How do the elderly become more resilient?

Several months ago while visiting my ninety-eight-year-old grandmother, I knelt down next to her chair and looked her in the eyes.

“Grandma,” I said with mock seriousness, “I think you’re finally getting old.”

She laughed. “Well, yes, I think I finally am!”

In some ways, I wasn’t kidding. My grandmother has always been active and fit, gleefully turning a somersault for her five-year-old great-grandson when she was seventy-five. Taking care of “the old people” at her senior apartment complex well into her late eighties. Buzzing around the crowded room for her ninety-fifth birthday party, chatting and joking with her friends.

Then, suddenly, she got old. Her voice weakened and she finally started using a walker for balance. I could see the difference in her eyes: Once bright and curious, they now had softened into a gaze of subtle resignation.

“Grandma,” I asked her, “Do you want to live to be a hundred?”

She thought about it for a moment.

“Well, I do,” she said with a mischievous glint returning to her eyes, “But I don’t want to live the two years in between to get there!”

That weekend of my visit, I continued to watch her and think about her long, long life. Always an in-command person, what must it be like for her now that she is, as researchers term it, “the oldest of the old” and having to rely on others?

I reviewed some current research to learn about resiliency and the elderly. How do they adapt to the aging process with its cascading losses – physical, mental, and personal? How do they bounce back? What can we do to help them become more resilient?

Like many of us, resilient old people utilize flexibility and adaptation skills to bounce back from difficulty. Except they seem to use more of it because of the consistent nature of change in their lives as they age. They seem to be champions at letting go of previous physical and mental abilities and, in so doing, continually redefine themselves and adapt to what is a “new normal” for them.

Here are four other components of resilience among the elderly that we can both emulate and help those less-resilient seniors to achieve.

1. A sense of belonging.  While many senior communities promote activities, it appears that this is not enough. Old people, like younger ones, desire to be a part of something, to feel like they belong. Service providers (including caregivers) therefore may consider not only providing activities, but also creating communities involving groups of people with common interests and goals.

2. Creating meaning through personal memories and life reviews. Elderly people who pursue personal growth as they age tend to be more resilient in the face of changes. Creating meaning and purpose around the events in one’s life is an effective way to promote growth and, for older people, this can be accomplished through the use of life reviews. A facilitator assists the person to recall their memories and discuss the meaning in events that have occurred throughout her life.

3. Dependence. While dependence is not valued in younger years, resilient seniors are able to re-value dependence as a way for them to adapt to their changing circumstances. It is helpful when they can see that whatever they are still able to offer is a good exchange for depending on others for certain assistance. Service providers may want to emphasize this quid pro quo concept.

4. Openness. This refers to the ability to change and adapt – to be open to new ideas, values, and experiences. Helping seniors to reframe loss and change as a means of redefining oneself may assist in generating more openness. Service providers can also help by acknowledging the openness they perceive in the people they serve.

Although she teased about living  the next two years to reach one-hundred, my grandmother continues to inspire me with her ability to adapt and change. She gave up her driver’s license at age eighty-four but learned how to use the bus system so she could still help the “old people” get to their medical appointments. She is a long-time member of her church and feels at home there within a loving community.

And she consistently astonishes me with her openness to her changing world. Although she does not like her shrinking independence, she adjusted to using a walker and is comfortable taking my arm for stability when needed. And she still roots on her beloved Seattle Mariners even though life experience there has sometimes been disappointing.

We can learn a lot from our elders.

Bobbi Emel is a psychotherapist who blogs at Bounce Blog.

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  • Violetta V

    Interesting. You forgot physically active.
    This is one 100 year old who looks really resilient (ignore the language; at 0:12 she is shown still working at the age of 90, at 2:26 you can see her at 95:

  • DrJoe Kosterich

    The ideas here about engagement and meaning in life count for much more than just giving people pills!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Dr. Joe! Ain’t it the truth?

  • Anonymous

    Yes, thanks for adding this Violetta. Interestingly, the research that I read related to resilience among the elderly, did not emphasize physical activity. Intriguing, huh? 

    But my 98-year-old grandmother still goes to her senior exercise classes at the University of Washington every week and swears by them, especially for helping her keep her balance. Physical activity and exercise never cease to be an essential part of well-being.

  • sanjay

    I want complain about a doctors behaiviour to a 71 year old . Mr Ram went fro his doctors appointment and he was pushed out of the doctors clinic due to his cell phone rung twice. he did not know how to off his cel phone (his 71 years old ) doctor push mr Ram and his wife out of the office without treating them.  how can I help this person.

  • Katie Moon

    You may laugh, but I’ve had the experience with 2 aunts, who both were fond of watching “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune”. Both provided mental stimulation and a feeling of accomplishment  when their answers were correct. Even into her 100th year, Aunt Lucy remained engaged and vivacious. Even after a stroke left her speechless, she still watched.
    Both women loved growing things and while their activities became more limited, nurturing was still very important. They continued to be excited about life and family.

    • Bobbi Emel

      Katie, this is actually a really great example! Not only does watching Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune provide mental stimulation and a sense of accomplishment, but it can enhance one’s feeling of belonging by being a part of the “Jeopardy group.” I love how your aunts were flexible and open and, even as their worlds became smaller, they continued to nurture plant life. Terrific!

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