A new study is investigating the impact that volunteer-led befriending has on the mental health of aged care residents.

The National Ageing Research Institute research project is one of the seven projects to share in $5 million to improve mental health among older Australians under a program jointly by mental health charity beyondblue and the National Health and Medical Research Council (read more here).

NARI’s project, which has received $652,000 over four years, will involve 3,630 residents from two aged care providers who will participate in weekly interventions conducted by trained volunteers.

Lead researcher Professor Colleen Doyle said the approach is designed to improve the health and social participation of residents with depression and anxiety.

“The project aims to improve depression, anxiety, social support and loneliness among older people in residential aged care facilities through befriending from trained volunteers,” Professor Dolye told Australian Ageing Agenda.

Professor Colleen Doyle

“It is estimated that 52 per cent of people living in residential aged care facilities have significant depression symptoms and a higher prevalence of [residents] have major depressive disorders compared to those living in the community,” said Professor Doyle, a research fellow at NARI and professor of aged care at Australian Catholic University.

The project will investigate the impact befriending has on symptoms of depression, anxiety, social support and loneliness, the economic benefits as well as how acceptable befriending is for the residents and volunteers involved.

Befriending is defined as non-directive emotional and social support, Professor Doyle said.

“The befriending conversations avoid talking about health-related matters and will focus on enjoyable topics of interest to both parties,” she said.

“Befriending provides companionship and social support, and it will provide residents with a regular visitor to talk to, which will potentially reduce their loneliness, increase their social support systems, and in turn reduce their depressive and anxiety symptoms,” Professor Doyle said.

Aged care providers can take a range of steps to improve the mental health and wellbeing of residents starting with giving attention to a resident’s transition into residential aged care and the psychological impact that can have then taking steps to protect mental health and maintain resilience, she said.

They can also facilitate access to psychological psychosocial and medical interventions, implement buddy systems or other systems to manage psychosocial support and provide meaningful lifestyle services, Professor Doyle said.

The project is due to be completed by mid-2022.

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4 Comments

  1. Hi, the Community Visitors Scheme has proved the worth of a volunteer service in so many ways. Loneliness and social isolation is a huge contributing factor of depression in residents of Aged Care Facilities. There is a very big percentage of residents who fall into this category. Some have no family and no friends and to have a regular volunteer visit them makes the world of difference in their lives. Over and over I can sing the praises of our CVS volunteers who commit their time to visit a resident in an Aged Care Facility and to make the visit “all about the resident”. The good news stories that come from volunteers who visit, AND from the staff at Aged Care Facilities and also from the mouths of residents themselves is testament to volunteer services (friend only), being a VERY VALUABLE service.

  2. Heather is so correct. The Community Visitors Scheme which funds volunteers to provide one on one friendships to lonely aged care residents of facilities in Australia has proven to be such a beneficial and worthwhile program. The benefits are huge for not only the resident but the volunteer, the aged care staff and often, the family who are unable to be there to visit for themselves.

    This federal government program is one that is essential and actually works.

  3. There are distinct differences between the closed relationship of paid relationships versus the openness possible in un-paid/commitment based relationships. However, “volunteers” tend to be controlled by third parties as though they were paid. For instance, the study clearly directs the nature of interaction between the subjects. Maybe it has to in order to reduce the variables to be studied, but it still misses the essential nature and benefit that freely given relationships bring…the very things that are often missing once people go “into care”.
    The point is, that even a single relationship can keep a person part of the valued world and if able to act on their commitment to the person in care, (rather than as subjects to a study) they can indeed protect that person from being harmed. Clearly these elements can reduce rejection and insecurity that leads to depression and anxiety in the first place.

  4. Peter Hall

    These types of befriending programs have been happening in the community for years and have been shown to be highly beneficial. Indeed, I was once part of such a program myself as a volunteer helping people to learn to socialise again after recovering from mental illnesses etc.

    Currently I manage a program of volunteers going into peoples homes to offer companionship. Although not in Aged Care facilities these people often live alone and the only visitor is the volunteer. They experience similar loneliness, depressions, reduced self worth etc. The volunteers give them a lift and a regular friendly face , “someone to talk to”.
    I would suggest the benefits far outweigh any perceived negatives relating a “controlled” relationship.

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