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Resilience in Aging

Why does the death of a spouse lead some people to “die of a broken heart” while others live many years longer with grace and strength?  There are sources of stress that are unique to each stage of life, but older adults certainly face their share of setbacks and worries.  Stress in the later years of life stems from adjusting to retirement, caregiving for a loved one, receiving a troubling medical diagnosis, or losing a spouse or lifelong friends. 

Regardless of a person’s age, stress can wreak havoc on the body and diminish longevity.  The bodily effects of stress have been measured in terms of higher blood pressure, higher blood glucose, increased inflammation, increased obesity, and compromised immunity.  Why, then, do research studies find that many older adults experience a high sense of well-being and quality of life, low stress, recovery from adversities, and consider themselves to be aging successfully despite the onset of chronic conditions? 

The answer is found in the capacity for resilience in the face of adversity.  Resilience is an individual’s ability to cope and recover from crises, sustain a sense of purpose and vitality, and emerge stronger from stressful experiences.  Research in psychology suggests that older adults are capable of high resilience despite socioeconomic backgrounds, personal experiences, and declining health. Most important, the research suggests that resilience is not a personality trait that some people have and others don’t, but rather it is something that every person can develop.

Cindy Bergeman, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame, puts it bluntly: you decide what is stressful and what is not by how you interpret the situation.  She offers the example of walking down a dark street at night by yourself.  You hear footsteps behind you, and the hairs on your neck stand up.  Your heart beats faster as the footsteps get closer and closer to you from behind.  You begin looking around for open businesses and other people, or you fumble for your phone. 

Then you turn around and realize the person behind you is a friend who is trying to catch up with you so that you do not walk alone.  The sense of relief washes over you and you feel your shoulders relax.  In Professor Bergeman’s example, you interpreted the information differently and your body responded accordingly. 

Interpreting the circumstances plays a crucial role in developing resilience for successful aging.  The toolbox of a resilient older adult will include the ability to distinguish a range of complex emotions being felt in response to situations, the identification of a sense of purpose, and the development of a social network and true connections with other people.

Anyone who has watched as dementia slowly takes the memory and identity of a loved one knows how heart-wrenching this can be and how difficult it is to find a positive interpretation of the circumstances.  Professor Bergeman notes, however, that caregiving is an opportunity for connection, showing love, and even resolving past conflicts.  Similarly, a person might anticipate a funeral as an overwhelming moment of sadness, but it is also an occasion for bringing people together to celebrate a life well lived and to enjoy remembrances of the deceased person’s impact on other lives.  You decide whether it is stressful or not. 

Meditation can be a powerful tool to manage not only the major stressful events that occur in older adulthood, but also the little annoyances that occur all the time.  You may not be aware of the physical toll taken by worrying about bills arriving in the mail, keeping track of medications, struggling to see the words in your favorite books, or realizing over and over that TVs and phones seem to require an engineering degree to operate. 

Meditation simply involves the practice of noticing what is happening in the present moment and how you are reacting to it.  When you meditate your breath slows down, heart rate slows, blood pressure decreases, and tension in the body decreases.  Being aware of frustrations is the first step; deciding how you will respond in a healthy way comes next. 

A mindset of resilience equips people to face illness, death, and other later-in-life stressors without debilitating worry. One of the best predictors that a person will live to age 100 is having a sense of purpose.  Being a role model for grandchildren, excelling at a hobby, or showing kindness and encouragement to others can provide a reason for living that is larger than any setback encountered in a person’s later years. 

Having a compelling reason to wake up every day leads to a resilience mindset.  It allows a person to re-frame the loss of mobility or the loss of control over circumstances as a minor hindrance in the bigger picture of life.  Having a purpose re-directs a person’s focus on the good that person can still do.  Even in what seems like an uncontrollable situation there are little things that a person can control, and that may make all the difference in the person’s capacity for resilience.

Forming and maintaining connections with other people will often result in having a larger purpose for living.  Connecting socially can develop a person’s sense of empathy, causing the person to worry less about personal troubles and to devote energy to helping people who need it.  

There is a mountain of scientific evidence that having a social network leads to a range of health benefits.  Research at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago found that the rate of cognitive decline was 70 percent less in people with frequent social contact than those with low social activity. Having a social network has been shown to prevent further disability and extend life, as people help each other with getting around and maintaining healthy habits.

The benefits for health and resilience in older adults go beyond the way people interpret their own circumstances, however developing resilience to get through the setbacks of older adulthood requires commitment.  Re-appraising a situation that seems overwhelming or finding opportunity in a moment of heart-breaking sadness is not easy.  It takes practice to become aware of emotions and reactions and to be intentional about forming social connections. But the benefits for resilience and well-being make it worth the effort.  

Patrick Cawley, Attorney