Senior Living Activities: Create an Atmosphere of Gratitude

Senior Living Activities: Create an Atmosphere of Gratitude

There is tough competition these days in residential care settings to create beautiful physical environments. Marketers want that 55-year-old daughter who is looking for a place for her mother to walk in the front door and say, “Wow!”

But if you are associated with an older building and a small budget, your ability to create an environmental wow might be limited. The good news? Creating an atmospheric “wow” requires only an abundant “gratitude” budget—a budget that you and your staff can easily replenish and grow.

Here’s what you need to know.

The shift to person-centered care

For many years, people focused their care of older adults on a medical model, which meant taking care of their physical health. More recently, the focus has been on “person-centered care,” which involves knowing the people in your care as individuals.

The problem is, knowing that Mrs. Jones is a former English teacher, loves the color blue, and has a granddaughter Jane who is the apple of her eye will only take you so far. The key is using what you know to show sincere gratitude for Mrs. Jones.

Why gratitude?

The most interesting research on wellbeing in aging has focused on the importance of socialization. We have learned that beyond regular physical exercise, the most important thing you can do for a happy old age is to nurture a network of family and friends – people you value and who value you, or in other words, relationships that make you feel good.

Nurturing begins with acknowledging people’s value in your life – expressing gratitude. And when you openly value others, your friendship circle grows.

Perhaps the most impressive advocate I can cite is Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, our current U.S. Surgeon General, who is a strong proponent of the idea that happiness is a “perspective” that contributes to disease prevention and a healthy life. Furthermore, he believes that we can all cultivate happiness, in part, through gratitude exercises and social connectedness.

Gratitude’s multiple benefits

It’s no surprise that gratitude means “pleasing, thankful” (from the Latin word “gratus”). But founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology, Prof. Robert Emmons, defines gratitude as greater than that. For him, it is a spiritual experience: “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.”

He is right to give it a grander definition because gratitude provides enormous physical and emotional benefits. The emotional benefits of expressing gratitude include:

  • Greater happiness, a more hopeful outlook, more positive emotions, and fewer negative feelings such as anger, envy, depression, loneliness, and anxiety
  • Greater empathy towards others
  • Greater willingness to forgive
  • Greater appreciation for what we have now

The physical benefits of expressing gratitude include:

  • Increased energy (perhaps because you’ll sleep better)
  • Reduced stress
  • Boosted immune system
  • Lowered blood pressure and reduced inflammation both of which contribute to a healthier heart

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Gratitude boosts happiness.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, suggests that gratitude also does the following:

  • Promotes the savoring of positive life experiences – being present in the moment instead of regretting the past or fearing the future.
  • Bolsters our self-worth as we recognize the many blessings we value in our current lives.
  • Helps us cope with stress and trauma. In the midst of terrible events, such as a health crisis, there are nearly always people who help and comfort us.
  • Tends to multiply: Gratitude is a form of kindness, and we have a tendency to pass it on by giving what we have received.
  • Builds social bonds, strengthening existing relationships and nurturing new ones.

A positive disposition is partly genetic, but author Arthur Brooks jokingly calls people who are “relentlessly positive” and “grateful all the time” mutants. The rest of us have to work at it, but the beauty of it is that when you act grateful even when you don’t feel like it, you can become grateful in reality.

Gratitude facilitates communication (and can help interrupt aggression or restart the conversation).

Another benefit of expressing gratitude is that it sets the tone for positive communication. For example…

  • When you are approached by a resident who looks angry, greet her with a compliment (something you appreciate about her): “Good morning, Mrs. Jones. What a beautiful sweater you’re wearing. You have such lovely taste in fashion.
  • When you are criticized by a boss or resident, begin by thanking him for the insight he has given you: “Thank you for telling me; I didn’t know that was how you understood what happened,” (or indeed what really happened or how he felt about what happened).

Gratitude creates a positive atmosphere.

Positive words permeate the atmosphere like a pleasant perfume wafting through the air. When you walk into a room, you can instantly recognize whether the atmospheric charge is negative (tense) or positive (welcoming). You can help to make it welcoming with your words and actions.

If you are leading a meeting or an activity, add gratitude to the openings and closings and provide abundant affirmation:

  • Greetings: Start each meeting by saying, “I’m so grateful you’re here.”
  • Farewells: End each meeting by saying something like, “I’m so glad we had this time together.”
  • In meetings and throughout the day look for ways to offer sincere individual praise: “I love coming in each day and seeing your smiling face.”

Tips for expressing gratitude and saying thank you

One of the key elements of creating an atmosphere of gratitude is through the abundant bestowing of sincere compliments. In my experience, however, most people are lousy at giving and accepting them. Too many people tend to give superficial praise. And, on the receiving end, too many tend to deflect the importance of that praise, thinking they are being modest.

How to give a compliment

  • Be specific. “You did a nice job with Mr. Smith,” doesn’t provide specifics. Instead, try this: “You did a wonderful job engaging Mr. Smith in conversation. He seemed to really appreciate the questions you asked him.
  • Acknowledge character over appearance. “You were really kind to Mrs. Jones yesterday. I admire you for that.
  • Be appreciative. “Your sense of humor lightened the tough situation I was in with Mr. Smith today. I’m grateful to you for intervening.
  • Be sincere. Don’t say it if you don’t mean it.

Note that acknowledging character is about admiring who someone is; being appreciative is acknowledging what someone did.

How to accept a compliment

A compliment is a gift. Accept it graciously and never reject it. If you reject my gift, you are depriving me of the pleasure I have in giving it, depriving yourself of the pleasure I intended for you, and calling my taste or judgment into question.

When given a compliment, simply say, “Thank you.” If you must add more, try:

  • That’s very nice of you to say.
  • It means a lot to me to hear that from you.
  • It was my pleasure to be helpful.
  • I’m so glad my hard work paid off.

Remember, creating an atmosphere of gratitude begins with kind words spoken with sincerity to one another. Add gratitude to all of your senior living activities today! Everyone in your organization has a role to play in atmosphere creation, and yet it costs nothing and can produce enormous returns in wellbeing. Commit to it, and you will find a positively charged (and changed) place.

Kathy Laurenhue, MA, is CEO of Wiser Now, Inc., a staff development and publishing company focused on wellbeing in aging. This article incorporates some of the principles from her “Creating Delight” workshop. Kathy is also the author of three books and more than 1000 exercises (word games, trivia quizzes, etc.) for older adults. Learn more here »


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