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The Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation for Older Adults

The Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation for Older Adults

By Sally Abrahms for Next Avenue

I am sitting comfortably in my chair taking a course on mindfulness and meditation. Like those around me, I want to cope better with stress and feel more relaxed. But more than that, I am intrigued by my fellow “students.” After all, an assisted living facility is hardly your usual meditation venue.

Walkers and canes dot the room. Behind me is a woman in her 80s wearing a jaunty glittered cap. She is tethered to an oxygen tank that whooshes in and out.

The whooshing sound fades as I follow my instructor’s words: “Close your eyes. Now breathe in through your nose, then exhale, feeling the breath go from your shoulders to your rib cage and into your belly. If your mind starts to wander, and it will, simply let those thoughts float away and go back to the breathing.”

Many Benefits of Meditation

Our instructor is Bob Linscott from the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He believes that mindfulness and meditation, often referred to as “mindfulness meditation,” can help adults in their 70s, 80s and beyond come to terms with the challenges of aging.

Clearly, he’s a mind reader! The course, taught at Goddard House Assisted Living in a Boston suburb for either a four or eight-week session, is in such demand that it’s offered year-round. This abbreviated version is one hour as opposed to 2 1/2 hours per session of traditional mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) classes.

A bit of background: MBSR was created by world-renowned biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founding director of UMass Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness and its Stress Reduction Clinic. MBSR is offered at more than 720 medical centers, clinics and hospitals.

Why? Research shows the profound psychological and physiological benefits of meditation for reducing stress, depression, pain, and boosting emotional well-being.

Questions and Answers About Meditation

I asked Linscott to talk more about our course geared to older adults:

Q: What are some of the issues around “mindful aging” that meditation helps?

A: Everything! When people get older, they tend to ruminate: Am I going to run out of money? What will happen to me when I can’t stay in my home? Am I going to die alone? There’s worrying about how they will cope if their spouse dies first, going over and over a strained family relationship, or perhaps anxiety about burdening their kids with their care.

Meditation is like a pause button that breaks the cycle of worry. It can help older adults better accept their changing bodies or chronic pain. It puts them more in control of their lives.

Q: When people meditate, the focus is on the present. Why is that significant? 

A: Older adults often live in the future with their fears or get caught up in the past. With mindfulness, you can catch yourself and think, “In this moment, I am okay.” Meditation quiets the mind and is very calming.

That’s especially important because we live in a world that is so frantic and fractured by stimulus and technology, like smartphones. But there’s nothing that supports us to be quiet and still.

Q: So meditation is a different way of dealing with stress?

A: Yes! We used to think of stress as a life-threatening incident when the body has to prepare for fight or flight. But as we age, stress can also be ruminating and worrying. For younger people, day-to-day life is broken up by work, a spouse or commuting.

When you have all this extra time alone, it’s easy to ruminate. Meditation teaches us to let go of that and work with negative thoughts and how we react to stress. We learn new patterns of responding and that’s where we begin to see transformation.

It’s harder for older people because they’ve spent their entire lives with these patterns. Meditation helps them slow down and take a minute to react.

But along with that, it also teaches us to be kinder to, and less critical of, ourselves. What I’m hoping is that when people start rehashing some of their worries and criticisms, they will catch themselves and remember to be less judgmental.

Q: How are you seeing meditation’s impact in your classes?

A: There have been several situations where people have had significant health crises, like a brain tumor or prostate cancer. When I told them not to worry about attending class, they’ve said, “No, I need this right now” or “When I was in the ER, I wouldn’t let my mind think that I was dying and instead I stayed with my breath.”

One woman in my class used to be impatient when she drove. She said, “I used to be the 87-year-old woman who would honk at everyone. Now I’m the 87-year-old woman who breathes and smiles!”

Q: How does meditation work when you have mobility issues?

A: The reality is that as we age, we may have issues with balance, strength and agility. But with mindfulness meditation, you can do it all sitting in a chair regardless of mobility or ability. You can also do it anytime and anywhere — walking, standing in line with a walker or cane, lying down or sitting.

Personal Reflection on Meditation

I may not be in my 70s or 80s yet, but as I get older, I have become more anxious about the future. I also find myself rehashing some of the same stuff and the “If only I had. . .”

I find that I am more relaxed and calm after I have meditated. As someone in my class so aptly put it, “When I meditate I don’t know where I go, but I would like to go there more!”

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