Helping Others: Residents Like It Too

Posted by Dr. El - May 16, 2011 - Depression/Mental illness/Substance Abuse - 6 Comments

“Excuse me,” I said to the lady sitting across from the nursing station.  “We’ve been saying hello for a while.  I’m Dr. Barbera, the psychologist.  You’re Ms. Patel, right?”

“Yes, that’s right.”  She looked up at me from her wheelchair and smiled.  “Nice to meet you.”

“You too.  Listen, I wanted to ask you a favor.  It’s perfectly okay if you say no, because not everyone is comfortable with this, but I’m trying to find a place to meet in private with a neighbor of yours and her roommate is in her room.  I was wondering if I might be able to sit and chat with her for a few minutes in your room, since you’re out here.  We wouldn’t touch anything, we’d just sit and talk.”

“Oh absolutely, honey!”  Her face lit up and she waved her good arm in the direction of her private room.  “Any time.  You don’t even have to ask.”

“Really? That’s very kind of you.  Sometimes it’s hard to find a quiet space.”  I don’t think I’d be quite so generous if the circumstances were reversed.  On the other hand, perhaps other staff members would be using my room without permission, and I’d be so pleased someone had actually asked that I’d give them carte blanche.  Maybe I’d be mellower in my older years…nah, I don’t think so.  I’d want to be asked every time.

A study in the October-December 2010 Clinical Gerontologist looked at “The Effect of Helping Behavior and Physical Activity on Mood State and Depressive Symptoms of Elderly People.”  The participants lived in senior housing, had mild physical and cognitive disabilities, and had an average age of 78.  The researchers found that “helping behavior was positively correlated with cheerfulness and vigor” and “negatively correlated with depressive symptoms.”  In other words, helping others made these seniors feel happier, more energetic, and less depressed.

Would helping others benefit our residents, who tend to be older and more impaired?  Yes!  We just have to create opportunities for success.  In this case, I:

  • picked someone who was friendly, in a good mood, and whom I thought was likely to say yes without later resentment or suspiciousness
  • asked a favor that didn’t cost anything
  • gave the opportunity for an “easy out” by providing the words to say no: “not everyone is comfortable with this.”
How have you helped residents help others?  What was their reaction?