Congregation in Pikesville, believes it will eventually be available in non-Jewish venues as well.
“It’s not so much about religion as it is about spirituality,” Richmond said.
Richmond, 87, has seen first-hand the transformative power of connection. “The groups become cohesive. Members become friends and form important bonds,” she said.
The program explores mindfulness techniques and spiritual practices such as meditation, journaling, movement and prayer. The curriculum includes topics such as relationships with spouses and adult children, body image and sexuality, and coping with loss.
When Rabbi Cowan came to speak about her book at Beth El Congregation in Pikesville several years ago, Richmond, a professor emeritus in psychology at Loyola University Maryland, was impressed.
Although she was already a trained group therapist, Richmond decided to participate in a Wise Aging facilitator training program. After the training, Richmond offered two Wise Aging Groups through Beth El — one group only for women and another coed group.
Since then, Richmond, who is currently studying to be a rabbi, has established several additional groups for people in their late 60s through 80s. They’re so popular that she has had to extend the groups’ length, even creating an advanced Wise Aging group at participants’ request.
“After I exhausted the book [curriculum], I brought in material from other sources,” she said.
“The groups give participants a different perspective on aging. They are geared to people who want to live very active lives,” Richmond said. “Not everything about aging is decline.”
Howard County’s programs
While MHAMD mostly focuses on older adults in Baltimore County, Howard County’s Office on Aging and Independence offers various types of support groups for its residents — everything from low-vision support, bereavement and current events to groups that deal more generally with issues related to aging.
One of the organization’s longest running groups, known as the Trenders, is “a place to discuss health issues, disconnection from family members, changing finances and loss,” said Karen Hull, the county’s Mental Health Coordinator.
Last year, the Trenders had to meet over Zoom, but now they have restarted live meetings at the Florence Bain 50+ Center in Columbia. Since Zoom enabled group participants who lived far away or who lacked transportation to attend, the Trenders are currently looking at ways to offer both in-person and Zoom attendance.
Members of the Trenders may discuss concerns or share the events of their weeks. The group simply provides a means of connection for its members. And that doesn’t always mean discussion.
“Sometimes we play trivia or have a treasure hunt,” Hull said. Prior to the pandemic, “members used to go out for lunch after the group session.”
Howard County also established the Think Positive Group, which meets at the Elkridge 50+ Center. In Think Positive, members explore ways to maintain an optimistic attitude in the face of challenges.
“We look at how do we work to use positivity and energy to open our minds and to find friends,” Hull said. “When older adults connect, it reduces depression and feelings of isolation.”
Hull urges people to give these groups a try.
“People are there for the same reasons [as you]. Put your toe in and give it a chance. It takes more than one time to know if it’s the right fit. If one doesn’t work, try another.”