The Secret to Well-Being for Seniors?

Ellie has become increasingly lonely since her husband passed away, and it was beginning to take a toll on her well-being. She began questioning the meaning of life and became depressed. She also found herself to be increasingly unfocused and began forgetting things easily. These symptoms were impacting her life, until a neighbor helped her discover mindfulness, which turned things around for her.

Mindfulness (sometimes also called mindfulness meditation) is gaining tremendous popularity these days, and it’s the subject of many books, articles, and studies. Despite all the hype, research clearly indicates that mindfulness really does have a positive impact on well-being, especially when it comes to seniors.

Mindfulness can be defined as a therapeutic practice where people are encouraged to be fully in the present moment, and it’s often used as a way of managing and accepting thoughts and feelings. The idea behind mindfulness is to pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations calmly and without judgement. Mindfulness is based on traditional Buddhist meditation practices, and it also incorporates a variety of techniques such as controlled breathing, as well as body awareness activities, such as tai chi and yoga.

The Benefits of Mindfulness

There is strong evidence to suggest that practicing mindfulness can improve people’s emotional and physical well-being. It is being used to help ease stress, depression, anxiety, and chronic pain, as well as improving concentration. Seniors are perfect candidates for mindfulness-based interventions for many reasons, including the following:

1. It decreases loneliness: For many seniors, similar to Ellie in our example, loneliness becomes an increasing problem as loved ones pass on and children move away to live their own lives. Mindfulness and other types of meditation have been found to help decrease loneliness. In fact, a UCLA study found that seniors who engaged in a simple eight week meditation program significantly decreased rates of self-reported loneliness.

2. It offers treatment options with less reliance on medication: Since physicians typically rely on medication to treat physical and mental illness, the elderly often experience side-affects such as drowsiness and imbalance. For many, dependence on drugs develops. As a consequence, more and more older people are turning to non-pharmacological treatments, and mindfulness is a good option.

3. It helps stave off health problems: As people age, their system increasingly wears down, even if they are in fairly good health. This “wearing down” almost inevitably leads to physical health problems and, in many cases, to psychological issues. Typical problems and issues are heart disease, asthma, depression, and anxiety. A study in the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality reportedly found that seniors who practiced meditation were less likely to fall ill and had significantly fewer hospitalizations. According to the study, the meditation group’s five-year cumulative payments to physicians for medical care was 70% less than the non-meditating control group.

4. It can be taught in senior communities: It’s never too late to learn to practice mindfulness. A study in the journal Geriatric Nursing indicated that teaching mindfulness meditation and related techniques in senior communities can help improve resident health and feelings of connectedness.

5. It provides purpose: As people age, they tend to become more reflective and questioning about their life. As they review their life and its meaning, they may become depressed, suffer from anxiety, or adopt an “I don’t care anymore” attitude. The emphasis during mindfulness practice on paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, may ease these conditions.

6. It may slow Alzheimer’s: A double-blind study performed at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center indicates that meditation and breathing exercises may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers believe that this may work by protecting the brain against anxiety and stress, both of which are believed to worsen Alzheimer’s symptoms.

7. It improves longevity: A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that there is evidence that senior practitioners of mindfulness meditation experienced improved longevity. Meditation may improve longevity by preventing cellular aging, a possibility highlighted in a National Institute of Health study.

8. Caregivers can benefit too: Another UCLA study looked at caregivers of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients and found that caregivers who engage in “in a brief, simple daily meditation reduced the stress levels of people who care for those stricken by Alzheimer’s and [other types of] dementia.” Researchers added, “psycho-social interventions like meditation reduce the adverse effects of caregiver stress on physical and mental health.”

9. It’s empowering: Many older adults find themselves in nursing homes or in stay-at-home situations where they have little involvement in decision-making. They are told what to do and when to do it. As a result, they become disengaged in what goes on around them. This is especially true if they were strongly involved in decision-making when they were a parent or working. Mindfulness training by contrast is empowering. It concentrates on abilities rather than worries.

Ways To Work More Mindfulness Into Your Life

When you envision mindfulness, you may think of meditation sessions in which you sit cross-legged on a cushion. But, there is so much more the mindfulness than that! In fact, hobbies and activities that you enjoy can be forms of meditation.

If you don’t want to meditate or find it difficult, you can benefit by working mindfulness into your daily life. For instance, when you become so involved in an activity — such a gardening, painting, yoga, running, or being in nature — that you lose track of time and aren’t thinking about your to-do list, you’re essentially engaged in light meditation. Getting lost in a hobby is an excellent way to be present and mindful.

You don’t have to make drastic changes in order to be more mindful, you can begin in small ways. Here are some suggestions:

Chew your food: Sit down at a table and enjoy your meal. Slow down and be aware of sensations while you eat; turn off all gadgets and think consciously about what you’re eating, how it got to your plate, and how it nourishes your body. Not only will this reduce the indigestion you might get from scarfing down a plate that you barely tasted, but it will also allow you to actually appreciate your meal mindfully.

Breathe deeply: Slowing down and becoming conscious of your breathing not only lowers the heart rate, improves posture, and increases energy, but it calms your nervous system. Your breath is always with you and is a simple way of being present and mindful anywhere.

Notice the good in your life: No matter what’s going on in your life, there’s always good to be found, even if it’s something as small as the sun shining or a bloom on your favorite plant. There was good in your past, there’s good in the present, and there will be good in your future. You just have to take the time to notice it.

Don’t be afraid to say no: Make your happiness a priority. Stay aware when making decisions and conscious of the reasons behind those decisions.

Find a hobby that you love: Everybody already practices mindfulness sometimes, even if they don’t know it. As explained above, when you become so involved in an activity that you lose track of time and aren’t worrying about your bills or shopping list, you are “in-the-moment.” A truly engrossing hobby can focus your attention on the task at hand and bring a sense of calm. This can happen while gardening, knitting, reading, painting, cooking, exercising, or whatever you enjoy doing. And hey – if you happen to like painting (whether or not you’re any good at it) and/or sipping fine Italian wine, please come spend some quality time with me and Jeannie and other Farr Law Firm team members at our Painting with a Purpose event on Sunday, January 21, 2018, to benefit ROSE, a non-profit that I founded to help seniors. This event is NOT a serious art class, but is intended for you to RELAX, HAVE FUN, sip great wine, and actually leave with an AWESOME piece of artwork (regardless of your painting ability or lack thereof — Jeannie and I struggle with stick figures)!

Anyway, after a while, being mindful becomes a way of life, and it can change your life for the better. Practicing mindfulness can help bring the body and mind to a better place. It may not take away pain, depression, or loneliness tomorrow, but it can give you excellent coping strategies and increased awareness of what modifies these symptoms. Remember, as you are finding ways to help with your body, one of the greatest ways to gain peace of mind comes with planning for your future and for your loved ones. If you haven’t yet done your living trust estate planning, if you don’t have a comprehensive power of attorney with asset protection powers, or if a loved one is nearing the need for nursing home care, please call us at one of the numbers below to make an appointment for an initial consultation, or sign up for one of our upcoming seminars:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797

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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.