"Resilience & Aging"November 23, 2020
An interview by Joanne Verney with her daughter, Alissa Russell, PhD, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Saint Mary's College. Dr. Russell's research revolves around stress and coping, with a particular emphasis on normative daily stress, and how resilience resources like self-regulation and mindset can buffer against normative stress.
Q. What is resilience when it pertains to aging?
A. Broadly speaking, resilience is doing well in the face of adversity, and it is a lifelong pursuit! As we age, we face new challenges, but by using the strengths we gain, and engaging with helpful resources, we can shore up the losses we may face.
Q. How do we use our strengths when facing challenges as we age?
A. We often think about aging as a series of progressive losses, but developmental science research shows that later life brings with it important gains! Resist stereotypical views on aging, including how you view yourself. This can be difficult, as popular culture tends to portray and advance a single and typically negative image of aging. The science, however, shows that older adults vary in every domain and all people, regardless of age, continue to develop in numerous ways. Older adults can, in fact, expect a number of gains above and beyond even young adulthood.
Among these gains, one of the clearest is improved emotion regulation. Compared to younger adults, older people are better able to focus on the positive than the negative and have stronger memory for positive images and experiences. Likewise, they report greater life satisfaction and display more positive and fewer negative emotions. They even use more areas of the brain when processing emotional information! This gain in ability to manage emotions to maximize and prioritize positive emotions is a clear asset of aging. As a college professor, I can attest that this is a skill many young people look forward to once they learn this developmental trend! Older adults can get the most out of this gain when they recognize it, savor it, and seize opportunities to share their perspectives with younger people.
Q. What advice would you give to stay socially active and connected?
A. As we age, challenges can threaten our ability to stay connected. However, staying engaged with people and interests, is one of the strongest predictors of healthy aging, and should be a real priority for older adults.
Of particular importance is to seek out and maintain close relationships with individuals and communities that matter to you. The science supports this: people who have good relationships throughout their lifespans are healthier and happier. With regard to aging in particular, individuals who are socially connected enjoy longer preservation of brain functioning and stronger memory skills. For individuals who face conditions with chronic pain, those who are in close relationships experience better daily moods, even on days of greater pain. It’s important to note that we do not need to be social butterflies or overextend ourselves; quality is much more important than quantity when it comes to social connections. Focusing on our closest relationships and keeping them active will keep us healthier and happier.
Similarly, it is important to keep engaged with passions, hobbies and interests. Research is clear that individuals who stay engaged and continue to learn new things in later life are happier, healthier and live longer. It is important to keep in mind that what engagement looks like may change as we age. The key is to adapt to our changing needs in a way that keeps us engaged. Doing all of the exact same activities in the exact same way, or at the same intensity, can lead to frustration and abandonment of the activity. Instead, look for ways to engage your interests in new ways. For example, if eyesight is declining, listening to well-narrated audiobooks can be an exciting new way to enjoy reading. Or if transportation to places and events is becoming a challenge, learning how to use ride-share apps can promote continued travel and independence. Don’t be afraid to recruit help and support as you learn new things; seeking such aid may feel like loss of independence, but ultimately it can enable greater autonomy as new skills are learned. Adaptation is key to lifelong health, and we retain that capacity throughout our whole life.
Q. What is the role of exercise as it pertains to physical and emotional benefits?
A. Research shows that simple exercise programs maintain health across a variety of domains. For example, regular moderate exercise can prevent, delay the onset of, or ease several diseases and chronic conditions including osteoporosis, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. Exercise is linked with numerous psychological benefits including increases in self-efficacy and improvements in mood. It has also been linked to the preservation of memory, and even the development of new neurological growth in memory areas of the brain—including in later life! It is important to keep in mind, too, that these benefits do not require an intense regimen, just consistency. Your health care providers can help plan the right exercise program for you.
Q. What benefits are there to sharing knowledge, experience and perspectives with younger people?
A. Too often, popular media and stereotypes paint a rather dismal picture of aging, a portrayal that does not reflect the varied and authentic development of later life as it is lived. Our world today also limits the natural opportunities for interaction between the generations and age groups. This is a loss for everyone! Each semester I teach Adult Development and Aging to college students, and one of the capstone assignments the students must complete is an interview with an older adult in their life. Universally, students share how meaningful and impactful these interviews were. They often share they learned new things about the older adults in their life that they never would have known or expected, and the experience has given them a new way to look at their own life. Research suggests that older adults also benefit from this sharing. As discussed, staying engaged and contributing is a key predictor of health aging, so sharing your strengths and experiences with a younger generation is a great way to stay engaged.