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Sunday, November 7, 2021

Spreading Happiness

Happiness is an important element of healthful well-being. What does it mean for older adults, and how can we help seniors in our care be happier?

Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.”—Dr. Albert Schweitzer

Believe it or not, people in their 80s and 90s report higher levels of contentment and well-being overall than teenagers and young adults, according to researchers interviewed by The New York Times. A study at the University of California at San Diego Center for Healthy Aging found similar results, with seniors in their 90s the most content among people aged 21 to 99 who were surveyed. These older adults have coped with many setbacks and losses over the decades, and usually aren’t stressing over a job or career path. 

But not all older adults are happy. Loss and change can bring about unhappiness or even a state of depression, and that can impact health. Worry and anger can actually worsen chronic health issues such as heart disease and arthritis, so much so that happy people live longer than those who are not.

Over six years, scientists looked at the health of Americans in three groups: those who reported they were “very happy,” “pretty happy,” or “not happy.” Those in the very happy group had a 6% less chance of death than those in the pretty happy cohort, and people in the not happy group had a 14% greater chance of dying than those in the very happy group. These outcomes remained true even after social, economic, and lifestyle factors were considered. 

How To Help a Senior Be Happier

This holiday season, consider giving a gift of love to older adults. 

One way is to help them form bonds with others. You may facilitate this by offering a ride to the local senior center or texting their niece to please come spend some time with the adult. Make it a point to call older adults in your life on a regular basis or start a telephone tree for family members. Stop to talk to an older stranger you encounter or tell that person her hat is cute. No matter how brief, every moment spent listening and/or noticing can change someone’s day.

Help them be involved in social activities. Could you volunteer to bring someone to church or start a bridge group? Make a shuffleboard area at a local park? Play chess or cards with a senior once a month? Maybe you could accompany someone on a walk in the park. It may be painfully slow … but you’ll come to appreciate patience. Whenever we reach out to someone, we gain much more ourselves.

Helping others is actually very beneficial for our mental health. Can you bring a senior along when you volunteer? Or take time to set up a one-time event, such as helping out at a food bank or soup kitchen? Stop by an older neighbor to chat? 

Another thing that often takes some thought is to help an older adult in our care feel like he or she is enhancing our life rather than being a burden. Can the older adult put stamps on letters, or tell us the best way to make pumpkin pie? Asking for information is a way to make someone else feel valued. How about calling up memories by asking to hear what a holiday was like when that person was a child or asking about a favorite gift or meal. 

Find the positive and dwell on it. Maybe a bum knee and arthritic hands have curtailed activities, but grandma can still see to look at old photos or tell you if the soup looks right. Older adults actually accentuate the positive as shown in studies. One of these at Stanford Center on Longevity found that in memory tests seniors recalled more smiling faces than frowning ones, and more positive images vs. negative ones when compared to younger adults. 

Remaining active as long as possible is a powerful benefit. One Canadian study found that active older adults were more than twice as likely to age well than their sedentary counterparts. Encourage the seniors in your life to move, even if it’s only stretching up their arms while they are seated. 

And finally, don’t forget to learn a little something every day and share it with older adults. Ongoing learning is a key to life satisfaction. Turn on PBS, download an audiobook, or attend a local class. Use a free app like Duolingo to learn a new language. 

The best way to get rid of holiday stress is to focus on others. There is always an older adult in the community who could use our help, whether it’s shoveling their walk or inviting them for coffee. Seek out ways to help all year ‘round but start now. Give some love for the holidays.