How people cope with stressful situations can improve with age, according to research published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. That being said, many seniors might feel differently — especially those managing several chronic conditions, grieving a loss, struggling financially or caring for a spouse or an adult child with disabilities.
“What we’ve seen is a profound worsening of mental health issues across the whole life span,” says Margaret Danilovich, a geriatric physical therapist with a doctorate in public health sciences who researched the effects of stress on seniors during the pandemic. While the end of the pandemic has, no doubt, alleviated stress for older adults, Danilovich notes that “day-to-day stressors are still there.”
Curious about how mindfulness can help older adults manage stress and well-being? From meditation for seniors to simple physical exercises, here’s how mindfulness can help even out emotions in stressful or chaotic moments.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the practice of being in the present moment with acceptance. It incorporates various breathing exercises to help your body relax – which can in turn help lower your blood pressure, lessen muscle tension and reduce stress.
According to Danilovich, the way we practice mindfulness can be as simple as taking a brief walk outside. In her work with older adults and caregivers at the Leonard Schanfield Research Institute in Chicago, she focuses on interventions that have a mind-body component. “I take an exercise and active approach to mindfulness with stretching and yoga, because we know normal aging is associated with many changes in physical functioning,” says Danilovich. “As we age, we get weaker and have more difficulties with mobility, balance and transfers — and all of that adds to everyday stress and frustrations.”
With roots in Buddhist meditation, mindfulness can seem a bit “New Age,” yet thousands of studies have documented it’s physical and mental health benefits such as:
- Better sleep quality.
- Reduced anxiety, depression, and stress.
- Better balance and flexibility.
- Increased patience and improved relationships.
- Better focus and memory.
- Better quality of life.
How mindfulness benefits seniors’ cognition
Cognitive health — the ability to clearly think, learn and remember — is an important component of performing everyday activities. Over time, chronic stress can change the brain, affect memory and increase the risk for Alzheimer’s and related dementias.
Mindfulness-based therapies have shown promise when applied to psychological disorders in older adults. For instance, the results of an eight-week mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) course for older adults experiencing functional mental health problems showed significantly improved levels of depression, stress and anxiety.
And those with progressive cognitive decline and their caregivers may find mindfulness-based therapies particularly helpful. Many types of memory are preserved in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, including the skill-learning abilities and other repetition-based capacities that may be necessary for learning mindfulness skills. Research in American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias calls out benefits such as:
- Increased quality-of-life.
- Fewer depressive symptoms.
- Better sleep quality.
- Reduced anxiety, particularly for caregivers.
How mindfulness benefits seniors’ physical health
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) therapy, a technique originally developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 to help his patients with chronic pain manage their stress, has since evolved into a meditation therapy involving simple stretches and postures. It’s used in over 200 medical centers across the world as an alternative stress-relieving treatment option in patients with physical health problems such as:
- Diabetes mellitus.
- Rheumatoid arthritis.
- Skin and immune disorders.
After completing a clinical trial of MBSR combined with structured exercise, 41 participants ages 65–85 reported:
- Feeling stronger.
- Having better balance and flexibility.
- More confidence in walking without falling.
- More energy.
- Reduced back pain.
- Less stress and self-hatred.
- More patience, self-confidence and an improved outlook on life.
One participant was quoted saying, “I think a lot of it is self-confidence. Being confident of walking down the street and not falling down the stairs or street. It is because I have made myself more aware of myself.”
Mindfulness activities for older adults
Here are some mindfulness-bolstering activities for older adults to try from home or on the go.
Music and dance
Author and professional speaker Breeda Miller, 63, calls music her “secret weapon.” After her mother developed vascular dementia, she became her caregiver for six years right through hospice in her home. “There is something psychological in nature about music,” she says. “You can be stressed and in the midst of a battle of wills with your loved one, but if you can find a piece of music they love and can turn it on quickly with an Amazon Echo, it’s like a light switch goes off and there’s an immediate and amazing change in the environment.”
Research on engagement in activities such as music and dance have shown promise for improving quality of life and well-being in older adults, according to the National Institute on Aging – from better memory and self-esteem to reduced stress and increased social interaction. And both music and dance training have mindfulness components due to their focus on the present moment.
For many seniors, prayer is the meditation of choice. Miller’s mother, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland, found great comfort in saying the rosary every day. “It’s the repetition and thinking about the texture of the beads on your fingers,” says Miller. “To me, this is a form of meditation and mindfulness — where your focus is on one thing.”
Plus, research shows actively practicing religion in a group setting like in church can also help combat loneliness and improve life outlook.
Mindful walking has emerged as a potential intervention strategy to improve mental health and promote well-being. “There is data to prove outdoor mindfulness walking programs for older adults are highly valued and effective,” says Danilovich in reference to research published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity. “People keep doing it even in inclement weather.”
Among people over the age of 65, Danilovich notes one in four falls each year. These falls then contribute to physical decline, depression, and social isolation — all added stressors.
Evidence-based programs like chair yoga, which combines yoga techniques with Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR approach, can help older adults:
- Reduce their risk for falls.
- Improve their quality of life.
- Increase their overall physical functioning.
There are many opportunities to see what chair yoga is all about from your own home. (Chair yoga is about being adaptable, so it really doesn’t matter what kind of chair you use as long as it doesn’t have wheels).
Kimberlee Bethany Bonura, who holds a doctorate in sport and exercise psychology, posts chair yoga videos on her YouTube channel (you can also buy or rent her DVD Totally Chair Yoga on Amazon Prime Video). For any standing poses, she includes adaptations to make it a full seated practice accessible to most people.
Reading to yourself or listening to someone read out loud can be a crucial opportunity for mindfulness.
“After my mother came to live with us, I didn’t know what I now know and was buying books all the time,” said Miller. “But I was too tired to read them. I’d sit down and get through a couple pages and was out like a light.”
It’s from this place of lived experience that she wrote the tip book, “Caregiver Coffee Break – Take a Break Before You Break: 76 Practical Tips to Help Caregivers.” “I wanted to create a resource that would alleviate some stress and offer help in an accessible format. You can flip to any page, and there’ll be something that puts a smile on your face and links throughout the book to resources and organizations with more detailed information.”
Pew Research found that 61% of Americans 65 and older own and use a smartphone, where there are dozens and dozens of mindfulness apps to chose from. However, with so many choices, it’s hard to know where to start.
“When we look at the apps on the market the first question I’d ask yourself is, ‘What’s the most effective way I want to receive information?’ Not everyone likes to receive information in the same way. There is enormous variability in ability in interests among those 65 and older,” says Danilovich.
The most popular mindfulness apps out there right now are arguably Headspace and Calm, which by all accounts are some pretty perfect names for apps for their subject matter. (Try the free versions to see if it’s for you). The UCLA Mindful App can also help you develop a meditation practice and learn to bring more mindfulness into your daily life.
There is a learning curve with any new product or technology, and digital equity for older adults is a huge topic of concern. In a perfect world, we’d have older adults and their caregivers’ perspectives involved in the whole process (ideas, design, marketing, and distribution) to make tech more usable and helpful to those who need it most. Until then, continue to pay it forward by sharing what mindfulness tools and strategies have worked well for you.