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By Marcy Shoemaker, Psy.D., Abramson Center Psychologist
I consider myself fortunate to be a psychologist who works with geriatric clients from 65 to 102 years old. I continue to learn important life lessons, like how to enhance relationships, survive economic and health challenges, maintain independence, how to handle constant change throughout one’s life. My colleagues and I have been inspired by our clients’ problem solving skills as they conquer life’s adversities. Working with and getting to know them has been a gift. They provide an ongoing education that I greatly value. Here are some lessons that I have picked up over the years.
Many senior citizens are extremely resilient individuals. They have gained strength and resilience from experiencing and surviving pivotal periods in history, going through personal losses regarding loved ones, and because of changes in their lives that involve loss of independence and a new need to receive assistance from others. Many have experienced and survived the Great Depression and have participated in World War II, whether through active duty or as supportive family member. Other clients have experienced expulsions from foreign countries and the losses of spouses and siblings. The survival skills acquired by many seniors can be applied in today’s world when dealing with economic crises and chronic health problems.
Many seniors have decided to seek assistance from others due to changes in their health while maintaining their independence. They have told me that you often need to redefine your definition of independence as you experience life changes. They feel it is an adjustment period that occurs when you are faced with a change in independence due to a fall, recovery from surgery or living with a chronic illness. Many have discussed their need to attend a rehab facility and also accept home care in order to maintain their current lifestyle. They have also told me how important it is for them to maintain their interests and independence during and after rehabilitation by maintaining contact with family and friends and pursuing hobbies. No matter what change and struggle my clients have gone through, their resilience throughout their lives has impressed me.
Many seniors advise me that the secret to a healthy life is participation in activities, especially those that involve learning and exercise. Many forms of exercise are available for individuals who are wheelchair bound, experience chronic pain or have limited ambulation. Involvement in word games is often a popular way for seniors to strengthen vocabulary skills and many researchers believe they can help maintain cognitive skills. Many seniors embrace technology and use computers to stay connected with their grandchildren, family and friends via e-mail and programs like Skype and Facetime. Discussion groups, often located at senior centers or medical adult day facilities, where seniors can review books and talk about current events are also popular activities. Staying active is a critical way of maintaining a positive outlook for many seniors.
I often helpful ask my clients their secrets to living a happy life. Some seniors credit their optimism to a role model in their lives, strong connections with family and friends, a predisposition to happiness, or to making an active choice to become a positive individual. Involvement in spiritual and/or religious practices is often stated by many seniors as an important way of maintaining their optimism. Involvement in relaxation exercises is another component of a positive life embraced by many seniors. Others feel that it is crucial to engage in socialization, which may include watching their favorite sports with others, talking on the phone with friends and family, and not eating alone. Often many find purpose and happiness in dedicating their time to helping others. One surprising lesson learned was that you can change your attitude in life from a negative to positive one no matter what your age. Every senior questioned about their secret to a long life stated that they didn’t always look at life in a positive way. They felt that change can happen by challenging your negative thoughts, having a purpose, counting your blessings, maintaining and developing relationships, and learning new things.
Senior citizens are a vibrant and growing group who can contribute a great deal to our society. By listening to their stories, we can learn how to make it through the difficult times with strength and resiliency and enjoy the good times with positivity and grace. Interested in spending time with senior citizens? Get information on volunteering at the Abramson center now.