Bringing Mindfulness to Seniors

Senior man lying down on grass“Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant with the weak and wrong. Sometime in your life, you will have been all of these.” —Buddha

I love this quote, as it reminds me that we will all pass through all the ages (assuming we make it to old age) and can relate to each stage even if we have not yet arrived there. I would suggest that we could amend the quote to include these suggestions for ourselves:

Resolve to be tender and compassionate with yourself, sympathetic when you are striving for something, and tolerant of your own weaknesses—even when you are weak or wrong.

How lovely it would be if we could all embrace these qualities in ourselves. How much more might we enjoy our lives as we age, accepting our changing bodies, minds, and environments?

As I discussed in my previous article, getting seniors into therapy is challenging for many reasons (including some excellent points added by readers!). Once they are engaged in the process, however, I have found that introducing mindfulness can be incredibly effective. In my experience, many seniors can be fatalistic about their abilities to change themselves or their circumstances. Helping them recognize the power of their reactions to things may offer them a tool to deal with the felt sense of losing control. Learning to step back from emotions and evaluate with a witness consciousness may provide just enough of a sense of control that they may experience change—even progress—and feel hopeful about the future.

Much of the suffering that I observe in those who age less gracefully is evidenced by a sense of feeling stuck and an inability to think or act on their own behalf. Just introducing a simple yogic breath (a three-part breath and 1:2 breath, for example) can have such a calming and quieting effect that people are surprised by its impact. Once quieter, the person can then choose which emotions, thoughts, or actions to allow, and which to let go. For many elders this is a novel concept and one which is mostly greeted with appreciation.

Seniors can often be plagued with nostalgic memories, both good and bad, that haunt and predict their behaviors even though those events happened years ago. This can be compounded by memory loss and dementia. In learning to step back from their feelings, they can become more active in their current lives, more engaged, and less ruminant. Of course, the more engaged they are in general, the less likely they are to experience depression and feel stuck.

For many, this approach may be a challenge given the amount of physical and sometimes emotional suffering they are experiencing. In this case, being in the moment may seem much less attractive than remembering better days in the past. But just the simple notion that you can learn to quiet your busy brain (Buddhists call this the monkey mind) can introduce a lot of hope into an otherwise hopeless climate.

A few resources for beginners to explore: John Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are (either in book or CD format) and Everyday Zen, by Charlotte Joko Beck.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lillian Rozin, LCSW, MFA, RYT, Aging and Geriatric Issues Topic Expert Contributor

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  • evie

    July 15th, 2013 at 9:53 PM

    it surprises and amazes me to see people who can regulate their feelings so effectively.they are in total control of themselves.maybe I’m a little erratic I just can’t seem to get that level of control no matter how hard I try.

    have wanted to try meditation for quite sometime and mindfulness sounds like meditation too.would be a great option to try and work with.I hope to gain effectively from mindfulness.

  • Alex p

    July 16th, 2013 at 4:14 AM

    What a wonderful quote to begin this piece with.

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