Older Mind Matters

Strengths and weaknesses - resilience in later life

Recently the International Journal of Education and Ageing asked me to review a book on resilience*, which I took on my May windsurfing holiday in Minorca to finish reading. It dawned on me that there was a curious appropriateness about reading it there, surrounded by resilient people. I met a man of 86 who was windsurfing (but told me that he is not improving as much as he would like to!), and my group included a man who had deferred his hip operation in order to take a holiday and who left his stick behind on land to go on the water.

There were several definitions of ‘resilience’ in the book, including ‘the capacity to hang tough and bounce back when, inevitably, something bad happens’ (too American) and ‘successful functioning despite serious challenge or chronic stress’ (more down to earth and British).  I liked this one ‘the effective engagement of processes ... to offset the functional impact of age-related changes’ which suggests that there might be ways in which individuals could work on increasing their resilience. I hadn’t before thought about emotional, biological, cognitive and socioeconomic resilience. Personality and its influence is something I have often reflected on, and I’ve read a bit on what might be called ‘expert survivorship’. The book certainly made me think. I’m over-simplifying what I learned when I distil it down to something about giving strengths their proper weight and not being preoccupied with deficiencies and losses – but we so often are. Things that I already knew struck me with greater impact when put into the context of resilience. Perhaps I too have fallen into the trap of pessimism about later life or perhaps I participate in the ‘culture of prejudice-at-large’ (as the Gergens describe it in their chapter – their newsletter positive aging can be found here).

There are links between ideas of resilience and the Foresight Project. From both we can learn about the need to build resources and reserves across the lifespan. The Executive Summary of the Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Well-being can be found here and a page listing Foresight reports and publications here. Those of us working in older adult services need to help older adults maintain and develop their resources rather than colluding in removing them from the sources of their strength – those of us involved in training need to make sure we get that message across to students and trainees.

One of the quotations I’m going to take away from the book I read is from the chapter on the socio-emotional basis of resilience (p. 252), and it’s a message for us in our professional lives as well as for all of us as ageing individuals:

‘resilience is not about trees. It’s about forests.’

* New frontiers in resilient aging. Life-strengths and well-being in late life. Edited by P.S. Fry & C.L.M. Keyes. Published by Cambridge University Press in 2010. See it here

3 comments (Add your own)

1. David Jolley wrote:
That's the trouble with reviewing books or papers - You end up reading about and thinking about things which you could have happily let lie. Now you are troubling others to think on reslience: 'recoiling, rebounding; to recover form and position elastically'. That's the first half of Chamber's definition. Not really attributes associated with the older organism. Biologically ageing is characterised by loss of elastic tissue - all those ruptured Achilles Tendons amongst the Peter Pan's of the Squash Court. 'Bouncing' and 'rebounds' conjure up grotesque images of worn out punks still pogo-dancing in a cigarette smoke haze fuelled by alcohol and other sunstances. Not good for the older person.

The second half of the definition has more to offer:'able to withstand shock, suffering, disappointment etc.' That's what we need. I think your examples of well-preserved, probably fairly wealthy males strutting their stuff as unreconstructed athletic heros are instructive but they are not representing resilience as I would have it. Theirs is a brittle determination to deny the consequences of time and experience. The very incarnation of the 'active' miarge of successful ageing.

To keep doing things, keep learning, keep caring - all these are fine and allow inner growth of understanding and personal strengths. They are not threatened by nor do they threaten the endeavousr of others. Acceptance and sharing, finding that receiving can be as much a gift as giving. These are the nuts and bolts of resilience - always oneself at an inner core, bur prepared to mould and to be moulded by time and the needs of time.

Then again the value of remaining long on earth may not be the gain. Remaining long in memories and altered life-styles will have more enduring value

Fri, June 10, 2011 @ 3:28 PM

2. Susan wrote:
I agree with a lot of what you write Dave but I think there is a dangerous 'act your age' message that we need to beware of. People are staying fit later in life and some are able to enjoy activities which our grandparents would never have dreamed of. Giving up our passions and accepting a different life may be inevitable at some stage but carrying on with things we love for as long as we can is not necessarily 'to deny the consequences of time and experience'. There's a fine line to be drawn here and I think that people should be encouraged to demand more of themselves and their later years.

Tue, July 19, 2011 @ 12:47 PM

3. Michael wrote:
All very interesting comments as usual. Personally, I would like to continue to explore the battlefields of Flanders & the Somme and to research the sacrificed youth of a country now less interested in duty and respect. If I can no longer do this because my legs will not take me or I cannot afford the car tax on a Land Rover, there will always be a computer to fall back on and I hope I can continue to show the youth of today that experience, patience and cunning can counteract young reflexes... most of the time. However, I think Ada should have the last word:


Thu, September 29, 2011 @ 3:49 PM

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