Older Adults and Resilience: When Major Life Events Strike
By Luciana Mitzkun
Throughout our lives we all experience events that change the way we live and the way we think. Such events may be welcome occasions: completing college, getting married, the birth of a child, a job promotion, or receiving an award. Other life-changing events may not be so fortunate: the onset of an illness, an injury caused by an accident, losing a job, the loss of a loved one. Fortunate or not, these events have a profound effect on our lives, and we all must adapt to the changes they bring.
Resilience is an important factor in our ability to overcome misfortune and make the best of a situation. According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress (such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors). Resilience means “bouncing back” from a difficult experience.
Although levels of resilience vary from person to person, studies show that having caring relationships that offer encouragement and reassurance is a major contributor to building resilience. Other factors associated with resilience include:
- Being able to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
- Having a positive view of oneself and confidence in one’s strengths and abilities.
- Having good communication and problem solving skills.
- Being able to manage strong feelings and impulses.
Studies have also shown that resilience is more a process than a personality trait: We are all capable of improving our resilience as we age. Not surprisingly, older adults are the most resilient people, capable of overcoming a great number of adversities and living enriched and active lives, being with family and friends, and participating in a number of activities.
However, changes in cognition may affect resilience levels.
Cognitive impairment has a direct effect on a person’s relationships, ability to make plans, self-confidence, problem solving and communication skills, and impulse control, which are precisely the core building blocks of resilience! Cognitive decline in itself affects the ability to cope with stress and compromises one’s resilience.
Resilience being lower, you may see your loved one acting withdrawn, less sociable, perhaps even depressed. As a matter of fact, a person living with memory loss yet still able to conduct her daily activities may be derailed by a stressful event and begin showing signs of full dementia. Under stress, the lower resilience will cause cognitive symptoms to worsen and, in many cases, symptoms can worsen to dangerous levels very rapidly—in weeks, sometimes days!
This can explain why we frequently encounter families in shock as they face the emerging need for 24/7 care after a major life event, such as a hospitalization, the loss of a spouse, or a move to a new home. The inability to cope with a life-changing event can be a direct consequence of the cognitive impairment that may have already been progressing unnoticed for years prior to the event.
If you notice your loved one having difficulties rebounding from a misfortunate event, do not assume that this is a natural reaction to the severity of the disappointment: Have your loved one checked for cognitive functioning. A good neurologist should be fully able to differentiate between grief-related disappointment and dementia.
And keep in mind that a person with cognitive impairment may also be adversely affected by life’s happy events, such as the birth of a grandchild or a long-awaited trip overseas. The lack of ability to adapt to changes can also extend to welcomed events, inasmuch as these may disrupt or alter one’s regular routine and schedule.
Stay close to your loved one in times of changes. He will benefit from your loving presence, encouragement, and reassurance. Watch for unusual or prolonged signs of lower resilience such as insomnia, agitation, irritability, moodiness, depression, poor memory, and risky behaviors. Those may be signs indicating the worsening of cognitive impairment and a higher risk for dementia, so make sure he receives a medical evaluation. Finding appropriate medical care in a timely manner may be the best way to avoid a dementia-related emergency.
Luciana Mitzkun is a Memory Care specialist and the Director of Community Services at Villa Alamar. She is the author of Ahead of Dementia (a book for family caregivers) and Ahead of Memory Loss (a book for people affected with memory loss), which are available for purchase at amazon.com and at Villa Alamar. Luciana facilitates monthly workshops and support groups for family caregivers. Contact Luciana at 805 682-9345 for information about Villa Alamar services and other community resources for seniors and families affected with dementia related conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease.