Aging is a gift, and is also no easy task for anyone involved. It can bring chronic pain, memory loss and physical changes for older adults, not to mention the added stress and burden put on loved ones and caregivers. No matter how gracefully you age or how genuinely you want to care for the older adults in your life, there’s one thing that remains the same – aging can be stressful.
Medications, resources and support groups are a valuable lifelines for older adults and caregivers, but even these becomes another thing to add to the long list of new to-do’s. But there’s one practice that can strengthen every aspect of your physical and emotional wellness with even just a few minutes a day: Mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the practice of being present and fully engaged in the current moment. It involves paying attention to your thoughts, emotions, and sensations without judgment.
Lucia McBee, LCSW, MPH, CYI, is an author, researcher, teacher and consultant who has spent the last 35 years of her career helping older adults, high-risk populations and people with chronic conditions find relief through mindfulness and alternative medicine. She first understood the importance of mindfulness for older adults while working as a social worker in a nursing home early in her career.
“I had seen the way chronic pain affected their quality of life,” says McBee. “I didn’t want to believe that there was no way to help except for medication – especially medication that came with harsh side affects.”
She began teaching mindfulness practices to groups in the nursing home, and over the years, she began to be able to adapt the teaching for older adults, people battling other conditions and caregivers. The key, she says, it to approach mindfulness in a way that invites people to take part in the practice, regardless of their beliefs, experiences or preconceived notions.
“When I first started, I was careful about my language,” says McBee. “I didn't call it meditation. I didn't call it yoga. I just said gentle stretching and quiet sitting. I used language that everyone could relate to.”
Mindfulness doesn’t have to look like the typical sit-in-a-quiet-room-with-nothing-but-your-thoughts situation. Meditation can be a great intro to this practice – It involves focusing your attention on a specific object, such as your breath , to pay attention to the present moment- taking a break from worrying about the future or past – but it’s not the only way to hone your practice. Any moment where you can put a little extra attention – and intention – is mindfulness, she says.
“I remember one group, someone had walked in with plate of cookies,” says McBee. “So, we did an eating meditation. We took the time to fully experience what we were eating. It’s about working with what you have and being present, no matter what the moment is.”
Beyond the physical benefits, there is a spiritual component to mindfulness. Traditionally, it’s rooted in Buddhism, but really, the spiritual aspect can apply to any religion, says McBee. That can be particularly meaningful for older adults.
“One participant likened the experience to lighting candles on a Friday night – a comforting and peaceful ritual,” she says.
Its effects aren’t just for show — there is significant research that shows the short and long-term affects of mindfulness on older adults and caregivers.
“Stress is contagious,” says McBee. “In the nursing home, when a resident was stressed, they passed it to everyone — to other residents, the caregivers, the families. And when caregivers are stressed, that is perceived by those around them, even those with cognitive loss.
But calm has the same effect, she says. “I found that I could only control my own presence, my own equanimity,” she says. “When I showed up with calm and patience, that became contagious too. Because it’s in your demeanor, not just your words. This was especially valuable while working with older adults with dementia. They didn’t know what I was saying all the time, but they always understood my presence.”
Mindfulness and meditation can be powerful tools for managing stress and improving well-being for older adults and caregivers alike. By adapting teaching methods and incorporating short practices into daily life, these practices can be accessible and effective for everyone, regardless of age or cognitive ability. Taking care of oneself is crucial in providing quality care to others, and mindfulness is an excellent way to do just that.
“It’s about finding short pockets of time in your life for mindfulness,” says McBee. “That’s hard to say to a caregiver who is working 24/7, but there are ways to incorporate short practices into a busy life. Everyone has 3 minutes a day to just sit and breathe.”
“Because if you don’t,” she adds, "it will affect everyone around you – worse of all, yourself.”
About Lucia McBee.
Lucia McBee, LCSW, MPH, CYI has worked for over 35 years with elders, high-risk populations, and persons with chronic conditions as well as their caregivers in a wide range of community, research, and institutional settings. During this time, she developed a pioneering practice using mindfulness as well as other complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) modalities to improve the quality of life. She is currently a freelance author, teacher, consultant and member of COHME’s Board of Directors.