Support groups are a very helpful resource for individuals grieving from the death of a spouse; but for older adults, obstacles such as geographic location and physical immobility can sometimes make it difficult to attend these groups in person.
Now a new study shows that an online virtual support group may be an effective option for older adults dealing with grief. Researchers used the online platform Second Life to create a private virtual living room in a seaside cabin, where small groups of three to six people could virtually gather.
Participants, who all had lost a partner in the last one to three years, chose avatars — or animated figures — to represent them in the space. Then, from the comfort of their own homes, they communicated in real-time with mental health professionals and other bereaved spouses by typing via a chat program.
By the end of the study period, this approach was associated with self-reported improvements in symptoms of depression.
For the study, Lindsey Knowles, a graduate student in clinical psychology research at the University of Arizona (UA), set out with her colleagues to test the effectiveness and acceptability of two web-based support resources for older adults who have lost a spouse.
The study involved 30 widows and widowers over the age of 50. Some of the participants were placed in the virtual reality support group twice a week, while others were instructed to do once-weekly readings from a grief education website. The same topics — physical health, mental well-being, sleep, dating and parenting, among others — were covered in both the interactive virtual group and the static online readings.
By the end of the eight-week study period as well as two months later, researchers found that participants in both groups showed improvements in stress, loneliness, and sleep quality, but only those in the virtual group showed self-reported improvement in symptoms of depression.
“One of the best treatments for depression is behavioral activation,” said Knowles. “People who are depressed, or have more depressive symptoms, often remove themselves from their environment and from doing things that provide positive reinforcement and give them a sense of value.
“Showing up for a group twice a week — even if it is virtual — is a way for them to engage in the world that they haven’t been.”
In the first hourlong virtual support group meeting each week, study co-author UA assistant professor of psychology Dr. Mary Frances-O’Connor presented on a grief education topic by communicating through the chat program. O’Connor previously had found virtual support groups to be an effective tool in her work with caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Knowles moderated the second hourlong meeting each week, in which participants got to know one another and share their personal stories, often delving into feelings they might not be comfortable expressing in person.
“Group members often shared things like: ‘Right now I’m crying at my keyboard, and I would never do this in person, but because I feel like there’s this anonymity, I can break down, while my avatar looks perfectly fine,'” Knowles said.
In follow-up assessments, the virtual participants said they felt as if they were in a real room during the sessions, with real people who were going through similar experiences.
“There’s something to be said for getting into a group and showing up for that group every week, as well as being able to share your experience in a validating and normalizing environment,” said Knowles.
Although participants assigned to the weekly reading group did not show improvements in depression, they did report better sleep and less stress and loneliness after the intervention, which means the website could still be an effective tool for those dealing with grief.
It also requires fewer resources than a support group, which needs a dedicated moderator, Knowles said. Overall, both interventions were well received by participants, Knowles said.
“With the graying of America that is happening, we expect that more people are going to be widowed as baby boomers age,” Knowles said.
“Losing a spouse is a huge life transition and a profoundly stressful event. All of us will experience different types of grief in our lives, and having accessible resources that are evidence-based is really important.”
The findings are published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.
Source: University of Arizona