Ellen Giroux spends a lot of time thinking.
In her two years living at St. Teresa Place, Ellen has had a lot of time to reflect on her life and the many things she’s thankful for.
“I think about it a lot now, because I have the time to think about it, my childhood and my career. I’m grateful the life that I had wasn’t something that I expected at all.”
Every Friday morning, Ellen joins other residents around a table in the activity room. Each person shares something that makes them feel thankful with the group, then they discuss an inspirational quote and participate in a gratitude-related craft or activity. Today, they each write down three things they’re thankful for and place them in a gratitude jar, to be pulled out and read aloud to the group. Ellen finishes quickly.
“It’s easy for me to write them down because I’ve been grateful to my mother all my life. She made things wonderful for us without having anything.”
Ellen shares with the group her gratitude for her mother, her childhood and the good jobs she had. She remembers her family not having much growing up in Strathmore. She feels fortunate that, after moving to Calgary as a young adult, she found a rewarding career working for oil and gas companies.
And she’ll always appreciate the joy her mother’s artistic ability and vivid imagination brought her.
“I was travelling everywhere through the little books she read to us, my imagination just grew and grew and grew. I thought it was a wonderful childhood. And the most important part of all is we were loved.”
Ellen moved to St. Teresa Place in November 2017 and immediately started attending the gratitude group. It meets weekly, drawing about 10 people ranging in age from their 50s to their 90s.
“We tend to ruminate on negative thoughts when things aren’t going our way, and it’s easier to focus on the negative outcomes,” says Mandy Wright, Recreation Therapist, who runs the group. “Through practising gratitude, individuals can improve their self-awareness and focus on the positive encounters and interactions they have on a daily basis.”
Mandy notices the practice of gratitude spreading beyond their one-hour weekly meetings. Residents tell her things they’re grateful for during the week, or acknowledge other people’s kind actions.
“It’s hard to be negative when you are surrounded by positivity. Hearing what people have to be grateful for, some people might not have thought of that reason and may realize, ‘Hey, I have that to be grateful for, too.’”
There are a lot of studies that show the benefits of gratitude, says Tania Oommen, Psychiatrist at Grey Nuns Community Hospital. Gratitude improves mood and self-esteem, decreases cynicism, increases resilience and enhances empathy.
“Expressing gratitude forces us to flip the coin and allows us to see what we actually have. And there’s a level of radical acceptance that comes with that rather than living in the fantasy state of what we wish we had.”
Tania says making gratitude a habit can rewire the brain. And it doesn’t take long to see the benefits.
“Even a single experience can result in changes. The more it’s practised, the more it’s done, it’s like any form of skill building or exercise, the more impact it’s going to have over time. But any amount is beneficial.”
Resident Shelagh Nicol-Hawey comes every week since moving to St. Teresa Place in July 2018. She finds group members offer support and encouragement, which was particularly beneficial when she was experiencing strained relationships with family members.
“It gets you thinking, so many different things you can be grateful for. You take so many things for granted because they’re common everyday things, so you don’t really think about it. By listening to other people, you get a different outlook on life.”
Mandy expected the exercises to provide individual benefits as people focused on personal gratitude. The close-knit community that formed among members was an unexpected bonus.
Mandy says in her experience, gratitude is a positive feedback loop.
“You get what you give. The more you practise gratitude and the more you put positivity out there, the more you’ll start to notice positive things.”