Last year 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?
And what can we learn from them to use in our lives now?
Here are five ideas we can borrow from our elders on how to be more resilient in life.
1. The ability to let go.
Resilient old people are champions at letting go. With diminishing physical – and sometimes mental – capabilities, the elderly are constantly faced with a choice: to resist change or to let go of former capabilities.
Those who adapt better are the ones who are able to let go of their past abilities and come to terms with their new ones.
We can follow the path set by our wise seniors by not resisting change in our lives and letting go of the things that don’t work for us any longer.
2. Redefining yourself.
Letting go of things that don’t work for them means that old people are constantly redefining themselves – adapting to a new normal.
We can learn a lot from this particular skill.
Change is a constant in life.
Older people understand this more than we younger and middle-aged folks do.
Although, I do have to share this funny comment from the ninety-nine-year-old grandmother of a friend of mine:
“I always thought things would calm down and get easier. I’m beginning to think that’s not going to happen.” ~Phoebe Howard
While it may have taken Phoebe awhile to figure things out, we can catch on much more quickly.
Change doesn’t have to mean loss.
It can also give us a chance to redefine ourselves into someone who takes advantage of what we have right now in the present moment.
3. A sense of belonging.
The old people who do really well say they feel like they belong somewhere.
One of the reasons my grandmother continues to live in her senior apartment complex rather than move closer to my mother is because of the community she has there.
She has friends she meets for dinner, buddies to watch baseball with, and a church that provides a spiritual community for her.
Just like our elders, we need to belong, too.
Isolation only leads to a lack of resiliency via depression and loneliness, so make sure you have a community – a tribe of your own.
Like the old sitcom, Cheers, try to find a place “where everyone knows your name.”
4. Being okay with dependence.
Most of us don’t like to be dependent.
We value our strength and freedom.
Seniors, while valuing those same things, come to accept dependence as a means of adapting to their changing circumstances.
While we may not be able to identify with the word “dependence,” we can benefit by learning to strengthen our bonds of social support.
Accepting help when it is needed rather than stubbornly trying to do everything ourselves.
Asking others to support us emotionally rather than trying to tough it out.
5. Learning to be open and flexible.
This is probably the greatest lesson from our elders: the value of flexibility in order to adapt.
The lives of seniors are constantly changing: physically, mentally, and logistically with changes such as moving into assisted living environments.
Yet, the most resilient of these old people are the ones who are able to adapt to all of this. They are open to change and become flexible in their expectations about life.
Adaptation is an essential quality that we all need, no matter how old we are.
How open and flexible are you? Can you look at change as inevitable and constant and still be open to what it brings?
If not, find an old person and ask them how to do it!
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.
Now ninety-nine, Grandma still attends her weekly exercise class for seniors.
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.
Rosowsky, E. (2009.) Challenge and Resilience in Old Age. Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging. 33 (3), p.100-102.
Langer, N. (2004.) Resiliency and Spirituality: Foundations of Strengths Perspective Counseling with the Elderly. Educational Gerontology, 30, 611-617.
Bauer, J.J. & Park, S.W. (2010.) Growth is not just for the young: growth narratives, eudaimonic resilience, and the aging self. Fry, Prem S.; and Keyes, Corey L. M.. New Frontiers in Resilient Aging. Boston: Cambridge University Press.