Positive Thinking for Seniors Is More Powerful than You Think! 

May is both Older Americans Month and Mental Health Awareness Month, making this an ideal time to focus on the mental health needs of seniors! 

We all experience sadness from time to time — and this is what many people focus on when it comes to mental health. Sadness can affect your daily activities, interfere with your sleep, and make you feel hopeless. On the flip side, positive mental health is the presence of positive emotions, engagement, good relationships, meaning, and accomplishments. Now, more than ever, there are important reasons to embrace positivity, and it involves preserving your cognitive health. 

A New Study Suggests Positivity Has a Major Impact on Cognitive Health 

A recent study published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Network Open (an international, peer-reviewed, general medical journal that publishes research on clinical care, innovation in health care, and more), suggests that positive thinking about aging may help people better recover from mild cognitive impairment than those who don’t have a positive outlook on aging. 

For the study, researchers analyzed data from 1,716 older adults, ages 65 and up, who were recovering from mild cognitive impairment. Participants were assessed for how positive they felt about aging. The researchers found that people who had positive thoughts about aging had a 30.2 percent greater chance of recovering from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) than those who had negative thoughts about getting older. And this was true regardless of how severe their MCI was at the start of the study. 

The researchers also found that people who had normal cognition at the start of the study and had positive views on aging were significantly less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment over the next 12 years than those who had negative thoughts about getting older! 

How Positive Thinking Affects MCI 

It’s important to point out that the study didn’t find that positive thinking about aging made a person’s mild cognitive impairment go away. Instead, the researchers found that there was a link between people who had a more positive outlook on aging and recovering from mild cognitive impairment. 

According to NYU psychologist Dr. Thea Gallagher, “(i)f you believe that age is a limiting factor, you’re likely going to meet whatever ceiling you place on yourself. If you don’t believe that, maybe it can even help change the function of your brain.” 

When asked why positive thinking can help prevent MCI, lead study author Becca Levy, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Yale University and professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health, believes that people with positive views on aging may also just have better health habits. She said, “(t)hose with more positive age beliefs tend to have lower stress levels and tend to engage in better health behaviors. Those factors can continue to better cognition or cognitive health.” 

Of course, positive thinking may not work for everyone. According to researchers, the key question is “why does MCI exist?” If MCI exists because Alzheimer’s or other dementia changes exist in the brain, then the prognosis is that the impairment will get worse with time rather than better. A positive outlook may not lead to a curable intervention for MCI. 

Mild cognitive impairment can be an early sign of more serious memory issues, so it’s important to follow up every six to 12 months with a doctor who can keep track of changes in your memory and thinking skills, the NIA says. 

Want to be more of a positive thinker? Martin Seligman, the “Father of Positive Psychology,” Discusses his Views on Positivity 

At a time when many of his peers are wrapping up their careers, Martin Seligman (82), the founder of the field of positive psychology, is focusing on new horizons that involve the power of positive thinking. Seligman is a world-renowned psychologist and Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater as well as that of attorney Sara Barr, another shareholder here at the Farr Law Firm. I had the great honor of having Dr. Seligman as one of my psychology professors while I was at Penn earning my undergraduate degree in psychology and today still consider him one of my greatest personal heroes. A former president of the American Psychological Association, Seligman has won many awards, has written or co-written 25 books, has given speeches around the world, and has even shared the stage with the Dalai Lama, one of the greatest spiritual heroes alive. 

Seligman has helped redefine the entire field of psychology. He believes that “psychologists should study not only what makes people mentally ill but what makes some people happier than average.” According to Seligman, “(i)nstead of mental illness, positive psychology focuses on what makes some of us stronger, happier, and more satisfied than the norm. It involves learning to think differently about both good and bad events and appreciating that there is more than one path to an emotionally satisfying life.” Drawing on groundbreaking psychological research, Seligman’s positive psychology has helped to shift the profession’s paradigm away from a narrow focus on pathology, victimology, and mental illness to positive emotion, virtue, strength, and positive institutions. Our signature strengths can be nurtured throughout our lives, with benefits to our health, relationships, careers, and longevity. 

Here are some more of Dr. Seligman’s tips and beliefs:  

  • For peers who are headed toward retirement, Seligman offers the following tip: “Material objects have almost no role in positive emotion. As you organize your retirement, spend it on meaningful engagement.” 
  • Seligman believes that many therapists have made a huge error:
    “People are not driven by the past,” he says, “but pulled by the future.” 
  • “Optimists,” he said, “generally lead healthier, more successful lives than pessimists — those who see problems as ‘permanent and pervasive’ and their own fault. People can be taught to see things more positively.” 
  • Seligman urges people to evaluate their “well-being,” a combination of positive emotions (what most of us think of as happiness and good feelings), accomplishments, good relationships, and a sense of meaning and purpose. 
  • Seligman believes that “much of positive psychology is just figuring out what differentiates people who are unusually happy, content, or mentally healthy.” But the next logical step is to move people higher on the positive continuum. Seligman believes we can improve our lives “by identifying and using our best qualities, arguing with our inner naysayers, and learning to see setbacks as temporary.” 
  • Two simple interventions have proven to increase happiness and decrease depression for six months. One is to write down three good things that happened to you each day for a week and explain why. Another is to use one of your top five signature strengths. Learn more about his exercises at 
  • According to Dr. Seligman, well-being is the basis for positive psychology. He believes that well-being involves five measurable concepts: (1) positive emotion (2) engagement (3) positive relationships (4) meaning and (5) accomplishments (PERMA). The five measurable concepts of PERMA and the teachings of the Dalai Lama are similar in many respects. Read more about his PERMA theory here 
  • Seligman believes that there is certainly value in those who are pessimists. He said, “(y)ou want your pilot and your chief financial officer to think about what could go wrong. Negative emotions are important. They have evolved for good reasons: fear to signal danger, anger to signal trespass, sadness to signal loss.” Two of his heroes — Lincoln and Churchill —were famous depressives. 

Watch Martin Seligman’s Ted Talk here to learn more about his views on positivity.  

Seligman’s wife, Mandy, is also a psychologist who focuses on positivity. Check out her website where she focuses on seeing happiness through photography!  

Aging with Positivity and a Happy Heart 

Beyond maintaining a positive outlook, older adults should stay active and engaged in lifestyles that promote joyful living. Go outside and work in your garden, go for a walk around the neighborhood, attend community events and wellness programs, spend time with family and friends, learn a new skill or language, and focus on life enrichment activities that bring happiness and joy to your life!  

If you are concerned you may be experiencing symptoms of MCI, be sure to see a doctor immediately, and try to maintain your positivity, to hopefully slow down the symptoms!  

Plan for Your Future and Your Loved Ones 

Remember, as you are being more positive, it is also a good idea to plan for your future and for your loved ones. Here at the Farr Law Firm, we can help you stay positive by giving you the peace of mind that comes from Long-Term Care Planning and protecting your assets and your legacy, all while preserving your dignity, quality of life, and financial security. 

Among other services, we offer peace of mind through our four levels of lifetime protection planning: 

  • Level 1 — Incapacity Planning is all about protecting your assets from lifetime probate, also known as guardianship and conservatorship. Everyone over the age of 18 should have this type of planning in place. 
  • Level 2 — Revocable Living Trust Estate Planning is about protecting your assets from lifetime probate and after-death probate, keeping in mind that using only a last will and testament to transfer your assets at death forces your estate through the nightmare of after-death probate. All individuals and families who have children and/or financial assets should have Level 2 Planning. 
  • Level 3 — Living Trust Plus® Asset Protection Planning provides protection from probate, lawsuits, home care, and assisted living expenses by allowing access to Veterans Aid and Attendance benefits, and nursing home expenses by allowing access to Medicaid. This type of planning is done by clients who are typically retired and either still healthy or have recently been diagnosed with (or have a family history of) mild cognitive impairment, dementia, or some other illness that is likely to result in the future need for long-term care.  
  • Level 4 – Life Care Planning, Medicaid Asset Protection, and Veterans Asset Protection provides comprehensive planning and filing services, often at times of crisis, though this type of planning can be done anytime someone is beyond the first step of the Elder Care Continuum aka Aging Continuum 

If you have not done the appropriate level of planning, or had your planning documents reviewed in the past several years, please call us to make an appointment for a no-cost initial consultation: 

Northern Virginia Elder Care Attorney: 703-691-1888        
Fredericksburg, VA Elder Care Attorney: 540-479-1435        
Rockville, MD Elder Care Attorney: 301-519-8041        
Annapolis, MD Elder Care Attorney: 410-216-0703        `

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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