Almost everyone has heard of or participated in a mindfulness or meditation experience. It’s a growing aspect of emotional self-care, physical improvement, and enhancing higher brain functions. For seniors, mindfulness and meditation can play a significant role in their overall well-being.
Stresses unique to seniors
Most seniors experience certain types of stress more often than other adults. They experience loneliness, grief, sadness, low self-esteem and a general search for meaning and purpose in life as they age. The current shelter-in-place orders compound the challenges they face since being social could expose them to a dangerous illness. Many deal with chronic pain and other health conditions on a daily basis. Life can feel out of control for older adults and can easily overwhelm someone who is declining in health or mental capacity.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Seniors who practice mindfulness or any type of meditation find that they can face life challenges with grace and improve their sense of resiliency. It helps seniors face what is happening in their life when it seems out of their control.
Physical and mental benefits to seniors
Here at Center for Elders’ Independence, two of our experts weigh in on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness as they see our participants grow in their practice.
Our resident chaplain, Preston Becker leads a weekly meditation session via Zoom. He notices “their bodies and spirits becoming lighter and refreshed. I see their shoulders drop, faces become softer and relaxed as we move through the meditation.” Becker uses a weekly theme to help focus attendees’ thoughts.
Physically, slowing down breathing slows down much of the body and brain. Blood pressure lowers. The body relaxes and tense muscles release. Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline become better regulated. Oxygen increases as the blood circulates more efficiently. As the body shifts, the brain follows. Contrary to logic, the brain instead of shutting down, actually is stimulated increasing alertness, attention and engagement. In that state, the brain gets creative.
Dr. Samina Khwaja, a primary care physician here at Center for Elders’ Independence, says, “There appears to be improved circulation in certain parts of the brain in people who regularly meditate. Stress can take over our brains and make us reactive, whereas regular meditation helps the brain calm down and allows us to think more clearly. We can increase our ability to respond to situations rather than just react impulsively.”
This is a huge benefit to older adults, helping them respond with feelings of empowerment as they tackle life changing situations or need to focus on financial challenges. “It’s like being in a river without a boat when we simply react and go along. With meditation, we can actually direct our thoughts with confidence and assurance,” shares Chaplain Becker. “Meditation gives us access to the boat and oars we all have inside.”
As people control their breath, their faces and shoulders relax. The mind quiets and feelings of peace and empowerment are generated.
Breathing impacts emotions
Just as our bodies are in constant communication with our brains, our breath is deeply connected to our emotions. As emotions rise and intensify, so does our breath. Deliberate and focused breaths are the fastest and most effective way to gain control over those racing thoughts and anxiety.
Dr. Khwaja explains, “As we take a deep breath, we push down the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a large muscle separating the chest from the abdomen, and contains branches of the vagus nerve. When we breathe slowly and deeply, this activates the vagus nerve, slowing down our heart rate, reducing our blood pressure and helps us relax. This brings us back to the present moment, where we can feel engaged and empowered.”
Even after one 10-minute session, seniors feel more grounded, feel deeper gratitude, and feel more able to cope. It’s as if sadness and loneliness melt away with each deep breath as they generate positive emotions for themselves and for others.
Difference between mindfulness and meditation
Meditation is a broad term to describe the practice of quieting the mind. It comes in a large variety of methods and ways to learn and explore. “Meditation, with regular practice, makes it easier to tune into what’s going on inside of ourselves and become more self-aware,” explains Dr. Khwaja.
Mindfulness is the practice of being fully in the present moment, not the past or the future. It can start with just being aware of all of the sounds around you or feeling the body sitting on a chair. It focuses the brain on something specific right in the present.
Dr. Khwaja continues, “This sounds simple, but in the beginning, most people are surprised to see just how easily our minds tend to wander, which is quite normal. However, with regular practice even once a week, it becomes easier to focus and get into a calm, relaxed state.” She went on to highlight that if a senior has trouble falling asleep, lying down to either be mindful or meditate is an effective way to promote a calm state to fall asleep more easily.
While meditation is not a religion, people often find putting their hands in certain positions helps them center and focus on their breath.
Is meditation a religion?
Some people, however, get concerned that meditation replaces their religion or is somehow undermines their beliefs and traditions. Chaplain Becker clarifies, “What is really cool about meditation and mindfulness is that it is a practice that fits in the framework of many spiritual traditions and with people who do not identify with any particular tradition. In fact, many major religions incorporate ways to focus on a certain religious aspect, whether this is through prayer, rosary beads, singing, or partaking in a sacrament. Meditation, mindfulness and religion actually go hand-in-hand.”
Dr. Samina Khwaja agrees. She has been part of several meditation groups where many people from many different faith backgrounds come together to meditate. “Meditation is available to anyone who wishes to learn as it provides many health and mental benefits. Group settings offer the added benefit of support as everyone shares the experience.”
Mary Barry, a CEI massage therapist, leads a body scan meditation. Body scan meditations are useful for relaxing the entire body one area at a time. This can be particularly used at bedtime.
There are many high quality ways to practice and learn mindfulness and meditation. With the current shelter-in-place orders, many groups now meet online with a computer or tablet. Center for Elders’ Independence hosts several meditation groups weekly via Zoom and at the activity centers for its members. But that might not always be convenient. A search of “mindfulness for seniors” or “meditation for seniors” on YouTube offers a wide range of options with different time lengths and methods. One can also download apps for their smartphone to listen to whenever or wherever is convenient, even at night.
Meditation and mindfulness offer a large number of benefits for emotional strength and improved brain performance, and they positively impact the body. It’s generally free to do and results can be felt immediately. You don’t have to twist yourself into a pretzel to practice; simply sitting and deeply breathing is all that is required.
Chaplain Becker concludes, “The only prerequisites are ensuring your body is comfortable and your heart is open. Meditation is truly for everyone.”
The East Bay Senior Independent
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