Growing Good

Dr. Eleanor Barbera
Dr. Eleanor Barbera

Woohoo! My first column of 2016.

Which was started during a bout of insomnia in the last week of 2015.

What did I do when sleep failed me? What electronics-addicted individuals often do in the middle of the night. I grabbed my computer, caught up on email, and headed over to Facebook to find out what my Friends had been up to.

There I discovered a post about a company founded by two brothers called Life is Good, which emerged from the standing request the founders' mother had for them as children in a chaotic home environment: Tell me something good about your day.

This helped the brothers become “glass half full” kind of guys, the type of people who donate 10% of their profits to help children overcome adverse childhood experiences.

And what does a T-shirt company have to do with long-term care? Well…

What if we started off this brand new year asking ourselves and our coworkers, employees and residents to tell us something good?

What if we put time and thought into focusing on the positive — into growing the good — and reminding ourselves why we're all here working with elders?

I predict we'll have more productive staff, better functioning teams, and happier residents.

It's not just me doing the predicting. The Positive Psychology Center, led by director Martin Seligman, Ph.D., describes positive psychology as “the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive.”

Dr. Seligman and his colleagues have studied concepts such as how resilience and grit help people overcome challenging experiences and persevere despite setbacks.

The concept of perseverance applies to long-term care on many levels.

Every day, leaders in the field adapt to changes in regulations, funding, and care needs. Staff members stay the course despite demanding work, the loss of beloved residents, and challenging interactions with coworkers. Residents make the effort to get out of bed despite disability, and family members visit regularly.

We can harness the energy of those who persevere and encourage others to follow their lead.

Here are some ways to use positive psychology in LTC:

• Start meetings by asking for a story of something positive. Ask workers to incorporate a positive story into the change of shift or morning reports. This keeps the focus on the good we're doing for our residents and each other, and energizes the team to handle the inevitable bumps in the road.

• Share positive stories about your work with team members. Not only does this give them an emotional lift about their organization, it offers a teachable moment. For example, after a depressed resident lamented to me that she missed her old church, I spoke with the social worker about getting her transportation through the city's service for elderly and disabled people. The resident's mood dramatically improved following her first off-campus trip to see her church family over Christmas. When I shared this anecdote with the charge nurse, I was not only brightening his day, I was modeling teamwork and teaching him what geropsychologists do behind those closed doors.

• Create activities that allow residents to help others. A positive psychology study of adults in 27 different nations found that life satisfaction was greater among those oriented towards engagement and meaning than toward pleasure. Considering the importance of the first two factors, a successful recreation calendar would include not just entertainment, but also ways to meaningfully connect residents to each other and to the larger community. Raising funds via a bake sale to benefit children in a local hospital would be one such approach.

Using positive psychology can lead to deep culture change within your organization. It can also foster “an attitude of gratitude” within individuals, helping employees to recognize and apply the life lessons of LTC.

When I started working with frail seniors and saw how much my elders wished they could still do the things I was complaining about, I stopped complaining. (Well, mostly.)

I don't “have to” do my chores or write my column, I “get to” do my chores and write my column… which I finished during my first bout of insomnia of 2016. And that's not a bad use of some quiet time in the middle of the night.

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, PhD, author of The Savvy Resident's Guide, is a 2014 Award of Excellence winner in the Blog Content category of the APEX Awards for Publication Excellence program. She also is the Gold Medalist in the Blog-How To/Tips/Service category of the 2014 American Society of Business Publication Editors Midwest Regional competition. A speaker and consultant with nearly 20 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care, she maintains her own award-winning website at MyBetterNursingHome.com.

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