Gratitude and good cheer are good business

Kathy Laurenhue
Kathy Laurenhue

Editor's Note: The attached "Just a Bite" game from Kathy Laurenhue is to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.

The idea of meeting the needs of residents, families, and staff by tuning into “radio station” WIIFM (What's In It For Me) has been around for decades, but my favorite story for illustrating the concept with regard to wellbeing in aging is this:

An elderly man named Mr. Green paid a visit to his cardiologist, and a few days later the physician met him walking jauntily down the street arm-in-arm with a beautiful, 40-something woman.

The physician pulled him aside and said, “Mr. Green, what gives?”

Mr. Green said, “What do you mean, Doc? I'm just taking your advice.”

“What advice?” said the physician. “I told you to be careful; you have a heart murmur.”

Oh,” said Mr. Green, “I thought you said, ‘Be cheerful and get a hot mama.”

Now maybe Mr. Green was hard of hearing, or maybe he heard what he wanted to hear. Maybe he was listening to station WFFM – What's Fun For Me?

After being involved for many years with noble but nebulous concepts like culture change, person-centered care, and building relationships, I've gone PC – practical and cheerful. Changing a system is hard; changing a few words and rituals is easy. Let's start with examples of good cheer.

I am deeply involved with the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, which exists to help people bring healthy humor to whatever settings they may find themselves in. Humor is not just about laughter. Humor is about being in “good humor” – about cheerfulness, enjoyment, pleasure, playfulness, and creativity. In that broad context, you can alter the atmosphere of any building with simple, budget-friendly changes.

First, recognize that isolation is the enemy. One problem I have with aging-in-place advocates is that they fail to see how deteriorating bodies and minds cause the elder's world to shrink. Eventually those elders no longer have access to one of the most important keys to wellbeing in aging: a strong social network that provides consistent access to people they value and who value them.

Creating an atmosphere of good cheer in any setting builds the bridge that is needed to connect people to one another. It is especially important in residential or day settings where people who are initially strangers tend to be thrown together, and where tension stemming from pain, reduced cognition, compromised mobility, and other conditions can easily arise. What can you do? Lots. Here are just three quick (condensed) examples.

A smile is the shortest distance between two people.

There is a tendency within the broad field of long-term care to be dismally serious about quality care, yet there is nothing more welcoming than a smile. Plus, research shows that we actually lift our own moods by smiling, even when we have to “fake it ‘til we make it” initially. Try it. Greet everyone you meet with a smile for a day and see how things change for you and them. You are likely to get lots of spirit-lifting return smiles, and at least a few quizzical looks from people who wonder what you are up to. You will also get some grumpy looks in return. Smile anyway. Smile again tomorrow and the next day at them and see how many days it takes for them to smile back.

Fun fuels the brain.

In an age when staying “cognitively intact” seems to be a major goal for most elders, it's doubly important to realize that there is as much brain maintenance in a 10 minute conversation with friends as in a crossword puzzle solved alone. And what do we do with friends? We laugh – even when nothing is funny. Our spirits are lifted by simply being with others we care about and who care about us.

Isn't it interesting that the brain benefits, too? That's why I am cautious about word games and trivia quizzes meant to test a person's knowledge – especially if that person has a tendency to feel shamed by what she no longer knows – but very big on activities meant to foster conversation, creative thinking, and imagination, i.e., FUN. In my MindPlay Connections™ titles I much prefer writing a trivia quiz on the history of beer than the geography of Georgia.

The brain craves novelty.

In my presentations, I usually illustrate this concept by showing a picture of a border collie playing leapfrog over a sheep. (Yes, it's photoshopped.) The point is, we are drawn to what arouses our curiosity and/or amuses us. Stimulate that impulse everywhere you can. Aim to delight. For example:

  • Look for whimsical art and develop programming around it or find other ways to share it. Examples: “Baking Potatoes” by German artist Peter Pink and The Red Ball Project by Kurt Perschke
  • Cut out and enlarge cartoons and funny pictures for bulletin boards. (Avoid what is ageist, sexist, political or religious.)
  • My company, in collaboration with my colleague Deb “The Singing Nurse” Gauldin produces Mood Elevators™ -- a series of lighthearted posters meant to literally lift your spirits as you ride in a dull elevator or enter a reception area or anywhere else that needs a cheering word. You can also find your own sayings on Pinterest sites focused on smiles or laughter.

The possibilities for adding cheer are enormous and quite literally my business. Make it yours, too.

Next: Adding gratitude to the everyday grind. Stay tuned for Part Two!

Kathy Laurenhue, M.A. heads Wiser Now, Inc., a multi-media publishing and staff development company focused on wellbeing in aging that aims to be practical and lighthearted in everything it produces from books and online courses to downloadable brain games (in the form of 75+ MindPlay Connections™ titles) and Mood Elevator™ posters.   

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