Online virtual support, an effective option for older adults is a technology that allows widows and widowers to interact in real time with mental health professionals
Washington: Support groups have proved to be a helpful resource for those dealing with grief, but for older individuals, obstacles such as geographic location and physical immobility can sometimes make it difficult to attend support groups in person.
An effective option for older adults, according to new University of Arizona research, might be an online virtual reality support group that allows widows and widowers to interact in real time with mental health professionals and other bereaved people, via a computer-generated avatar.
Lindsey Knowles 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.
In a study of 30 widows and widowers older than 50, some were assigned to be part of a virtual reality support group twice a week, while others instead were instructed to do once-weekly readings from a grief education website.
The same topics, including physical health, mental well-being, sleep, dating and parenting, among others, were addressed in both the interactive virtual group and the static online readings.
In follow-up assessments at the end of the eight-week study period and two months later, researchers found that participants in both groups showed improvements in stress, loneliness and sleep quality, but only participants in the virtual reality group showed self-reported improvement in symptoms of depression. Researchers think the social support provided by the group, along with its interactive nature, helped with depression.
“One of the best treatments for depression is behavioural activation,” Knowles explained. “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.”
Future studies should consider how the effectiveness of virtual support groups and educational websites compares to that of in-person groups and the simple passage of time, Knowles said, noting that the aging population makes this as an especially important area of research. The findings are published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour.