Aging Parents and Happiness: The Little Things That Mean a Lot

My friend and former colleague (in her mid-80’s), who sent the NY Times Science section piece on Happiness (last Saturday’s post), also wrote me the following last summer:

“The other day I was struggling to express to you that older people who are free of pain can experience an almost euphoric delight in small treats.

Time goes so quickly, with most of the day absorbed by maintenance activities, like dressing and doctor-visiting, that the few moments of pleasure assume great importance and intensity. Perhaps the absence of a future, with its attendant worries and burdens, serves to intensify delight in the moment.”

What are “small treats,” the little things that help aging parents experience “an almost euphoric delight?” They are, no doubt, the unexpected and thoughtful, or planned and thoughtful, often simple acts of caring.

For example, when picking up Sr. Advisor, R, to drive her to physical therapy a few days ago, sitting on her kitchen table I noticed–at the moment R began to tell me about–two beautiful clear containers of yellow roses and daffodils with slices of lemon floating around the stems, plus a pretty, yellow, opened box of home-made pastries. A bright yellow and white ribbon lay near.

The flowers were recycled from a dinner party one of R’s neighbors had attended; the pastries were baked by another neighbor, who loves to bake. Each gift, an unexpected small treat–conveying caring and thoughtfulness.

You could see R’s delight as she talked about them and the women who brought them over to her home. While she is always gracious and appreciative that I drive 25 miles to take her to rehab 10 minutes away, the little things–the small unexpected treats–give more of a “lift.”

Similarly asking older people ahead of time if we can take them grocery shopping/to a movie/lunch– or come for a visit or go on a short walk with us–gives them something to look forward to.  The “little”–the frosting in this case, is the thoughtfulness of asking ahead. It’s something to look forward to. The “thing” itself is the cake.

Can we think of  “little things/small treats” that add happiness to an older person’s life? Flowers from the yard? Something to eat? Flavored water? The often-forgotten Root beer or Ginger Ale of one’s youth? Or that wide rubber band that makes opening a jar easy? (See 12/7/10 post:“When No Big Deal Means a Great Deal.”) If something at the store is 3 Whatevers for $5, why not get 3 and give one to an older person who would enjoy it?

As we try to help parents and older people age well, the possibilities for adding happiness by treating them to thoughtful “little things” is limitless.

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