The oak fought the wind and was broken; the willow bent when it must and survived.
— Robert Jordan, The Fires of Heaven
Think about a time when you were hit by adversity. Was it an accident, death of a loved one, a major financial crisis, loss of a job or some other traumatic event? How did you respond - like the willow or oak?
Although we face crises throughout life, certainly the "golden years" are no exception.
One crisis for me was a fall and breaking my neck. I believed a positive outlook could help my recovery.
This was temporary (the worst part) and I got over the aches and pains, and frustrations of not being able to bend, lift and twist — or drive (I do not have public transportation). I used the time to read, listen to music, host visitors, look at the sunshine of the snow-covered berry tree outside my window and rest.
My relatives and friends said I must have been going crazy being homebound, but I looked at it as sort of a protection. I did get back functioning with some constraints in my neck mobility but it didn't curtail much except swimming. Oh well, there's lots I can do.
A friend who lost her job due to needing to pull back after going through grueling cancer treatment is now a highly successful consultant moving from being a linguist professor to a new field, a highly sought after consultant on group processes.
Gerontologists have added a new characteristic to defining successful aging - how people face the ordinary challenges of aging, the strengths and capacities to carry them through adversities.
This is called resilience. Studies looking at those who had achieved successful aging found that lifestyle factors more than genes determines how one ages. (Hellie Huyck, M. What does it mean to "Age Successfully" as a woman in modern America? Generations: Journal of the American Society of Aging. Winter 2017-2018).
The American Psychological Association defines resilience as "the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress" or "bouncing back" from difficult experiences. The definition includes process versus a stable trait and suggests that people have the capacity to build and demonstrate resilience, regardless of socioeconomic background, personal experiences or declining health.
Dr. Dennis Charney, co-author of the book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenge (2012) and researcher and dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City was shot by a disgruntled former employee and spent five days in an intensive care and a challenging recovery.
He knew recovery would be difficult but he said he knew he could be a role model and that it gave him chance to use what he had learned.
Key characteristics of resilience which research has highlighted include optimism (including gratitude, happiness, mental health, hopefulness), social support (including connectedness, contact with family and friends, community involvement), and being physically active (MacLeod, S., Musich, S, Hawkins, Alsgaard, Wicker. The impact of resilience among older adults. 2016). Studies have found that older women appear to be particularly skilled at establishing and maintaining social connections, reaching out to help others, and connecting through volunteering and community involvement." (MacLeod, ibid.)
Studies focusing on potential health outcomes of high resilience suggest that later in life it can help older adults achieve improved quality of life, better or overall self-perceived successful aging despite adversities, lower rates of depression, increased longevity, and faster cardiovascular recovery. (MacLeod, ibid)
Resilience is viewed as something that can be developed, rather that something that is innate.
It is true some people have an optimistic personality type, but this should not limit those who have a more pessimistic outlook. If you were born into a family of Eeyores, you can still find your inner Tigger and develop it. While there is no research validate particular interventions, steps that can be taken seem obvious.
Obviously, finding ways to maintain positivity, foster positive relationships, getting exercise and maintaining a healthy diet are important. Other suggestions are:
Depersonalize - Our society is guilt based, so we often blame ourselves for life's setbacks and reflect on what we could have done differently. Remember that even if you made a mistake, a number of factors most likely contributed to your problem and you need to focus on next steps you can take.
Change the things you can: You cannot control everything, but notice in the current situation what you can control. Those who focus on this feel empowered and confident, rather that helpless and powerless.
Accept the things you cannot change: Acknowledge that pain is sometimes a part of life and it's better to deal with the problems that deny or suppress them.
You may not have all the answers now, but take time to reflect and be quiet.
See the whole picture: Remember your comebacks, other times you have faced something as bad, or others who have faced similar situations.
Maybe you had a tumultuous adolescence, a romantic letdown.
But you carried on.
It is not the strongest of the species that survives
Nor the most intelligent that survives
It is the one that is the most adaptive to change
— Charles Darwin
Claire B. Halverson is a positive aging coach, a writer and a presenter. She lives in Dummerston and can be contacted at Claireh@svcable.net. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.