Despite the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affecting older adults, Psychology Today reports that a survey of 5,000 seniors indicates lower levels of pandemic-related anxiety and depression than younger participants. While our society’s increased isolation can be heartbreaking, five major North American universities found that older adults have exhibited unprecedented levels of resilience in the midst of these circumstances.
Resilience is defined by psychologists as the ability to adapt to adverse life events such as trauma and illness. Research examining resilience suggests that older adults of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, life experiences, and health have demonstrated a capacity for high resilience leading to positive health and mental health outcomes.
So, what is the secret to resilience as we age? We’ve outlined five ways that older adults foster resilience as they transition into increased family care, home care, and/or community services.
1. “Resilience Thinking”
The Arizona Center on Aging cites “resilience thinking” as a key factor in an older adult’s ability to recover and thrive in the face of common challenges associated with ageing such as loss, spousal caregiving, and disability. Resilience thinking is similar to the popular “growth mindset” parents and teachers often encourage in children. In resilience thinking, older adults maintain hope for recovery, a sustained sense of purpose through causes and activities, and view failure or setbacks as an opportunity for growth.
In recent years, mindfulness has moved from a fringe practise to a mainstream intervention with proven neurobiological benefits. Mindfulness fosters resilience in older adults as it is essentially a “work out” for areas of the brain associated with learning and memory, outlook, and emotion regulation. Exercising our minds through mindfulness results in reduced stress hormones associated with heart disease, better circulation associated with varicose veins, and improved mood, reducing the likelihood of anxiety and depression.
Mindfulness involves focusing on the present moment without judgement. This might include:
- Focusing on breath (deep breathing)
- A mindful walk (focusing on your surroundings)
- Meditation (focusing on breath, body awareness, and thoughts)
- Journaling (focusing on experience and gratitude)
Mindfulness can be adapted to personal interests: colouring, writing, listening to music, exercise, eating, or petting an animal can all be turned into a mindful practice so long as one’s mind is intentionally focused on the present experience.
Physical movement can slow with age up to 15-30%. The World Health Organization notes that physical activity results in decreased risk of heart disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, and even certain cancers. It helps maintain healthy body composition and bone mass, and promotes better cognitive function. By increasing mood-boosting hormones such as endorphins while simultaneously reducing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, movement sets the biological stage for resilience in older adults.
Check out 5 Exercises All Seniors Should Do Daily
It is incredibly difficult to access one’s personal store of resilience without a sense of purpose. As we age and experience loss, purpose can feel difficult to find. We often think of purpose as an all-encompassing, consuming project, but studies show that small shifts in outlook can increase an older adult’s sense of meaning and purpose. Compassion for others, finding joy in small pleasures, and viewing aging as an opportunity rather than a burden, are all associated with a purposeful life. In an article for the New York Times, columnist Jane E. Brody writes that though she can no longer play tennis or go ice skating, she can still go on walks and take up new activities that have resulted in “unexpected pleasures and new friends”.
No human being can thrive without meaningful connections to family, friends, colleagues, or community. By actively engaging in close relationships, older adults bolster their capacity to maintain social meaning and value under the stresses associated with old age. The burgeoning field of social neuroscience has found that social support is associated with better immune function, heart health, cognitive performance, and mental well-being. Social connection not only makes us happier, but by and large, cause us to live longer, healthier lives.
Maggie Clapperton is a social worker and content creator at Homecare Hub.