Adults 65 and older are part of the fastest-growing age group in the U.S. And as the number of people entering this upper age range increases, there has been a collective scramble to help Baby Boomers comfortably live out their final decades with independence and minimal disability.
However, research shows that Baby Boomers, especially those 85 and older, have more grit than most assume. In numerous recent studies, older adults report high levels of well-being and quality of life and low levels of stress, and consider themselves well-adept to recover from adversities. And, despite the unavoidable onset of age-related chronic conditions and disability, older adults generally believe themselves to be aging successfully.
Resilience is beneficial and even protective
Research points to the idea that resilience in and of itself may be a protective factor and may even be predictive of longevity. In other words, research suggests that older adults who have high levels of resilience live longer, happier lives than those with less resilience.
Research into resilience in older adults has found that resilient older adults report a higher quality of life, greater happiness, better mental health and well-being, successful aging, lower depression, longevity and reduced mortality risk.
More importantly, psychologists consider resilience to be an adaptive process as opposed to a trait—the difference being that an adaptive process is not fixed (like a trait) and can be developed at any stage of life. In other words, it’s not too late for older adults to develop and improve their resilience and thus improve the quality and enjoyment of their golden years.
How to help your loved one build resilience
Three Good Things activity
Consider ending your day by practicing the Three Good Things activity with your loved one. You simply write down three good things that happened today. Be intentional about reflecting on the experiences, noting how they felt, and what was the best thing about the experience.
Restorative restorying activity
It’s easy for all of us to get stuck replaying the same stories about our lives, and sometimes this is not only unhelpful but actually harmful to our resilience. When we “retell” the story with a healthier storyline, we reclaim our sense of control over our past and how we interpret events. Research shows that therapeutic writing leads to increased well-being and happiness (i.e., resilience).
To practice Restorative Restorying, have your loved one consider an example in their life that continuously produces worry or anxiety. Have them try writing out (or dictate to you) a new version with a more positive interpretation, encouraging them to recognize how they feel in the process.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is based on the concept that a person’s interpretation of events determines mood and behavior and that this interpretation manifests as a stream of automatically generated thoughts. The premise of CBT is that if you can change these automatic thoughts, you can change the mood and behavior.
Offered by a qualified therapist, CBT is an evidence-based treatment for late-life depression, anxiety and insomnia, primarily by helping the older adult find meaning in the age-related changes that are ever-present in their lives. For example, CBT can help older adults find meaning in losses and transitions by changing their thoughts about the situation.
A University of Maine study found that a person’s innate mindfulness – or their ability to pay attention to the present moment without judgment – is connected to higher levels of well-being and better mental health. Mindful older adults also demonstrated more mental resilience to stressful situations.
Start a gratitude journal or scrapbook
Research has linked gratitude to resilience, among other positive outcomes. Consider creating a gratitude journal or scrapbook with your loved one. You can also help them write letters of gratitude to people who are special to them. Visit this page for a list of gratitude practices to boost resilience.
Develop small, specific motivational goals
Developing small but specific goals is a motivational way to boost happiness, which increases resilience. Examples include:
- Goals that encourage social activity (e.g., visit the senior center every Tuesday and Thursday evening)
- Goals that encourage physical activity (e.g., walk three times a week)
- Goals that stimulate the brain (e.g., sudoku, crossword)
- Goals that help others (volunteer once a week)
Document the kindness around you
Design a “flow” activity
“Flow” is the term researchers use to describe optimal states of consciousness or peak moments of total absorption in an activity. Turns out accessing a “flow state” is a great way to boost resilience. So, finding ways to help your loved one get into their “flow state” could go a long way in building up their resilience.
Flow activities are different for everyone but have some common parameters:
- They are experiences that optimally engage your attention and leave you with a sense of accomplishment.
- The tasks must require skill concentration but not too much that it’s tasking.
- They must be goal-directed and provide ongoing feedback.
- They should feel challenging yet effortless.
- You should feel in control.
- You should lose track of time.
Examples include things like yoga, tai chi, music, painting, pottery, woodworking, crafting, gardening, cooking, baking, scrapbooking, sewing, knitting and cross-stitch.
‘Find Something Funny’ activity
The “Find Something Funny” activity is a great way to boost positive emotions and strengthen resilience. In fact, laughter has been found to boost resilience.
To do this activity, spend 10 minutes each day for seven days on the following exercise:
- Have your loved one write down (or dictate to you) the three most funny things they experienced, saw or heard that day. Encourage them to provide details and note how these things made them feel. If they can’t think of anything, do an online search for funny stories or anecdotes.
- Write down why they found it funny. The more specific, the more effective the exercise will be.
- Write three funny things at the end of each day. Doing so will foster a new habit and may help you absorb the emotion more as you are going to sleep.
Remind your loved one that resilience is an adaptive process, not a fixed trait. It is still 100% within their control, and they can still develop it. Encourage them to seize the opportunity to leverage it to improve their remaining years.