I was visiting Jane, who lives in a nursing home. Jane is 94. She tells me, rather nonchalantly, that she will die in her bed. She can no longer get out of the bed.
I ask her why. She says it is too painful to move. She sees my look of concern and tells me that it’s okay, that it is her choice.
We chat for nearly an hour.
She worked for a government agency, one of those agencies that takes you around the world. She lived in Europe and Africa. She was an avid skier.
She asks me at one point what it is like outside today. She is now living in a bed.
She is resilient.
The human spirit prevails.
Our paradigm of aging sometimes tells us that aging is about weakness or that older people are weak. I imagine that, if you read her medical chart, it would seem that Jane is “frail”. We often use the term “frail” to describe elders. Yet, it does not properly acknowledge the resilience that older people show on a regular basis, in various ways.
On the other hand, so often when we talk about resilience and growing older, we focus mostly on elders who are “healthy”, “active”, etc. Certainly they can be resilient, but in my mind, not because they are “healthy” or “active”. They are resilient because of how they adapt to their past and current life experiences.
How they show up in life, even when they cannot get out of the bed.
I want to stress the point that people living in nursing homes, people living with dementia, people who are not 98-year old weightlifters are also resilient. This is the invisible resilience that we might not see. So I want them to be seen.
To think that any older person is weak is somewhat ridiculous, when you think about it.
I used to do a lot of work in Veterans’ nursing homes. Many of those men and women were challenged physically, emotionally, and cognitively. But I cannot imagine calling them weak. As I spoke with men who were in the Battle of the Bulge, and women who served as combat nurses, I could only think of resilience.
Other examples of resilience that might not be seen:
A woman who just lost her husband after 70 years of marriage accepts my invite to my wine club. It is the first time she has gone somewhere alone in several years. She is not weak. She is resilient.
A man with dementia tells me that it is worth having this disease if he can make a difference by creating awareness about it. He is not weak. He is resilient.
A woman with dementia yells “Help me” to each person who passes her by, because she is lonely and wants human connection. She is not weak. This is resilience.
Resilience can be quiet and invisible. So we might only see weakness, when resilience is really there.
We seem confused about what resilience is and what it looks like.
While we often confuse resilience with strength, they have different meanings. While strength might be thought of as something unflinching or unmovable, these qualities are static. Resilience is a dynamic process of adaptation and elasticity. There is thoughtfulness in resilience. It is imperfect. It involves active thought and maybe reckoning. I like to think it even requires curiosity – of oneself and how one is interacting with the world. Resilience implies growth. In other words, the opportunities for resilience continue throughout life.
It is interesting to me that, in many definitions of resilience, it specifies that resilience is the ability to bounce back “easily”. The “easily” part of this definition confuses me. I think most of us would agree that becoming resilient is quite hard. If we bounce back from something, and it is not easy – it is hard – does that mean we are not resilient? I don’t think so. Isn’t resilience something you work at? I am quite sure it is not “easy” for Jane to live in her bed. Yet, she is surely resilient.
Perhaps we need to reframe the idea of resilience.
I think elders are the experts at being resilient.
Perhaps this is true by the very nature of acquiring more life experiences through growing older – there simply are more opportunities to be resilient. However, perhaps it is also due to the unique challenges and opportunities in “being old” that encourages resilience.
When we think about resilience, we might often think of it in reference to something that happened in the past. A person survived cancer. Or, a person overcame the death of a loved one. Indeed, this is resilience. There is also the resilience of the present, however. How a person shows up every day.
So, perhaps elders are particularly resilient because of what they have experienced, as well as resilient for what they are experiencing now, and will experience.
It is important to emphasize that resilience takes many forms. For Jane, her resilience is in her unending curiosity for learning about others, and sharing her story. For someone else, it might look quite different. This does not make the resilience any less. Maybe we have to pay attention to it more.
I am thinking of various people I have known who were at the end of their lives. Many of them could no longer express themselves with words. Perhaps one might see these people and think they are “wasting away”. Could we consider them also as resilient? Could their resilience be in each breath they take, in how they are living in the world, yet leaving it? Could their resilience be in their gifts to us about the fragility of life, and the reality of death?
I am also thinking of elders I have known who do not leave their rooms or their homes. Who do not want to interact with the world anymore. For some, this might be their own form of resilience, the way in which they need to interact with the world on their own terms. In some cases this might also present opportunities for us to reach out and connect with people so that they can practice resilience, perhaps by providing them with opportunities to show up in ways that are safe and meaningful to them.
Elders demonstrate resilience in their physical challenges and changes. This is true for elders of all abilities. There is resilience in both the elder recovering from a hip fracture, as well as the elder running a marathon. There is resilience in the everyday challenges of bum knees, sore shoulders, or adjusting to changes in vision. There is also resilience in resting, in conserving energy for what is important. And resilience in dying.
There is resilience in living with the cognitive changes of dementia. As a person sees the world differently through the experience of dementia, they try to make sense of it. They are problem-solvers, rather than how we often label them as problem-makers. This is resilience.
There is emotional resilience too. This is resilience that seeks joy, connection, and love, as well as acceptance, loss, and grief.
How can we consider elders weak, when they show us their resilience all the time? What can we learn about the unique ways they experience resilience, and how they get there?
Resilience relies on vulnerability, not weakness. We commonly think of vulnerability as weakness. However, according to Brené Brown (social worker, researcher, author and my best-friend-although-she does-not-know-it-yet), vulnerability is actually courage. It is willing to show up and be seen in our lives. And this is the cornerstone of resilience, because it is only through showing up that we can dynamically experience life, and gain resilience. One cannot become resilient without being vulnerable.
I have reflected on this as I am in the midst of spectacular elders. Their vulnerability in having the courage to show up and be seen, despite challenges, is beautiful. Through their courage and resilience elders are revealing to us how to navigate some of the most fundamental and pure human experiences. The human spirit prevails.
The way elders “show up” might be subtle, and even unnoticed. Maybe it is when an elder first moves into a nursing home, leaving behind everything she knows. Maybe it is how she sits quietly to get back in touch with her self, when she feels like her self is at risk. Maybe it is when an elder has the courage to speak to her neighbor. Maybe it is the first time a stranger helps her with a shower. All of these instances reflect both courage and vulnerability.
“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”
― Brené Brown, Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
I think of Jane in her bed, being both resilient and vulnerable. She is vulnerable not because she is weak. Her vulnerability is in her willingness to keep showing up. She is not able to see the world anymore. And yet, she keeps showing up to life. She lets someone like me come to her, and sit with her, so that she can maintain human connection, and be seen. I will admit that, at first, I was so sad to think of what she could no longer do. I was upset that perhaps they were not controlling her pain, or doing more for her. But then, when I considered the incredible resilience in what she could do, and who she was, and her courage to share that with me, that sadness turned to awe.
Vulnerability means daring to show up and be seen, “even” when you are living with dementia. Even when you are the only one in the dining room with a walker. Even when you state what you need, contrary to what everyone else around you thinks you need. Even when you are more reliant on others for getting through the day.
Even when you are never going to leave your bed.
This is what resilience looks like.