Forget Paris, give me the crossword: What makes residents happy?

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Tim Mullaney
Tim Mullaney

Which would make you happier: walking onto your porch on a sunny morning or taking snapshots from the top of the Eiffel Tower?

How about: having a long, fun conversation with your child or going to a Bob Dylan concert?

These were some of the “ordinary” and “extraordinary” experiences that people mentioned when researchers asked them to recall a recent happy event. The researchers also asked people to rate just how much these experiences contributed to their happiness — in other words, the investigators wanted to know whether ordinary or extraordinary experiences make people happier.

The results showed that the sources of people's happiness change with age. Younger people tend to rate extraordinary experiences more highly than ordinary experiences. Older people also rate extraordinary experiences highly — but they derive more happiness from commonplace experiences than youngsters.

“Ordinary experiences produce as much happiness as extraordinary experiences when individuals have limited time remaining,” wrote the study authors.

Commenting on the findings in The New York Times, Judith Graham said they help explain some of the predilections of her 86-year-old father-in-law. He likes “tried-and-true interactions,” such as going to “comfortable” restaurants that aren't too loud for him to follow conversations; but these activities prompt a “not again” groan from her husband.

I suspect that like Graham's husband, younger workers in long-term care settings might not appreciate just how much older people relish ordinary pleasures.

For a young person who recently experienced the thrill of getting married or vacationing in France, it's all too easy to pity a nursing home resident. For a young person who associates happiness disproportionately with these “extraordinary” events, might it seem that happiness itself is something that residents have left behind?

And might this mindset — possibly subconscious — lead caregivers to be a bit more apathetic, prone to thinking there's nothing they can do to alleviate residents' depression?

If this sounds like a reasonable possibility, this study should be shared widely among long-term care staff. It should make caregivers more motivated to do the little things that could significantly boost residents' happiness.

A caregiver or administrator can't fly a resident to Paris, but he or she can emphasize the importance of ensuring that the residents can count on daily pleasures. Maybe this means keeping the coffee fresher (or serving hot water for tea out of a water-only tureen, so that the water doesn't have a slight coffee taste — yes, pet peeve). Maybe it means double-checking that a particular resident has had time with the facility's pet. Would residents benefit from a few extra copies of the local newspaper, or some additional photocopies of the daily crossword? Perhaps providers should poll residents on what ordinary pleasures bring them the greatest happiness, and think about how to enhance these particular things.

I have no doubt that I'm largely preaching to the choir, and that many long-term care professionals already are emphasizing the importance of these daily pleasures. For them, the study is simply a well-deserved confirmation that their efforts to provide ordinary pleasures likely are making an extraordinary difference in their residents' quality of life.

Tim Mullaney is Staff Writer at McKnight's. Follow him @TimMullaneyLTC.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.