Last November, my 87-year old mother’s best friend died unexpectedly. This was a great shock for all of us, as she was much younger than Mom and relatively healthy. It goes without saying, Mom misses her friend very much as they saw each other nearly every day and had plans to travel together this year. I was initially concerned for Mom’s well being as many in her social circle have been dying in recent years. Nevertheless, Mom appears to be her usual, active self as she exercises daily, experiments with recipes in the kitchen, and socializes with friends and relatives. Mom doesn’t spend too much time fretting, and instead, focuses on positive, productive activities that bring her satisfaction and joy.
In a longitudinal study of emotional experiences in aging, Dr. Laura Carstensen, researcher and Director of Stanford Center on Longevity, found that older people are happier compared to middle-aged and younger people. Dr. Carstensen explains that one reason may be that older people have more experience in adapting to major life changes, such as illnesses and the death of loved ones. Difficult events enable older adults to develop acceptance of strong emotions. Additionally, older adults frequently experience mixed emotions, such as feeling sadness and happiness at the same time. Despite the incongruence, older adults are better able to manage these emotions, whereas younger persons may feel uncomfortable or confused because they may be less experienced. Thus the ability to hold varied emotions allows older adults to remain optimistic and fully engaged with their lives and with other people.
In a similar vein, Edwards, Hall and Zutra (2012) suggest that older adults experience greater contentment in later life due to having lived through stressful events. This is known as “the paradox of aging,” where overcoming or adapting to difficulties leads to growth and builds resilience. It may seem that undergoing loss and decline, including the “wear and tear” of aging, would lead to weaker health and depressed mental states. However, older adults who have endured adverse situations are often emotionally and mentally stronger compared to individuals who have experienced little to no turmoil. Ultimately, resilience thinking enables older adults to find purpose and to thrive, which leads to longer, happier lives.
Fostering Resilience in Older Adults
Resilience is associated with longevity, and less-robust older adults can develop this quality through support from family, friends, and caring professionals. Here are key components that produce resilience thinking (Edwards et al, 2012):
- Optimism: Seeing the “silver lining” in difficult situations
- Personal connections: Positive relations with family, friends, communities, work, and volunteering
- Sense of purpose: Involvement in meaningful activities leads to optimism towards the future
- Self-efficacy: Ability to solve problems, remaining flexible and adaptable
- Healthy diet/active lifestyle: Healthy lifestyles promote resilience & vice versa
Although popular opinion suggests that older persons are set in their ways, researchers suggest that people can and do learn even in old age. Family and caring professionals alike can encourage older adults’ involvement in meaningful activities and social interactions. Through participation, older adults can learn to recognize their unique strengths and abilities. This awareness may lead to feelings of self-efficacy and purpose, which in turns contributes to healthier lives for older adults and to the overall wellness of communities in which they live.