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Lightening the Caregiver’s Journey with Gratitude

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By Jackie Aaron

Nice hands with french manicure on the notebook.

Waking up this morning, I see the blue sky.

I join my hands in thanks for the many wonders of life;

for having twenty-four brand new hours before me.

– Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist teacher, Nobel Peace Prize nominee

There is no doubt that being the caregiver of a beloved spouse or an aging parent with Alzheimer’s can be incredibly stressful. Watching a loved one’s health decline can take a toll. Yet in his book, Thanks! How the new science of gratitude can make you happier, gratitude expert professor Robert C. Emmons of University of California, Davis, suggests a way to lighten the journey. You guessed it: Gratitude.

Emmons cites a “gratitude intervention study” done by colleague Jo-Ann Tsang at Baylor University. The study focused on how keeping daily gratitude journals for two weeks impacted the well-being of relatives of Alzheimer’s patients. As an example, one participant wrote, “I was very grateful that Bill called me by my name.” Other small victories were noted during the two weeks. By the end of the study, caregivers who kept gratitude journals experienced an increase in optimism and self-esteem, and a reduction in stress and depression.

As Emmons aptly states, “Paradoxically, remembering…the many ways in which life is still worth living can be life affirming even in the midst of caring for those who are deeply forgetful.”

Emmons and his colleagues have helped people ages 8 to 80 systematically cultivate gratitude, often by keeping a gratitude journal for three weeks. Participants simply record things for which they are grateful each day. According to Emmons, as basic as this might sound, the benefits received have been overwhelmingly positive:

  • Physically, participants tend to exercise more and take better care of their health; they are less bothered by aches and pains.

  • Psychologically, they experience more joy, pleasure, optimism and happiness.

  • Socially, they are more helpful, generous, and compassionate and tend to be more outgoing.

He sees the social benefits as particularly significant, because practicing gratitude enables us to see how we’ve been supported by other people; he therefore calls it a relationship-strengthening emotion. And what stressed-out caregiver couldn’t benefit by remembering how they are supported by others?

Based on his research, Emmons thinks there are four important reasons why gratitude can be transformative:

  • Gratitude allows us to celebrate the present moment.

  • Gratitude doesn’t allow space for negative emotions that destroy happiness. After all, he states, you cannot feel grateful and envious at the same time.

  • Grateful people are more stress resistant.

  • Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth (when you’re grateful, you are aware of a network that supports you).

So, if you were to start a gratitude journal today, what would you write on page one? The only instruction is to recall moments of gratitude associated with ordinary events, small encounters, or people who bring a smile. We all receive gifts that add buoyancy to life, it’s just a matter of noticing them!

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