By Anne Payne, M.A., LPCA, NCC
Because people around the world are living longer lives, we are becoming increasingly interested in older adult development and the concept of healthy aging. We are asking questions around what factors support not only a longer life span, but one with a higher quality of life. We are becoming curious about factors that foster resilience as we face the inevitable losses of growing older.
Our physical bodies begin to slow down as we age. If we are fortunate enough to remain in good health, we can recognize this slower pace as an opportunity to become more intentional in our actions and observant of the world around us. Increasingly free from the stressors of professional and familial responsibilities, we have more time and energy to become reflective around our life’s purpose and to make meaning out of past experiences. Those who age in a healthy manner have a clear sense of what gets them up in the morning and a passion to convey this legacy to their peers and the younger generation.
We see resilience in older people who continue to seek social connections. They spend time with people who “build them up” and set boundaries around those who are more difficult. Researchers talk about the importance of spending time with those who have not lost their capacity for humor. We cope with the aging process well when we take advantage of increasing freedoms from work and familial obligations to relearn a sense of what it is to play.
We are also learning about the importance of nurturing intellectual curiosity as we grow older. Researchers challenge us to engage in mental endeavors that have the potential to frustrate us. When we challenge ourselves to learn a new language or master a new computer operating system, the frustration we feel is actually our brain creating new neural pathways.
Scientists have learned that inflammation in our brains is caused by chronic stress and those that age in a healthy manner are better able to recognize the triggers of their stress and it’s physical symptoms. They engage regularly in activities such as yoga, tai chi and meditation which promote a relaxation response in the body. This response can also be achieved by “finding your flow” when engaging in a hobby, spending time in nature or petting an animal.
Finally, we are learning that people who nurture their spiritual growth as they age experience a higher quality of life and live longer. We are discovering that a spiritual practice fosters resilience by serving as a resource to try and make sense of the positive and negative aspects of aging. Older people have an increased capacity to appreciate experiences of awe and wonder and a tendency to be more comfortable with mystery.