Practicing Mindfulness as an Older Adult
There’s no question that caring for our physical health is one of our most important concerns as we age. But maintaining physical wellness comes with concerns and sources of stress that can leave us feeling worse for wear. Whether it’s a disheartening doctor’s appointment or worries about flu season, our stress can start to impact our overall wellness, and the strain on our mental health can put strain on our physical health. But how can we cope with stress, when it feels like such an inescapable part of daily life?
Self-care is frequently recommended as one of many tools to combat stress. Meditation, defined by Verywell Mind as “a set of techniques that are intended to encourage a heightened state of awareness and focused attention,” is one of the oldest techniques people have used to cope with stress, dating back to ancient times and embraced by cultures and religions around the world. According to research, meditation has many proven health benefits, such as stress and anxiety reduction, improved sleep, decreased blood pressure, and better regulation of emotions. It can even improve our brain health and memory, especially in regards to our alertness and the speed at which we process information.
What is mindfulness?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the originator of what is now known as the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Mindfulness is cultivated through meditation, and strives to help those who practice it:
- Focus on experiences rather than pre-made judgements and expectations
- Act with deliberation and intention, rather than on ‘autopilot’
- Be responsive to situations rather than reactive
- Increase awareness of all aspects of a situation, rather than automatically shutting out things that may seem confusing or unpleasant
Jon Kabat-Zinn identified seven necessary attitudes to the cultivation of mindfulness:
- Non-judging, the practice of being an impartial witness by avoiding snap judgements and reactions, and instead observing the situation as it is
- Patience, the ability to allow things to unfold at a natural pace
- Beginner’s Mind, the practice of setting aside experience and expertise to look at something with fresh eyes
- Trust in yourself, your intuition and your feelings
- Non-striving, the practice of setting aside a specific agenda, and simply being as you are
- Acceptance of how things are without judgement of whether things are good or bad
- Letting go of emotions, thoughts and anxieties you’re holding onto, and letting them be
How can mindfulness help older adults?
First and foremost, mindful meditation can be a way for us to take care of ourselves and a tool we can use to decrease our stress while keeping our minds engaged and active. According to research compiled by the American Psychological Association, benefits of mindfulness include:
- stress reduction
- increased focus
- a decreased sense of being controlled by emotions
- reduced dwelling over unhappy thoughts
Mindfulness can also serve to keep our brains sharp. According to research, meditation and mindfulness activates the part our brains associated with short- and long-term memory recall. This can make it easier for us to remember things that have happened to us recently, as well as our precious memories from long ago. Some studies have even shown that practicing mindfulness can slow the progress of Alzheimer’s or other forms of memory loss. Mindfulness can also help us look at our experiences with new eyes and be more aware of the emotions they cause in us, whether positive or negative.
Lastly, mindfulness can help us be more present in the moment, so we’re not letting the precious time we have with our loved ones slip us by.
How can we make mindfulness a part of our routine?
The good thing about mindfulness is that it’s both easy to fit into the schedule no matter how busy we may be, and not physically demanding, meaning anyone can do it, no matter our condition. Some programs even provide ways for us to practice mindfulness in group settings, such as through the Aging Mastery Program, which uses engaging sessions to encourage mastery of skills, such physical activity and communication, to improve our overall health. We can use National Council on Aging’s locator to see if the Aging Mastery Program is being offered in our area.
Here are just a few ways we can make mindfulness a part of your routine:
- Try PsychCentral’s 1-Minute Mindful Exercises, which include simple stretches and even a tasty mindful eating exercise
- Practice breathing techniques using this 3 minute exercise by emotional wellness platform Stop, Breathe & Think, or if you have a little more time, try this 20 minute guided meditation by The Mindful Movement
- Take a moment during whatever action you’re already doing in your day-to-day life to focus on the movements of your body, feel your breath and be aware of what is happening around you
- Visit mindful.org’s recommended guided meditations focused on different areas such as cultivating resilience, practicing non-judgement and shifting out of autopilot