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Attitude and aging

Studies looking at those who had aged successfully found that more so than genes, lifestyle factors like resiliency determine how one ages

Claire Halverson holds a doctorate in education. She is professor emerita at SIT Graduate Institute,  a positive-aging coach, and a writer and presenter.

The oak fought the wind and was broken; the willow bent when it must and survived. 

—Robert Jordan, The Fires of Heaven

Dummerston

Think about a time when you were hit by adversity. Was it an accident, the death of a loved one, a major financial crisis, the loss of a job, or some other traumatic event? How did you respond — like the willow or oak?

Although we face crises throughout life, certainly the “golden years” are no exception.

One crisis for me was falling and breaking my neck.

I believed a positive outlook could help my recovery. The worst part was temporary, and I got over the aches and pains, and frustrations of not being able to bend, lift, and twist. Nor could I drive, and I do not have public transportation.

I used the time to read, to listen to music, to host visitors, to look at the sunshine of the snow-covered berry tree outside my window, and to rest.

My relatives and friends said I must have been going crazy being homebound, but I looked at it as sort of a protection. There, I did regain functioning with some constraints in my neck mobility, but the injury didn’t curtail much except swimming. Oh, well — there’s lots I can still do.

* * *

Gerontologists have added a new characteristic to defining successful aging: how people face its ordinary challenges using the strengths and capacities to carry them through adversities. This is called resilience.

Studies looking at those who had aged successfully found that more than genes, lifestyle factors determine how one ages.

The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress” or “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.

The definition includes process versus a stable trait and suggests that people have the capacity to build and demonstrate resilience, regardless of socioeconomic background, personal experiences, or declining health.

Dr. Dennis Charney, co-author of the book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges (2012) and researcher and dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, was shot by a disgruntled former employee. He spent five days in an intensive care unit, and he knew recovery would be difficult and challenging. But he said he knew he could be a role model and that the crisis gave him the chance to use what he had learned.

Key characteristics of resilience which research has highlighted include optimism (including gratitude, happiness, mental health, and hopefulness), social support (including connectedness, contact with family and friends, and community involvement), and being physically active. Studies have found that older women appear to be particularly skilled at establishing and maintaining social connections, reaching out to help others, and connecting through volunteering and community involvement.

Studies focusing on potential health outcomes of high resilience suggest that later in life it can help older adults achieve improved quality of life as well as better or overall self-perceived successful aging, despite adversities, lower rates of depression, increased longevity, and faster cardiovascular recovery.

Resilience is viewed as something that can be developed, rather that something that is innate. It is true some people have an optimistic personality type, but this should not limit those who have a more pessimistic outlook.

If you were born into a family of Eeyores, you can still find your inner Tigger and develop it.

* * *

While no research validates particular interventions, steps that can be taken seem obvious.

Obviously, finding ways to maintain positivity, foster positive relationships, getting exercise and maintaining a healthy diet are important.

Other suggestions:

Depersonalize: Our society is guilt based, so we often blame ourselves for life’s setbacks and reflect on what we could have done differently. Remember that even if you made a mistake, a number of factors most likely contributed to your problem and you need to focus on next steps you can take.

Change the things you can: You cannot control everything, but notice in the current situation what you can control. Those who focus on this strategy feel empowered and confident rather that helpless and powerless.

Accept the things you cannot change. Acknowledge that pain is sometimes a part of life and that it’s better to deal with the problems than to deny or suppress them. You might not have all the answers now, but take time to reflect and be quiet.

See the whole picture: Remember your comebacks, the other times you have faced a situation as bad, or others who have faced similar situations. Maybe you had a tumultuous adolescence or a romantic letdown. But you carried on.

And keep in mind the words of Leon Megginson, a professor explaining the work of Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptive to change.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #495 (Wednesday, January 30, 2019).

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