The connection between resilience and aging
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.” The association further notes that “As much as resilience involves ‘bouncing back’ from these difficult experiences, it can also involve profound personal growth.”
But what about resilience and aging? How do we define resilience in older adults? According to The University of Arizona’s Arizona Center on Aging, the concept of resilience in aging was “born out of the ‘paradox of old age.’ The paradox is that in spite of losses and physical declines experienced in later life, older adults report feeling content, and they have lower rates of psychopathology than the general population. Researchers have argued that this is due to resilience, and that an understanding of resilience can lead to … healthier, happier people and communities.”
In other words, resilience is not simply the ability to survive a difficult experience, but the ability to adapt and cope with circumstances in a way that enables one to emerge stronger, to thrive in the aftermath, and to integrate the lessons learned. These are traits that can be learned and can have an effect on positive aging, including senior health and wellness as they relate to healthy aging.
Characteristics of resilience
Researchers studying resilience in older adults and its effects note several characteristics of people who are able to face challenges and successfully navigate their way to the other side. According to a study published in Geriatric Nursing that looked at the impact of resilience in old age, key characteristics of high resilience fall into three categories: mental, social and physical.
Mental characteristics include such things as adaptive coping styles, gratitude, happiness, mental health and optimism/hopefulness. Social characteristics include, among other things, community involvement, contact with family and friends, a sense of purpose and strong, positive relationships. And finally, physical characteristics center around the ability to remain physically independent and mobile, enjoying good health and believing that one is aging successfully.
Learning from experience
In his book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, Cornell University gerontologist Karl Pillemer shared wisdom and advice gleaned from interviewing thousands of senior adults who had survived significant crises and gone on to enjoy productive, fulfilling lives. Having lived through events such as the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, The Great Depression, World War II and the Holocaust, those Pillemer interviewed were the very definition of resilient aging. And the lessons they shared — some of which are described in the article “Living Well Through Crisis” by E.C. Barrett of the Cornell College of Human Ecology — are instructive for society today as we face the current global pandemic of COVID-19.
The article notes four general categories of responses interviewees provided when Pillemer asked them to share their advice for living through “world-shaking” crises:
- Take the long view.
This philosophy can be summed up in the phrase “this too shall pass.” Remembering that we are living in a short moment in time and that the world has overcome many crises — including pandemics that occurred during times when there was far less medical knowledge of how to combat them — can help put the current situation in perspective. Remember that, while life may not go on exactly as it was before, it will go on.
- Don’t worry; prepare.
Worrying about a situation doesn’t change it; worry only emphasizes feelings of helplessness. Look for actions you can take and things that are within your control. Then do something about those things. Action helps build feelings of empowerment and optimism.
- Be generous.
When you help others, it reinforces a sense of control over a situation and sends the message that “we’re all in this together.” In the case of COVID-19, the simple act of staying home and not endangering others is a generous gesture.
- Enjoy small daily pleasures.
Focusing on and appreciating the small daily pleasures of life emphasizes positive emotions and builds optimism. It can be as simple as making a phone call to a friend, enjoying a cup of your favorite tea, sitting in the sunshine, or watching birds nest in a tree — anything that adds a moment of joy to your day. According to Cornell professor emeritus Elaine Wethington, “Filling your life with positive things that make you happy can distract you from your worries and temporarily keep you from sinking into depressed feelings. … It’s connected not only to how happy you feel in any given hour, it also seems to be connected with how long you live.”
Resilience is not simply a set of personal characteristics one is born with; it’s an adaptive process that can be learned. It also isn’t dependent on circumstances. In fact, research has shown that senior adults can exhibit traits of high resilience regardless of their socioeconomic background, life experiences or health challenges.
If you’d like to practice the behaviors of resilient aging in an effort to increase your own ability to cope with difficult circumstances, these tips can get you started:
- Maintain an optimistic attitude and always look for the “silver lining.”
- Engage in new activities.
- Cultivate new friendships or join a social group.
- Accept that some things are out of your control, and take action on the things you can affect.
- Practice stress-management techniques.
- Develop a spiritual practice like prayer, meditation, yoga or mindful journaling.
- Maintain perspective; don’t let your thoughts run away with you.
- Practice self care through proper nutrition, regular exercise and good sleep habits.
- Volunteer your time to help others.
- Ask for help when you need it.
- Look for the lessons you can learn from the situation.
As you repeatedly turn your focus toward practicing the things you can do to overcome difficult circumstances, you may soon find that it becomes second nature — leading you toward a more empowered, engaged, happy and, yes, resilient life.
Senior living communities provide an environment rich in opportunities to create new friendships, exercise and focus on overall wellness. To find a community near you, use our community locator tool and search by type of community, location or both.
“Building your resilience” (American Psychological Association)
“Resilience in Aging” (Elder Care, The University of Arizona’s Arizona Center on Aging)
“The impact of resilience among older adults” (Geriatric Nursing, Volume 37, Issue 4)
“Living Well Through Crisis” by E.C.Barrett, Cornell College of Human Ecology