For the last two centuries, Western seekers, philosophers and scientists have looked to Eastern spirituality to see what they could learn, and what could be adapted to culture in the West. An aspect of Eastern thought which has resonated in the West is mindfulness, and mindfulness meditation. Research indicates that it has the potential to make positive differences in the lives of seniors.
While mindfulness draws from many aspects of Buddhism, it is not a belief system but an outlook and way of being. In short, it’s a “be here now” approach to existence that is fostered through practicing meditation.
Mindfulness is practiced by Christians, Buddhists, atheists and everyone in between. It helps practitioners develop a more aware outlook in every aspect of their lives. People who practice mindfulness meditation report that they feel happier, less anxious and more spontaneous.
If you are interested in learning more about the practice, “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by renowned Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn is a great place to start. It’s written in a plain style where the genuine, unaffected compassion of the author is apparent. Designed for a Western audience, it describes mindfulness techniques and meditations that have been shown to benefit seniors (and all adults for that matter).
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Thich Nhat Hahn presents classic positions such as the lotus position alongside easier, alternative meditation positions (such as sitting upright in a chair with the ankles folded) that are easier for seniors. This allows people of all physical abilities to practice meditation and learn to adopt a mindful perspective. But mindfulness is not just about sitting and meditation.
The goal of mindfulness is to make life itself a meditation and to become mindful and in control in every waking moment, even in difficult or boring times – like washing the dishes, changing the cat litter, or commuting in a particularly congested rush hour.
Cheri Huber who is an experienced teacher of Zen meditation and mindfulness techniques has an answer for those who ask, “What do I get out of meditation? What comes next?”
“Nothing happens next, everything happens now. There is no next. Next is an illusion. When the time comes for the next thing to happen, it will happen now. Now is all there is.”
In other words, the goal of meditation is meditation.
Despite claims that “meditation is its own reward”, scientists have sought to determine if there are benefits of meditation and a mindful outlook that can be tested, demonstrated and reproduced. Anecdotal evidence just doesn’t cut it in serious science.
While not all the reported benefits of mindfulness lend themselves to being tested, many purported benefits can and were measured. Wide ranging research from respectable institutions and credible experts have shed more light on the benefits of mindfulness meditation.
Such benefits include:
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that there is evidence that elderly practitioners of mindfulness meditation and its cousin, transcendental meditation, experience improved longevity. The study followed a large number of seniors and found a significant decrease in mortality rates among those who meditate. Another way that meditation may improve longevity is through preventing cellular aging, a mechanism suggested in a National Institutes of Health study.
Mindfulness and meditation have also been found to decrease loneliness, or rather, “promote connectedness.” A UCLA study found that seniors who engaged in a simple eight week meditation program significantly decreased rates of self-reported loneliness. Since isolation is a crucial problem among seniors, this is a promising avenue of research. Researchers went on to hypothesize that, since gene inflammation has been linked to feelings of loneliness, meditation may in fact inhibit gene inflammation.
It’s never too late to learn to practice mindfulness. A study in Geriatric Nursingindicated that teaching mindfulness meditation and related techniques in senior communities can help improve resident health and feelings of connectedness.
A double-blind study performed at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center indicates that meditation and breathing exercises may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers believe that this may work by protecting the brain against anxiety and stress, which can worsen Alzheimer’s symptoms.
A study in Journal of Social Behavior and Personalityreportedly found that seniors who practiced meditation had significantly fewer hospitalizations. According to the study, the meditation group’s “five-year cumulative reduction in payments to physicians was 70% less than the control group’s [non-meditating group].
A study conducted in Thailand supplemented walking therapy for seniors with a meditation component. They found that seniors who engaged in the meditation component had significantly better outcomes than seniors who merely were in the walking group: “Walking meditation was effective in reducing depression, improving functional fitness and vascular reactivity, and appears to confer greater overall improvements than walking without meditation.”
Another UCLA study has looked at caregivers of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients and found that caregivers who engage in “in a brief, simple daily meditation reduced the stress levels of people who care for those stricken by Alzheimer’s and dementia.” Researchers added, “psycho-social interventions like meditation reduce the adverse effects of caregiver stress on physical and mental health.”
Have you seen improvements after practicing mindfulness?