Tina Kies, Shuksan Healthcare Center

“The struggle ends when gratitude begins.” -Neale Donald Walsh

It’s Wednesday morning at Shuksan Healthcare Center, a skilled nursing facility in western Washington State, and nearly a dozen long-term residents (and a few skilled, short-term residents) are making their way into the main activity room. Finding a seat around the banquet style table, salutations can be heard; greetings of a new day between friends.

Wednesday is “gratitude journaling” day at Shuksan and for the next 30 minutes these residents will reflect upon their day and the past week, thinking back on whether there was anything that made them feel grateful. Anything at all. The ones who can write will write; the ones who can’t will receive help from staff.

When most everyone has had time to journal, the floor then opens for sharing. It’s one thing to reflect internally, but entirely another to open yourself up to a group of peers and share your inner, sometimes most private thoughts. The sharing element of this weekly activity, though, is when the real dialogue begins; when the “warm and fuzzies” start to fill the room and healing commences.

Around the table, heads nod up and down in support and words of encouragement are expressed as residents share their gratitude with one another…

Oh yes, now that IS something to be thankful for, isn’t it?!

I hadn’t thought of that… I’m grateful for that too!

You are so lucky to have experienced that!

What a wonderful family you have, indeed!

Oh, that reminds me of when… (insert any story here; they’re all quite lovely!)

One by one, smiles form on delicate faces; one by one, walls that were prevalent before begin to dissolve. One by one, our residents begin to live in the world of gratitude.

The room fills with the positive energy and sensibilities that only practicing gratitude can provide, and our residents feed off one another. For some, this euphoric feeling may only last during the 30 designated minutes. For others, they’ll choose to carry that feeling with them throughout the remainder of the day, spreading joy to everyone they encounter, including their own beautiful reflections in the mirror.

“Living a life of gratitude is healing energy.” -Reiki

There have been many studies concerning the benefits of gratitude. Unquestionably one of the more well-known studies was completed by Robert Ammons of UC Davis, the world’s leading expert on gratitude, who found that seniors who kept weekly gratitude journals experienced fewer physical symptoms, exercised more, enjoyed a better outlook on life, were more likely to reach their goals, and felt more connected.

From a skilled nursing perspective, these physical and emotional benefits are quite intriguing and were the catalyst to the implementation of this resident activity.

As caregivers, it’s our duty to provide opportunities for our residents to feel levels of happiness, fulfillment and connectivity. It’s our responsibility to offer our residents a platform from which they can excel and propel, both physically and emotionally.

The onus is on US.

“Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” -Melody Beattie

The transition that we’ve experienced from the ideas stage to initial implementation to where we are today, nearly four months later, is encouraging. The overall level of enthusiasm and participation continue to rise each month.

We’ve come a long way since weeks one and two, whereby we had to remind one another of what types of things we could and should feel grateful for, like family, health and friendships.

It was awkward at first. Now, we’re finding that we can be grateful for most anything in our lives.

One resident is regularly grateful for the squirrels she encounters on our property. She loves them, feeds them and they bring her happiness. Another resident has shared two weeks running that he loves his new Seattle Seahawks bed sheets that he received for Christmas. “They’re not too warm. They’re not too cold. They’re just right,” he explains with a smile on his tender face.

Week after week, the residents have become more comfortable with the process. Some have even chosen to keep their journals on them at all times so that they can reflect throughout the week, at any hour, when they are feeling grateful for something. Now that is a true lifestyle shift!

As caregivers, the best thing we can do at times is simply pause and put ourselves in the shoes of our residents.

How would you feel if you were asked, or told, that you had to give up your home, your independence, your identity? Really… how would you feel?

Introducing gratitude journaling to our residents was our way of letting them know that we see them, we respect their individuality and we can appreciate their varying situations.

Our long-term goal is to bring life to our residents in whichever way we can as caregivers. The residents that have chosen to participate thus far have expressed very positive feedback to the activity. Rather than questioning why we’re doing it, now, they anticipate the weekly gathering and dive into their journals from the moment they arrive.

With the understanding that living a life of gratitude can have immense positive benefits for seniors, we hope that we’re opening a door for our residents to reap some of these benefits. If anything, we know that for the 30 minutes that we meet each week, each of us feel good and are reminded of the positives in our lives.

“Gratitude changes everything.”

It doesn’t take a scientific study to demonstrate that gratitude is good. It’s good for our bodies, our minds and our relationships. It allows us to celebrate our current situations, resist negative emotions, reduces stress and enhances our level of self-worth. Shuksan Healthcare Center recognizes this and that the overall well-being of its residents — as people, not patients — is the heartbeat of its profession, the rehabilitation of our community’s elders.

Tina L. Kies is the Community Relations Director for Shuksan Healthcare Center, a locally-owned 52-bed short-term rehabilitation and skilled nursing facility in Bellingham, WA. She has nearly 20 years of professional marketing experience across varied disciplines.