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Nursing Home Residents Practice Gratitude Through Journaling

Research has shown that recognizing the good may improve well-being


Her pale blue eyes sparkle when she smiles. Peacefully observing all that surrounds her, she is a history book waiting to be opened. An experience outlines every wrinkle, silently alluding to the secrets, loss, love and happiness that she has experienced during her lifetime. A few weeks shy of her 90th birthday, she speaks of the celebration that her family is planning for her with the enthusiasm of a child.

“After all,” she says candidly, “I don’t know how many more of these I’ll get!”

If you ask her what her secret is, she’ll give you that million-dollar smile accompanied by one simple, but multifaceted word: gratitude.

This beautifully spirited woman goes by the name of Joy (ironically, or not) and she is one of about a dozen long-term residents at Shuksan Healthcare Center, a 52-bed short-term rehabilitation and skilled nursing facility in Bellingham, Wash. — a facility where gratitude is not only practiced regularly, it has been engrained into the philosophy of resident care. (I am the community relations director there.)

Encouraging a ‘Lifestyle Shift’ Through Journaling

Spurred by the optimism of residents like Miss Joy and research conducted by experts on gratitude, Shuksan staff members implemented a weekly gratitude journaling exercise in the fall of 2016 not only to emphasize the positives surrounding our residents’ lives, but alsoto  encourage a lifestyle shift.

The blue sky filled our activity room with rays of sunlight and you could feel the mood shift.

The concept of gratitude journaling is not novel to Shuksan. Previous studies have demonstrated just how powerful the act of practicing gratitude can be for older adults, improving emotional and physical well-being. In an ongoing study conducted by Robert Ammons of UC Davis, the world’s leading expert on gratitude, it was found that older adults 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, the physical and emotional benefits were inspiring and, subsequently, prompted the implementation of this new resident activity. The process, now about six months in, has been enlightening and truly evolutionary for everyone involved, residents and staff alike.

Time for Appreciation

For 30 minutes every Wednesday morning, our residents know that gratitude journaling is taking place in the main activity room. One by one, they take their seats around the table and open their journals, usually spending a few quality moments reading last week’s entries.

With smiles and nods of recollection, those who can write will write and those who need assistance will receive it. As pens meet paper, you can almost begin to see the sentiments of gratitude in the air. With optimistic hearts and disintegrating walls, our residents lose themselves in the exercise and begin to live in the world of gratitude.

For some, this mindful feeling may only last during the 30 designated minutes. For others, the sensation will carry with them throughout the remainder of the day, affecting everyone they encounter, including their own lovely reflections in the mirror.

I’m one of the lucky staff members who participates in the weekly gratitude journaling exercise with our residents. After first providing writing assistance to those in need, I begin my own reflection of gratitude. Once everyone has had a chance to write, they are given an opportunity to share. That’s when I find my heart swelling, the corners of my mouth lifting into a gentle smile, and when my own gratitude for the lovely individuals around me begins to overwhelm my soul.

A Common Force

During a recent gathering, the sun peeked out from behind the dark winter clouds. The blue sky filled our activity room with rays of sunlight and you could feel the mood shift. Almost immediately, residents began commenting on how happy they were to feel the warmth of the sun, how we live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, and how fortunate they felt for their friendships at Shuksan.

Magnetically, the gratitude for one another began to pull us closer together around the table. Bodies leaned in, heads tilted toward one another and hands extended to touch those of their neighbors.

“Isn’t she just lovely,” remarked a resident.

“I love how your smile brightens the room,” commented another.

“Oh, and look at his sweet smile,” the compliments continued.

And then, as if I had orchestrated the entire dialogue myself, I heard:

“I sure am grateful for you all!”

Gratitude in Caregiving

From a caregiving perspective, practicing gratitude in the workplace opens our hearts to those we are serving. It’s our opportunity to create a trusting, connected and compassionate environment for our residents who would, let’s be honest, rather be home than here with us.

With that in mind, the onus is on us to apply the benefits of gratitude in such a way that encourages our residents to embrace the positives that do exist in their lives, rather than the negatives.

Our desires for the journaling sessions are being met; what started as a prompted weekly exercise has now transformed into a true lifestyle change.

‘Gratitude Is the Memory of the Heart’

There is a French proverb from the pioneering deaf educator Jean Baptiste Massieu who said, “La reconnaissance est la memoire du coeur.” It means: “Gratitude is the memory of the heart.”

Living a life of gratitude allows our hearts to become full — full of life, love and peace.

Our long-term goal is to bring life to our residents in whichever way we can as caregivers. With the understanding that living a life of gratitude can have immense positive benefits for older adults, we hope that we’re opening a door for our residents to reap some of these benefits.

If anything, I can say with confidence that gratitude journaling has started this process for us at Shuksan Healthcare Center, and for the 30 minutes that we meet each week, life is being pumped into all of us.

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