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Resilience in Aging

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It is important that we understand what it means to age well
despite the challenges that accompany a longer life expectancy.

It’s a bit ironic. The longer we live, the more adversity we inevitably face. But this adversity garners wisdom, presents opportunities to make meaning later in life, and can ultimately lead to a deeper level of happiness.

How we handle this adversity over the years is critical in shaping our level of satisfaction. The resiliency with which we navigate life’s curveballs determines how well we age, and how happy we can be later in life.

So, then, what determines an individual’s level of resiliency? How do we handle adversity, and to what extent are older adults able to sustain high levels of personal well-being through life’s challenges? Does it depend on inner strength? Family support? Sheer luck?

Resilience is an individual’s ability to recover from distressing events and is manifest in how a person successfully negotiates everyday challenges in life. While aging affords many opportunities for growth and transformation, it also presents inherent challenges and complexities associated with getting older. Effectively and efficiently navigating these challenges is key to aging well, and turning life’s hardships into fulfilling life experiences.

Building Resilience

The concept of personal resilience in aging adults emerged from what gerontologists call the “paradox of old age.” This paradox suggests that while older adults experience more loss and decline as compared to their younger counterparts, they also experience the highest levels of life satisfaction and overall well-being. One’s resilience is fundamental to realizing this contentment.

According to researchers, there are three hallmarks of resilience: recovery (bouncing back from stress and returning to balance); sustained purpose (moving forward and finding meaning through engagement); and growth (emerging stronger as a result of dealing with hardship).

Dr. Alex Zatura and his colleagues in the Resilience Solutions Group at Arizona State University claim that older adults who successfully adapt and recover from adversity engage in what they call “resilience thinking.” This type of thinking allows older adults to reframe life’s challenges using a positive lens. In other words, when elders engage in “resilience thinking,” they are able to turn hardship into opportunity. Resilient elders are able to glean positive results from negative events and turn a problem into an opportunity for growth, expansion and personal transformation.

In my own work as a gerontologist, I find that enduring adversity is largely influenced by one’s self-perceived emotional strength. In my research, I explore how older adults manage hardship as they age and examine the key factors of resilience in later life. Older adults share their own strategies for handling adversity with me, and talk openly about how they see adversity as an opportunity for growth and expansion. Participants in my research have revealed how they intentionally map their life resources, mine for social support and tap into the benefits of human connection. Older adults know the importance of practicing radical self-care and compassion, especially in the face of uncertainty.

I have been struck by how comfortable elders are with ambiguity, lack of control and vulnerability. Many participants have articulated that, for them, being strong and having resilience means being able to dwell comfortably and peacefully with the uncertainty embedded in their lives, and to embrace their vulnerability as people … especially as they grow older.

An overarching theme linking these coping strategies is how people conceptualize themselves. This “resilience thinking” is an important component of an individual aging well, but it is also critical in family life and within family units. Aging families face circumstances together. Issues related to caregiving, loss of loved ones or changes in levels of dependence. When thinking about late-life families, it is important to keep in mind the importance of relationships and social support.

Building resilience is a life-long process and can be facilitated in numerous ways. Resilience is a critical skill in negotiating life’s challenges, and relationship building lies at the heart of creating both individual and family resilience.

Building Resilience

Optimism and effective coping styles: Responses to crises are more often seen from the “silver lining” point of view, rather than from despair.

Personal connections: Happily engaged with family and friends, close-knit communities, or even at work.

Self-efficacy: Ability to handle one’s own problems; flexibility; adaptability.

Sense of purpose: Involved in an activity or a function that gives life meaning affects optimism and how one looks to the future.

Healthy diet & active lifestyle: The healthier and more active older adults are, the more traits of resilience they possess.

Source: Resilience Solutions Group.