ATHENS, Ohio (Sept. 2, 2003) -- More than 90,000 people in the United States are over the age of 50 at the time they are diagnosed with AIDS, and at least 25 percent of them suffer from depression. But a new Ohio University study suggests that a telephone support group can lessen stress and improve the coping skills of older adults living with the disease.
In the pilot study, which will be presented this Saturday at the National Association of HIV Over Fifty Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., 23 older adults who had been diagnosed with depression participated in a 12-week telephone support group. The participants, who were recruited through AIDS service organizations in Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and Arizona, discussed life stressors and issues related to aging with HIV/AIDS. Licensed social workers offered advice about coping mechanisms and ways to seek support for health problems.
Those involved in the 12-session program reported greater reductions in stress and suicidal thoughts and an increase in coping skills, compared to a control group of 21 people who did not participate in the support group, said Timothy Heckman, an Ohio University health psychologist and lead author of the study.
The telephone intervention program appealed to participants who were too geographically remote from or physically unable to drive to standard support groups or counseling services, as well as those who were concerned about confidentiality issues. The telephone is one way to circumvent some or all of those barriers, Heckman said.
"Many of our participants noted that they don't have to dress up, drive in and try to present a good image when everything is not well," he said. "The telephone is financially and psychologically easier."
The study is funded by a two-year, $435,000 grant from the National Institute on Aging to evaluate the ability of the telephone-delivered mental health intervention to improve the quality of life of older persons living with HIV/AIDS who have been diagnosed with depression. In a previous study supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, Heckman found that the phone support group was successful in reducing depression and increasing social support for rural Americans living with HIV/AIDS who don't have access to the range of mental health services available in urban areas.
Older adults with HIV/AIDS face a unique situation: They not only must cope with the disease, but grapple with the mental, physical and social changes that come with aging, such as retirement and the loss of family and friends, Heckman noted.
"A lot is happening all at once, and it's very difficult to cope with," he said.
The telephone support group allowed older adults with HIV/AIDS to connect with people with similar experiences, said Lori Brown, a licensed social worker who moderated several of the phone sessions from the project's home base in Athens, Ohio. Some older women, for example, discussed issues such as menopause, lack of a romantic partner and relationships with children with other women. In another support group, three participants who successfully underwent psychiatric treatment encouraged a fourth caller to seek professional counseling. And those who have lived with HIV/AIDS for many years offer hope to adults recently diagnosed with the disease, Brown noted.
"They often don't have people in their own communities who have these same problems," she said. "They find comfort in having someone to talk to."
Participants in the phone intervention also sought to establish relationships outside of the group -- exchanging cards, letters and e-mails and meeting in person, Heckman and Brown said.
"I was surprised how well they responded, never having met face to face," Brown said. "I think it was because of the safety of the telephone."
Heckman and his colleagues plan to continue the project using a larger, more geographically diverse sample of older adults with HIV/AIDS.
Collaborators on the study are Monica Silverthorn, the project coordinator and a licensed social worker, and Ohio University students Andrea Waltje, Melissa Meyers, David Cosio and Dana Mitchell.