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!”
How do old people adapt?
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?
Of course, it made me turn to the 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?
In my reading, I found some resiliency skills of the elderly that can teach us younger people a few lessons.
Lessons from the elderly
First of all, the elderly use similar resiliency skills as the rest of us: social support, acceptance, using different perspectives, problem-solving. But they put a special spin on these skills. They seem more adaptive to me.
For example, there is a characteristic that is helpful in successful aging called flexibility. This entails being able to respond differently to a situation than the rote response one is used to. This is a skill that we all need to have and one we often use.
However, elderly people face so many changes as they age that they are called upon to be flexible more often than us younger people. The resilient elderly are the ones who are able to continually let go of abilities, not to mention friends and family to death, and adapt to a new way of being in the world.
My grandmother gave up her driver’s license when she was eighty-four because she realized her reaction times had slowed too much for her to safely drive. However, she quickly adjusted, learning to use the bus system to get herself and the “old people” she helped to doctors’ appointments.
Another characteristic of the elderly that we might envy is their greater range of coping resources. By virtue of their long lives, they have established an arsenal of ways to manage change and adversity. Also, they tend to be less reactive to losses than younger people because they have learned through experience how to handle loss.
Having a sense of openness allows seniors to re-create themselves continuously. Being receptive to new ideas, resources, and experiences allows them to redefine themselves even as their external worlds continue to shrink.
Resilient elders also become more accepting of dependency. While being dependent is not valued in younger people, many older people realize the need for adapting to their circumstances which may include allowing for increased dependence. However, one of the ways they are able to do this is by adjusting their perception to realize that whatever they are still able to offer others is a good exchange for receiving from others.
Finally, older adults demonstrate resilience by generating meaning from their personal memories and stories from their long lives. The ability to see one’s past growth and continue to strive for growth throughout life is extremely adaptive and rewarding.
Summary: What can we learn from “the oldest of the old”?
1. Even when life throws a multitude of changes at you consistently, you can still maintain flexibility to adapt to your circumstances.
2. It’s important to pay attention to and collect a wide range of coping resources.
3. As mentioned in my last post, sometimes you must redefine who you are to be able to bounce back in life. Maintaining a sense of openness allows you to more easily achieve this redefinition.
4. The things that we think less of now may actually be good. Old people show us that allowing people to help – being a little dependent – is actually a very productive skill.
5. Looking for and generating meaning and growth in the events of our lives will not only help us bounce back now, but be more resilient as we age.
Even though my grandmother teased about the two years she must live to reach one-hundred, she continues to inspire me with her constant, remarkable adaptation to her old, old life.
I want to be her when I grow up (and old.)
Takeaway points: We can learn a lot from our elders about resiliency. The crux of the lessons is all about adaptation: being open to changes and new ways of being in the world.
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.