Though “transitioning” and “resilience” are oft-mentioned buzzwords these days, few people put them in the same sentence as “aging.” But that’s the whole raison d’etre for the Resilient Aging Lab, which encourages seniors to think in new ways about changes that come about with the passing years. The Lab’s mantra is: ‘Aging is inevitable, but aging well is a skill.” For those who feel stuck or scared by some aspects of the aging process, it offers some methodologies and tools aimed to help make needed shifts.
“Change is painful because you lose things,” acknowledges Cynthia Scott, a co-founder of the group, along with Michael Pearn and Clint Wilkins. That core team prides itself on its own track record of transforming ideas into action. Their tangible accomplishments include building schools, creating award-winning programs, writing a number of books, and launching successful products and international businesses. They’ve now embarked on shaping and sharing their experience with their clients — all of whom, they point out, are also aging.
While their urging to seniors to “imagine a new story for your life and start living it” seems almost unrealistically perky at first, there is also a soothing reality about it: Every person who has reached a Certain Age has inevitably been through change before. “Resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary,” Scott says. “Think about it: At some point, you stopped crawling and started walking.”
Tapping Into a Mindset
As a starting point to thinking about transitions that come with aging, Scott urges older people to indulge in a bit of hearty self-reflection into how they feel about those transitions. A variety of positive adjectives are offered to get the thoughts churning, including ready, excited, playful, hopeful — as well as some that are less-than-positive: unsure, anxious, apprehensive, confused. Scott underscores that seniors, who have a few miles under their tires, are uniquely equipped to do this type of self-assessment. “It doesn’t work well with young people, because they simply haven’t experienced much,” she says.
She also describes two personas that represent composites of the seniors typically striving with aging transitions. One is “Julie,” a woman who came of age as part of the Sandwich Generation, stretched to divide caregiving duties between young children and aging parents, perhaps while holding down a job as well. As a senior whose parents have died and children are grown, Julie now has more freedom — but with that comes confusion and the need to make choices for herself she has not faced before. The other, “Mark,” was focused most of his life on work. A recent retiree, he suddenly feels like a failure. He nourished very few friendships and has virtually no interests outside of work, claiming that he “doesn’t know who he is without his business card.”
These personas, with all their gender-specific truisms, share a common feeling: They’re unsure about how to age well.
Building Resilience: The Five Cs
Resilience, which the Resilient Aging Lab claims is essential to aging well, has two meanings. One is the ability to recover, or bounce back; the other is to go forward, or act as a buffer. The definition, in Lab parlance, combines both meanings, as: “the ability to stay effective in the face of life’s challenges and setbacks, while staying positive about the future.”
The Lab also identifies a number of behaviors and steps as components of resilience — labeled as “The Five Cs” for ease of remembering.
- Clarity: the ability to tell a story that makes sense — even if you don’t like what the story says; to see what your life will be like as you age;
- Confidence: the ability to take on new risks and challenges — the notion that you will thrive;
- Control: how you make choices and participate, even if you don’t get exactly what you want — the essence of navigating transitions as you age;
- Connection: the social and emotional support you get from others; and
- Contentment: a hopeful outlook for the future — finding the glass half-full in the midst of half-empty.
Scott explains how resilience connects to transitioning: “Transitions, even transitions we want, disrupt our patterns and comfort levels,” she says. “You will be unhappy, uncomfortable, and probably a little grumpy as these life transitions occur. Part of resilience is being able to see ahead.”
Choosing a Personal Resilience Practice
With that comforting acknowledgment of their attendant grumpiness, Resilient Aging Lab workshop participants are led through copious exercises and worksheets aimed to elicit self-assessments, encouraged to look at the options that lie ahead, and guided in how to avoid common traps that are impediments to going forward. (The curious can also download a booklet, “Wake Up—Tune Up—Stand Up” that contains 12 specific practices to help with transition work on their own; a link is sent when you sign up for their mailing list).
As with many trying but worthwhile tasks, the hardest part is often getting started. To overcome this inertia, Scott prompts everyone to choose a “Personal Resilience Practice.” Emphasizing that change begins with small actions, and preventing that first step from feeling too overwhelming, she urges questing seniors to begin with “nano practices.”
She encourages them to come up with a small practice to build into their routines to help enhance one of the Five Cs: clarity, control, confidence, connection, or contentment. The practice should be something that makes them happy, that can be repeated over and over, and that motivates them to take action. For the fictional “Julie” described earlier, for example, it might be turning her well-honed caregiving skills to herself by attending a meditation retreat. For “Mark,” it might be enrolling in some adult education courses, in which he might meet other like-minded souls as he learns a new language or cultivates a new interest.
While focusing on a resilience plan, Scott encourages everyone to keep in mind that good news about aging: “You’ve been through transitions before,” she says. “You just have to help yourself understand how.”