Successful aging takes a conscious effort to meet challenges of aging, to continue using strengths and positivity, and to avoid focusing on fear and limitations, as discussed by Dr. Cassandra Vieten, PhD, via Home Care Assistance’s recent webinar on Conscious Aging.
Meet Dot. At 80, she’s actively involved with her family, friends and community. She meets every challenge with twinkle in her eye and the drive to keep living well. She stopped working at 63 because it interfered with her volunteer work. She and her husband have had some health scares, but their positive attitudes have led to lives that brim with meaning.
Meet Bob. He retired at 55 and spends his days tinkering at home. His wife’s health issues are dragging him down, so he self-medicates with alcohol to deal with his depression. He doesn’t really care too much about what he eats or whether he exercises. He remembers his own folks dying in their 60’s and 70’s. At 71, he’s not expecting much from life or many more years.
An attitude to overcome difficulties is essential.
Dr. Vieten’s work has similarities to that of Drs. Rowe and Kahn, (Successful Aging, Pantheon Books, 2000). Drs. Rowe and Kahn conclude our best chances for successful aging come from an outlook of resilience to life’s challenges, an interest in staying actively involved in our world, making a purposeful contribution, and living a healthy lifestyle.
Dr. Vieten’s message:
Aging brings challenges
- Major life changes, such as stopping work due to retirement, children growing up and moving away, which can lead to a loss of purpose
- Losses, such as physical or cognitive ability or death of loved ones
Benefits of Aging
- Freedom from the need to be productive, so can use time and energy to share wisdom with others
- It’s a natural time to begin to consider one’s legacy and how to protect meaning in life
- Can heal old wounds and make amends
- Chance “harvest” strengths- keep doing what still good at, although maybe in new ways
Older adults (either on their own or with support) can transform their thinking about aging through
- deciding to do so
- paying attention to their thinking and self-talk
- creating a worldview which includes contributing older people (themselves), and
- actively working to make meaning from their lives in lasting ways.
Dr. Vieten recommends caregivers purposefully assist older adult loved ones to transform their thinking about aging through these steps:
- Reframe limiting beliefs and self-defeating thoughts
- Reflect on how s/he used character strengths to be successful in the past and how those strengths can be used now
- Change visions of aging: “useful contributor” vs “isolated TV watcher”
- Accept reality
- Focus attention on what is meaningful in life (help family, pass on wisdom)
Practice reframing so it flows naturally. Some older adults don’t have the skills or ability to handle or express underlying fears, so they act out in other ways. You may have noticed more complaints, agitation, or worry when a doctor’s appointment is upcoming or when your loved one is struggling with chronic pain.
- Listen and validate (“I hear you, and this is hard. A doctor’s appointment can be scary. Sometimes I worry when I have to go to see my doctor.”)
- State a different view point using and, not but. (“It’s natural to be concerned about what’s happening in your body and I will be there with you to help you understand and address the changes. Once we know what the issues are, we can make a plan. There’s power in that.”)
Reflecting helps a person to connect with their successes and can be done often and briefly.
“Aunt Sarah, tell me how you handled something hard in your life…”
(after her response) “I hear you describing a survivor and a problem solver. Aunt Sarah, I want you to bring those strengths here, now, so you can use them. You need your problem solving skills to help you in this doctor’s appointment. I’ll be there, too.”
Accepting a circumstance, rather than fighting it, diminishes negative aspects and allows possibilities to arise. Here’s one of Dr. Vieten’s examples: “I hate looking and being old. The more I fuss and fume about my changing appearance and aches and pains, the more I am wishing things were different, the less accepting I am. My struggle against reality drains my energy. Surrendering to the situation allows me to see what I can do and enjoy now.” Meditation can help.
Focusing on inner knowledge and listening through meditation, prayer, or silent reflection is an important part of conscious aging. According to Dr. Vieten, by practicing an inner focus, we can change the way we experience pain, improve our immune systems, and positively affect how we interact with others. Learn meditation with your older adult loved one—even as little as 3-10 minutes a day can prepare you to handle stress and anxiety. Listening to calming music, deep breathing, and gentle massage can also help.
Dr. Vieten recommends surrendering words, such as, “let’s take this step by step,” and cautions caregivers to use a loving tone that is respectful and honors the feelings of the moment. Saying “it’s okay, we’ll do this together” is acceptable but “don’t worry, everything will be okay” with a glib tone, is not. The first phrase says “I understand and I am here,” while the second one conveys “your pain is not mine and not important.”
What to do when cognitive impairments get in the way
If your loved one has dementia, you can fall back on using surrendering phrasing, active listening and validation, and moving yourself into the world of the person with dementia. Forcing them into reality will only serve to worsen agitation. Imagine this: your mother is asking you anxiously to find her daughter. Since you’re sitting there with her, it’s clear she doesn’t recognize you. It could be, in her reality, the daughter she is seeking is 6 years old. Reframe the moment for her:
“Your daughter is wonderful isn’t she? Tell me a story about her. Does she like school?”
Happy memories can be a good source of calm and coping for many with Alzheimer’s.
Successful aging is about keeping the big picture in mind and focusing on joy, rather than sinking deeper into agitation or drowning in fear. Help your loved one to be in the moment, and to bring the strengths and positive elements of their past life into the present–maybe the quilter becomes the quilting teacher.
Free guided meditations: http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22