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Using Gratitude to Cope More Effectively with the Challenges of Alzheimer's


As you cope with the effects of Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia, it's not unusual to experience different aspects of the grieving process. Whether you're facing the frustration of your own declining memory or you have the privilege and challenge of caring for a loved one with dementia, the losses, both current and anticipated, are very real.

The concept of being thankful in the middle of dealing with Alzheimer's might initially strike you as difficult or even strange. Take note, however, that I'm not suggesting you ignore, hide, bury or deny the challenges you face. Rather, I'm highlighting a tool that many researchers have found improves mood, your sense of well-being, and your general perspective as you go through those difficulties.

What Is Gratitude?

First, what gratitude is not. Gratitude is not closing your eyes and pretending that everything is fine, nor is it a "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" kind of attitude. It's not a way to avoid the losses and grief in life.

What is it, then? According to Dr. Randy Sansone and Dr. Lori Sansone, "gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself; it is a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation."

I would add that gratitude is rarely an automatic and immediate reaction; instead, it's a repeatedly chosen attitude throughout life's circumstances.

What Are the Benefits of Gratitude?

A research study conducted by Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough found that participants who focused on being grateful by noting what they were thankful for experienced an increased sense of well-being, as well as a more positive mood. Those who were assigned to write down the hassles of the day reported more physical complaints, poorer sleeping and a more pessimistic view about their lives. The study also found that those who focused on being grateful were more likely to interact positively with others and be helpful to others. Multiple other studies duplicated these results.

How Can I Be Thankful When I'm Overwhelmed with the Challenges of Alzheimer's?

I can hear someone saying right about now, "You really want me to be thankful? You have no idea how tired I am, or the other circumstances that I'm facing, or the loss that I'm experiencing."

You're right. I don't know your specific situation. But, I do know that sometimes as caregivers, we become so overloaded that we get physically sick and emotionally depleted. It's important to take care of ourselves as we care for a loved one. While gratitude can help by changing our perspective, it doesn't eliminate the need for emotional support, education about what to expect in the different stages of Alzheimer's and practical hands-on help.

Practical Methods for Provoking Gratitude

Not feeling it? That's okay. When you can summon the effort, try these three ways to reframe your view.

  • Comparing Situations

    I often find that I can muster some gratitude if I take a deep breath and realize that in other parts of the world, or even just minutes away from my home, there are people without shelter or food whose lives are in immediate danger. It sometimes can change the way I view my current situation.

  • Remembering Past Difficult Times

    Sometimes, remembering other difficult times may be helpful. You might feel thankful you're not in the middle of that particular time of your life. It might also be encouraging to you that you made it through then, or even remind you of something good that came out of a terrible difficulty.

  • Focusing on the Positives

    Acknowledge the hurt, the loss, the difficulties, the exhaustion and the grief. Don't skip that step. But, then start by taking a moment to find one thing that's good about today, or one thing that you appreciate about someone. Think of it like taking one baby step toward gratitude.


Strategies for Practicing Gratitude

According to Sansone and Sansone in the journal Psychiatry, the following strategies "may enhance feelings of gratitude:"

  • Journaling about things for which to be grateful
  • Thinking about someone for whom you are grateful
  • Writing/sending a letter to someone for whom you are grateful
  • Meditating on gratitude (present moment awareness)
  • Undertaking the “Count Your Blessings” exercise (at the end of the week, writing down three things for which you were grateful)
  • Practicing saying “thank you” in a sincere and meaningful way
  • Writing thank you notes
  • If religious, praying about your gratitude
Quoted from: Psychiatry (Edgmont) 2010 November; 7(11): 18–22. Gratitude and Well Being.

Being thankful throughout our lives requires intentionality, and is a discipline that is worth pursuing. Like other disciplines such as physical exercise, there are benefits that result from it. Try it; you may be thankful you did.


Clinical Psychology Review. 2010 Nov;30(7):890-905. Epub 2010 Mar 20. Gratitude and well-being: a review and theoretical integration. Accessed November 18, 2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20451313

Emmons, R.A. & McCullough, M.E. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003, Vol. 84, No. 2, 377–389. Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life.

Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2010 November; 7(11): 18–22. Gratitude and Well Being: The Benefits of Appreciation. Accessed on November 18, 2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3010965/

University of California, Davis Campus. Gratitude and Thankfulness. Accessed November 18, 2012. http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/labs/emmons/PWT/index.cfm

Wood AM, Joseph S, Maltby J. Gratitude uniquely predicts satisfaction with life: incremental validity above the domains and facets of the five factor model. Personality and Individual Differences. 2008;45:49–54

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