Elizabeth Newman
Elizabeth Newman

Having a positive attitude in aging makes seniors more resilient under stress, according to new research.

Well, I thought, that’s easy for the researchers to say.

My low threshold for positive attitude pushiness developed largely due to professionally and personally living in the world of cancer patients for many years. I developed an eye twitch whenever anyone told a person going through chemotherapy to “keep your spirits up.”

I understand good intentions. But many illnesses, cancer included, are caused through biology misfiring, environmental circumstances, broken genes and plain old bad luck. Often people who talk about positive attitudes want the sick person to make THEM feel better, or because they believe negative thoughts or anger might throw off the body’s chi, or something like that.

However, this study, out of NC State University and published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, is different because it’s not looking at whether positive or negative attitudes make seniors healthier, per se. It’s looking at whether older adults were more resilient. Resilience is about adapting when life throws you for a loop.

In the study, close to 50 adults between ages 60 and 96 filled out a questionnaire for eight consecutive days. They were asked questions such as whether they felt as useful now as they were when younger, and about their levels of happiness. It also examined negative emotions, such as distress or irritability. They evaluated how optimistic the study participants were or whether they saw benefits around aging.

Those seniors who were more positive around aging were more resilient when stressed, while those who were negative didn’t handle it as well. Long-term, this may help us understand the role of stress in, for example, cardiovascular heart risk.

“This tells us that the way we think about aging has very real consequences for how we respond to difficult situations when we’re older,” says Shevaun Neupert, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at NC State and senior author on the paper. “That affects our quality of life and may also have health ramifications.”

How can we help seniors in long-term care develop strategies for resiliency? As the American Psychological Association notes, making connections is important. Creating social events helps residents exit their rooms and develop relationships. Making friends can be tough at any age, but as providers you can create the circumstances.

Next, residents may not recognize their own resilience, but talking to them about how they survived divorce, widowhood, illness, loss of a job, natural disasters or any other crisis may remind them of their inner strength.

Even outside of faith-based organizations, those faced with tragedy often discover a deeper sense of spirituality, which strengthens their resilience. Whether it’s offering a session on meditation, Bible study or Hebrew lessons, explore what would be of interest to your residents.

Offering them a chance to write is another option. People often work out their feelings through private journals, but they might also enjoy writing groups where they can share their work. That’s also true of art: People can sometimes express their anger or frustration through painting or drawing. Don’t push residents to create art that you think is pretty.

Direct caregivers also can encourage seniors to look beyond the immediate crisis. This comes naturally to many in the form of “you’re going to get better.” But therapists or nurses also can encourage residents to think about goals, no matter how small.

For example, a lack of mobility often hinders residents’ quality of life. But light exercises or goals around walking or moving can often increase confidence. For rehab patients, it can be walking in order to be able to walk their granddaughter down the aisle. Long-term care residents may want to perform specific tasks with their arms. Whatever it is, skilled nursing providers can help residents develop healthy strategies.

More research is needed on the direct link between attitude and physical health. But in the meantime, when you push residents to recognize their resilience, you may find improvement in their overall well-being.

Follow Elizabeth Newman @TigerELN.