The Importance of Giving Back

The very Definition of a Meaningful, Purposeful Activity

One of the things we like to do at the nursing home is to engage the residents  in projects meant to ‘give back’ to others.   We make gifts and edible treats for staff members by following the National Healthcare Observances weeks.

For instance, in May, the residents work on crafts and treats for the nurses. As we work together, we talk about the nurses and how much they help us.  We tell the residents how touched the nurses are when they receive the handmade gifts.  We wrap the gifts, usually in simple paper bags, and a few residents take turns delivering them.

This is a process that normally takes a week or two of one-hour segments.  It doesn’t all happen on the same day.   We may spend a couple of hours making the gift, another hour making the edible treat, another hour wrapping the gifts.

Meeting Sensory Needs

These kind of activities meet a number of needs for the residents.  Their sensory needs are met by the different types of materials used in making the gifts – what they look like, smell like, feel like.  Making food gifts is great sensory therapy! The scents of spices and flavorings, the act of mixing batter, or rolling out pie dough all bring back memories of times when they were caring for their families.

The happy, anticipatory chatter fulfill their auditory needs and their emotions are buoyed by the expectation of the happiness they will soon share.  As we work together,  we talk about how thrilled the nurses will be when they receive the gifts.  The residents often smile, anticipating the warm feelings they will soon be sharing with others.

But, what about the men?  Do they benefit?  Think of how many of these men stood on tippy-toes as children to reach the table and watch their mothers cooking or baking? Perhaps Mother handed him a taste or showed him how to roll the dough ‘just so.’  How many of these grown men are brought back to their grandmother’s kitchen by the scent of the spices and the simple act of watching others engaged in those activities?  Many times the men will join the fun and use that rolling pin or stir the batter.

It is more blessed to give than to receive….

The goal is to fill up on those good feelings and emotions to carry the participants through the day!  Studies have shown that those with dementia may not know what makes them joyful, but the feeling is there and remains for a period of time. (One study can be found here.) Do they remember making the gifts to give away? No. Not usually.  Do they feel good from giving the gifts? Absolutely!  The evidence is in the smiles and the hugs they pass on with the gifts…  and the hugs they receive from the recipients!

Meeting those three basic psychological needs

So why choose to make gifts and give them away as an activity?  This type of engagement is the very definition of a ‘meaningful’ or ‘purposeful’ pastime.  It answers the three basic psychological needs:

something to do (making the gift),

something to love ( thanking those who help us get along, day to day),

and something to hope for(the excitement of making someone’s day by surprising them with an unexpected gift).

Now, it’s your turn.

I encourage you to try this with your loved one.  Choose something that your loved one enjoys doing – baking, sewing, mixing, creating – and find a way for them to give their creations away.  Or, choose a charity to give to and help your loved one prepare the contribution.  For instance, help them create a basket for a basket party fundraiser.  Assist them in creating healthy dog treats for your local shelter.  As you work, talk about giving the items away and how much the gift will be appreciated.  Take your loved one with you to hand out the gift.  Step back and watch as your loved one shines in the glow of appreciation – making a meaningful connection with another person.


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