Six Recommendations To Promote Emotional Wellness In Older Adults Using Design Thinking


Written by Rachael Steimnitz, NAMI-NYC’s Director of Workplace Mental Health, and Alayna Auerbach, NAMI-NYC’s Manager of Workplace Mental Health

One size does not fit all when it comes to emotional wellness and mental health. Oftentimes, standard approaches are used without considering the cultural aspects of specific populations, especially those experiencing decreased emotional wellness. For example, the mental health challenges faced by older adults are a growing concern globally. With over 15% of individuals aged 60 and above living with mental illnesses, and dementia cases expected to soar in the coming decades, the need for robust and empathetic mental health care is more crucial than ever. Access to care for this demographic is often hampered by several systemic issues, including ageism, stigma around mental illness, and a lack of specialized training for healthcare providers. Recognizing the urgent need for support, the National Alliance on Mental Illness of New York City (NAMI-NYC), in collaboration with Selfhelp Community Services and funded by The Fan Fox & Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, developed an innovative Facilitator’s Guide toolkit. The toolkit combines emotional resilience training for staff with design thinking workshops, aimed at empowering staff to better support their own mental health and promote the emotional well-being of their older adult clients.

Training for resilience: the foundation of care

Supporting staff mental health is a crucial first step to ensuring they can provide effective support to their clients. Studies have found that healthcare workers who actively engage in self-care or participate in workplace wellness programs, such as mindfulness practices or stress management skills, experience enhanced mental and physical wellbeing. Many companies overlook the importance of staff mental health and prematurely implement quality improvement initiatives or program enhancements without adequately supporting the wellbeing of the employees who deliver these services. When employees are mentally and emotionally resilient, they can better handle the stresses and demands of their roles, which in turn enhances the quality of care they provide.

The “Beyond Burnout” program developed by NAMI-NYC for this initiative is a comprehensive five-part training series that educates staff about mental health challenges and equips them with essential resiliency skills emphasizing:

  • Improving coping skills
  • Enhancing positive emotions
  • Managing competing work/life demands
  • Incorporating strategies to reduce burnout

An external evaluation conducted by the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at New York University highlighted the program’s effectiveness. Key outcomes include:

  • Significantly higher levels of coping skills among participants
  • Reduced stress related to burnout
  • Improved psychological wellbeing

Design thinking: the pathway to innovation

Design thinking is a methodology known for fostering innovation through a structured, empathetic approach to problem-solving. In NAMI-NYC’s work with the staff at Selfhelp, it was crucial to incorporate diverse perspectives to address the varied perceptions of mental health challenges among older adults, who may view mental health with stigma or as a taboo topic.

During design thinking workshops, participants shared insights that led to the creation of Learning Circles. Learning Circles are a group psychosocial program with the goal of promoting emotional wellness among older adults. The Facilitator’s Guide toolkit was created to provide guidance to community-based organizations serving older adults to implement community Learning Circles in their own organization.

The Learning Circles are structured to be inclusive and engaging, using strengths-based approaches to discuss emotional wellness rather than focusing solely on mental illness. This method helps circumvent the stigma often associated with mental health discussions among older adults.

Recommendations to promote emotional wellness in older adults

Based on the Facilitator’s Guide toolkit, below are six recommendations to develop programming to promote emotional wellness for older adults. The framework for these recommendations can be leveraged for exploring how to promote emotional wellness for other populations as well.

  1. Support staff’s mental health: Provide skills-based training, such as the “Beyond Burnout” program, to improve staff’s emotional resilience, coping, and ability to manage work/life balance. This promotes a culture that acknowledges the importance of taking time to practice these skills, engage in self-care activities, and utilize other workplace mental health care benefits. Building a workplace where staff experience optimal mental health enables staff to best support clients.
  2. Adopt a strengths-based approach to emotional wellness: Shift the focus from solely addressing mental illness to promoting emotional wellness by highlighting the positive aspects of mental and emotional health. This strengths-based approach reduces stigma associated with mental health issues, encouraging more adults to participate in programs, such as Learning Circles. Additionally, be mindful of how terms translate in different languages to ensure the message resonates correctly across diverse communities.
  3. Reframe the concept of aging: Transform the narrative around aging from a negative aspect of life to a positive transition filled with potential. By portraying aging as a period enriched with wisdom and experience, this reframing empowers older adults, helping them view this phase as an opportunity for growth and development.
  4. Use supportive and inclusive language: Opt for terms like “residents,” “participants,” and “older adults” instead of “seniors” or “geriatric adults,” which may carry unintended connotations. Using respectful and supportive language fosters a more inclusive and welcoming environment, enhancing participant comfort and dignity.
  5. Simplify communication: Ensure all verbal and written communications are straightforward and clear, especially important in communities with diverse linguistic backgrounds. Simplified communication prevents misunderstandings and ensures that all participants can fully understand and engage with the programs offered.
  6. Facilitate open and supportive dialogues: Employ open-ended questions in discussions to allow residents to freely express their thoughts and concerns. Provide different ways for participants to seek further mental health support, making it easier for adults to discuss their experiences and access help in a comfortable and accessible way.

Supporting mental health in older adults is an often overlooked yet critical issue that demands attention and action. The partnership between NAMI-NYC and Selfhelp demonstrates the importance of prioritizing the emotional wellbeing of staff to provide the highest quality of care to clients.

The Facilitator’s Guide toolkit is a significant advancement in mental health and elder care. The insights gained from this work have the potential to shape future programs. By combining emotional resilience training with design thinking workshops, this toolkit equips staff and caregivers with the necessary tools to enhance the emotional wellbeing of older adults, setting a new standard in compassionate care and support.


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