“The best way to release feelings is to open up and talk about it,” says Brenda Kirkland, 67.

Brenda Kirkland & other volunteersBrenda and 26 other volunteer facilitators for the Oasis Peers for Productive Aging program are working to combat a common emotion for older adults: isolation. Their weapon of choice? Just talking.

“For many seniors, the isolation starts as a matter of privacy. They think they can and should handle things on their own. But I tell them when we let stuff stay inside, it begins to feed on us. It helps a lot to open up. That’s the job of a good facilitator,” she says.

Research shows that group and activity-based methods are more effective in reducing feelings of isolation than those that are individual-based and non-participatory. When Brenda meets a tough customer in her group at Kennedy King Center, she has a magic trick that works just about every time.

“Hugs. I’m a hugger,” she says. “People almost always respond to a good hug.”

Something to talk about
Seasons of change. Losing a loved one. Making friends.  Even the subject of the power of laughter. All are up for discussion with Peers for Productive Aging. Facilitators find that almost everyone has something to say and the key is making people feel comfortable enough to do so.

“The world still needs you.”

That’s one of the messages Tyrone Hayes tries to send to the adults he meets with each week at the AHEPA Senior Living Community in Indianapolis.

“They have so much to talk about and just want to be heard,” says Tyrone. “It is really satisfying to watch the lightbulb come on for somebody and to see them open up. Recently, I brought my laptop and played some songs that all knew from their youth. They got up and danced. One woman said, ‘You know what? The way I danced today? I want to feel that way again. For me, that’s beautiful.’”

Tyrone has watched members of his group form connections with one another, and he’s included in this newfound community, something he never expected.
Successful in St. Louis since 2006, Peers for Productive Aging was expanded in 2015 to Indianapolis with support from Central Indiana Community Foundation Senior Fund. The program has been implemented in seven senior living communities and two senior centers in the Indianapolis area, impacting over 750 older adults since March 2015.

“I call them my family,” Tyrone says. “I really am a better person for having known these people.”

Linda Madagame, resident services coordinator at the Crestwood Village North, was one of the first to come on board with the program, and started identifying people who would be good facilitators right away.

“Many of our residents retired from occupations where they were leaders of team projects, business offices and government programs,”

says Linda, who approached potential facilitators with an outline of the project and materials about Oasis. They agreed without any hesitation.
Making changes easier with friends
Judy Park, a Crestwood Village North resident, says she likes participating in the discussion group and thinking about the questions that come up. It has helped her get through a time of challenging change.

“For a lot of us, our living arrangements have changed dramatically,” she says. “When I arrived, I’d lived in a house and came with too much stuff. I was gradually able to break it down to the stuff I needed. I had to learn that it’s okay to give it up!”

It’s this kind of transition and many other life changes that get good responses in group, because they elicit a full spectrum of emotions: fear, sadness, anger, sometimes relief. The peer group model encourages lots of talking, but listening is also a key piece of any support group. It’s a skill that facilitator Bob Harkness has developed over time working on the project.

“I’ve never had trouble speaking in front of a group,” says Bob, who also helps analyze survey data for the project. “The thing to remember is that it’s not a lecture. We’re facilitating the discussion. A lot of the questions are open-ended. We were trained on how to handle certain situations, for instance, how to recognize personality types. I’ve learned how to appreciate others’ feelings more. I think I’m benefiting as much as the participants.”

Visit Indianapolis Oasis
Brenda is featured in the 2015 Oasis Annual Report.