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Senior Living Communities Practicing Mindfulness

Sarah Stevenson
By Sarah StevensonMay 12, 2014
Senior Living Communities Practicing Mindfulness

More and more assisted living communities are offering classes in mindfulness meditation, a practice medically shown to reduce physical, emotional and mental distress, and promote good health.

Senior Living Communities Practicing Mindfulness

What if it really is possible to “be more Zen” about aging? There is an ample — and rapidly growing — body of evidence indicating the positive health outcomes resulting from yoga and meditation for seniors. Not only does yoga promote physical health and mobility, simple meditation practices like mindfulness are proven to have a wide range of physical and mental health benefits, from increased longevity to improvements in one’s ability to manage stress and chronic pain. More assisted living communities are bringing these alternative health practices to their residents through their in-house wellness programs, resulting in improved quality of life, better emotional health, and even an increase in social interaction.

What is Mindfulness Practice?

While mindfulness draws from aspects of Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice, much of the mindfulness meditation that takes places today is based on the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, pioneered in 1979 by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. What that means is, mindfulness meditation is not a religious practice, but a way of fostering a particular outlook on existence. It can be practiced by anyone, of any spiritual tradition, or none at all.

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“Mindfulness is a way of learning to relate directly to whatever is happening in your life, a way of taking charge of your life, a way of doing something for yourself that no one else can do for you — consciously and systematically working with your own stress, pain, illness, and the challenges and demands of everyday life,” according to the MBSR program at UMass Medical School. “Restoring within yourself a balanced sense of health and well-being requires increased awareness of all aspects of self, including body and mind, heart and soul.”

The benefits — for seniors, for caregivers, and for everyone else — include decreases in physical pain and other symptoms, reduced stress, and increases in relaxation, energy, self-esteem and even cognitive functioning.

Practicing Mindfulness: The Benefits for Seniors

Seniors in particular have been the focus of many scientific studies on the benefits of mindfulness meditation and similar practices that encourage self-awareness and stress reduction. As early as 1989, researchers found that transcendental meditation (TM) and mindfulness were effective in improving a range of health measures in the elderly, including mental health, blood pressure and cognition. A Canadian study in 2005 further supports the beneficial effects of TM, showing that elderly people who practiced TM actually reduced their health care expenses over a period of five years, compared to a control group.

The physical effects of mindfulness meditation are just as astounding — and mindfulness has the added benefit of being low in cost and straightforward to teach, even to people with dementia. Here are just a few of the benefits for seniors:

  1. Mindfulness boosts the immune system. In a 2012 study at UCLA, older adults who completed an 8-week mindfulness meditation course showed lower levels of inflammation, an immune reaction which can lead to a number of health problems. A similar UCLA study on caregivers revealed that yogic meditation can also reduce the inflammation response.
  2. Mindfulness slows the progression of disease. Another UCLA study in 2008 showed that mindfulness meditation can slow the loss of immune T-cells that is a hallmark of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Additionally, the mental engagement that is encouraged by mindfulness also has a protective effect against cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
  3. Mindfulness reduces stress and depression. Buddhist walking meditation, in addition to increasing fitness through physical activity, also helped depressed elderly patients reduce their emotional distress, reports a 2014 study in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
  4. Mindfulness reduces loneliness. In Brain, Behavior and Immunity, UCLA researchers reported, “the two-month program of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which teaches the mind to simply be attentive to the present and not dwell in the past or project into the future, successfully reduced the feelings of loneliness” in older adults. Loneliness has been linked to poor mental and physical health outcomes.
  5. Mindfulness slows down the aging process. Telomeres—the caps at the ends of our chromosomes—are known to be a marker of physical aging: they shorten as we get older, and in response to stress and disease. In 2009, the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences reviewed numerous studies on mindfulness and other practices, concluding that the reduction in negative emotions and stress hormones promoted by meditation seems to protect telomeres and promote cell longevity.

Mindfulness in Assisted Living Communities

With all of that encouraging research in mind, it’s no surprise that more and more assisted living communities are offering complementary practices like meditation and yoga to their senior residents.

“Our goal is to provide residents and their families with the resources and services that can best be of help and/or improve quality of life,” says Barb Bossi, Sales Advisor for Leisure Care’s MacKenzie Place community in Colorado Springs, CO. “We had a local trainer of Mindfulness that was offering the class and we happily agreed to offer them a meeting place and offered the class to our residents and their families.” Massage therapy and acupuncture are also among the complementary health offerings at MacKenzie Place. They hope the success of programs like these will lead to additional opportunities to increase senior health and happiness.

It’s not only residents who benefit, says Bossi.

“Often times the Mindfulness training is most effective for caregivers of dementia… as that road can be long, painful and draining.”

If there’s one takeaway from all this, it’s that anyone can enjoy the positive effects of mindfulness training: seniors, caregivers, the chronically ill, people in emotional or physical pain. Many assisted living communities are beginning to approach senior health in a way that includes more holistic health practices like mindfulness, and this can only benefit our aging loved ones and our own selves.

Have you or a loved one tried mindfulness meditation or another type of meditation practice? What do you think of the latest research on the positive health benefits of meditation? Please share your stories in the comments below.

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Sarah Stevenson
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Sarah Stevenson

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