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Circle of Friends groups offer companionship to lonely seniors

One-third of Finnish residents over the age of 75 report that they are lonely, as least from time to time. The Central Union for the Welfare of the Aged founded the Circle of Friends service in 2006 to offer companionship to Finland’s lonely seniors. Since then, over 7,000 people have participated in the groups and feedback shows that the elderly feel as if they have been a help.

Vanhuksia ulkona.
Image: Antero Aaltonen / Vanhustyön keskusliiton kuva-arkisto

Research has shown that over one-third of people over 75 in Finland suffer from feelings of loneliness and isolation. A group was formed in 2006 to address this problem, the Circle of Friends (”Ystäväpiiri”) service, supported by Finland’s Central Union for the Welfare of the Aged (VTKL). The service creates groups where seniors can meet to relieve their feelings of loneliness and make some new acquaintances.

Meeting for three months at a time, 145 Circle of Friends groups are now active throughout the country. Over 7,000 people have participated in the groups, and 670 have been trained as group facilitators. Feedback has shown that 90 percent of those who have become a group member feel the Circle has been a big help in combating their loneliness.

“I visited a group in Tampere this Wednesday and one of the participants there said the Circle was the easiest group she had ever joined because she could just be herself,” says Anu Jansson, a senior planner with the VTKL advocacy group.

60 percent continue to meet

The Circle of Friends groups meet 12 times for a three-month period, with a maximum of eight seniors in each group. Each group has two facilitators to lead activities.

“Each group has a clear beginning and end, and the seniors are aware of this when they start the programme. The idea is that the facilitators help the group to get going and socialize. As the participants get to know each other better, they take over the reins, but it is up to the facilitator to instill a feeling of trust and camaraderie in the group,” says Jansson.

This gradual empowerment seems to work, because about 60 percent of the groups continue to meet once the programme has finished. Some are still meeting regularly eight years later and the group has become like another family.

“It’s amazing to see group members grow active and stay in contact of their own accord in order to maintain their new friendships. It is not always easy for an elderly person to make new friendships. Feedback from our programme shows that 70 percent of the participants make new friends, and this is a wonderful thing,” says Jansson.

The groups are customer-oriented, so the members do what they like. This could be a day excursion, chair aerobics, or even a trip to the physical therapist.

Health care savings of 1,600 euros per person

Studies have shown that up to a third of seniors in Finland over 75 years of age suffer from loneliness, at least some of time. Loneliness affects quality of life, as it can also limit functional capacity and memory. In severe cases, loneliness can even lead to premature institutionalisation or death.

The Circle of Friends idea got its start during a geriatric rehabilitation research and development project in 2002-2006. The project found that group activities for seniors improved memory function, mental well-being and quality of life in comparative studies. Elderly people who attended the peer groups also used fewer health services, leading to a savings of 1,600 euros per person.  

Circle of Friends activities are in part funded by the RAY Slot Machine Association.

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