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UA Study Shows Virtual Support Groups Help Older Adults

the University of Arizona
Participants entered this virtual world where they could interact in real time with mental health professionals and other bereaved people via computer generated avatar.

Support groups can be a helpful resource for someone going through a significant loss. But geography and physical limitations, especially among older adults, can make it difficult to attend support groups in person. And that’s where technology can help. 

The University of Arizona wanted to know if online groups that allow participants to interact in real time with mental health professionals and other bereaved people actually worked.

Imagine logging into virtual living room at a seaside cabin. A small group of people are gathered to talk about the loss of their significant other, participants use avatars or animated figures to represent themselves.

Lindsey Knowles is a doctoral candidate at the U of A. She helped test the effectiveness of online support groups. Knowles and the team contrasted that with once-a-week readings from a grief education website.  

"We saw that both groups improved significantly in grief severity, decreases in loneliness, decreases in yearning for the person they lost," Knowles said.

But she said, "only virtual support group improved with a decrease in depression."

Jan Dougherty is with Banner Alzheimer’s Institute.

"I think it really speaks to that when we’re suffering, whatever that suffering is, it really helps to be connected to people in like situations," Dougherty said.

Knowles said the results were positive and the participants seemed comfortable using technology.

"I would help them log in and meet them there and kind of teach their avatar how to walk and how to sit," Knowles said. "And they were able to do this fine. Those phone calls lasted about 15 minutes. And then after that we didn’t have too many technical glitches ."

The findings will be published in the journal "Computers in Human Behavior."

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KJZZ senior field correspondent Kathy Ritchie has 20 years of experience reporting and writing stories for national and local media outlets — nearly a decade of it has been spent in public media.