Spotlight on… Dr Kaisu Pitkälä – University of Helsinki

Kaisu Pitkäla Kaisu Pitkäla, PI and professor emerita at the University of Helsinki, Finland

The RECETAS partnership is rich in interdisciplinarity and expertise on topics related to mental health, loneliness and nature-based solutions.
How do our partners work on loneliness? How are they involved in RECETAS? Each month, one or more of our experts answer our questions!

🎤 Kaisu, can you briefly introduce the organization you work for?

I am working as a PI and professor emerita for the University of Helsinki. University of Helsinki is the largest of the universities of Finland and it has been ranked among the 100 best universities in the world in respect to research. It has over 20 000 students including 800 students at the medical faculty. Unit of General Practice has developed and tested several treatment models for older people including rehabilitation model for lonely older people.

🎤 Why is loneliness a public health issue? What is your approach to loneliness at the University of Helsinki and in your personal research?

I have explored the concept loneliness among older people since 2000 when our research group published an article in Lancet concerning the predictive value of loneliness on cognitive decline, disabilities and mortality. These findings have been repeated in many studies thereafter. Loneliness is harmful even at the end of life in nursing homes where it is a health and mortality risk.

We developed a psychosocial group rehabilitation model for lonely older people “Circle of Friends” in collaboration with The Finnish Association for the Welfare of Older People. This randomized controlled trial showed that Circle of Friends intervention improves older lonely people’s wellbeing and health-related quality of life, their cognition, self-rated health. In addition, it reduced their use of health and social services and their mortality. The people in Circle of Friends groups made more  often new friends that the controls. In addition, about 60% of their groups continued on their own after the official study was over. The Finnish Association for the Welfare of Older People has continued disseminating Circle of Friends rehab model to 100 communities in Finland, trained about 1100 group facilitators and nearly 12 000 lonely older people have participated in the groups. It has retained the essential elements of the original model.

We have also explored loneliness in our qualitative studies by interviewing how people can feel lonely in a crowd and how emotionally devastating it can be. We also qualitatively explored the Circle of Friends model in detail in our trial and found the essential elements of it to disseminate it to other settings. We have disseminated successfully the model to people with dementia, people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities as well as for deaf people.

🎤 How are you involved in the RECETAS project? What are you working on at the moment?

I am the person in charge (PI) of the trial in Helsinki. I am working for RECETAS: making contracts with assisted living facilities, giving information in the facilities, screening participants in them, supervising four study nurses and participating in the training of the facilitators. I make applications for research funding. I am currently supervising six PhD students and I have three other research groups besides RECETAS (Nutrition, Medicines and Oral Health in Long-Term Care, Helsinki Aging Study and Frailty and Nutrition).

👉 Find more about the research activity of Dr Kaisu Pitkälä here.

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