It’s become a buzz-word in the NHS. People who have it do better in life than those who don’t. So what is it – this ‘resilience’? In physical objects it means having the ability to spring back into shape; and in people ‘the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.’ But it’s more than that.
We learn resilience through experience, in the way that toddlers learn to get up again when they fall down. When life is trying to flatten us and the going is tough, it helps to remember the times that we coped; how we got up again. But now and again we’re so thrown off balance we wonder if we’ll ever be able to bounce back again.
Many studies and many books have been written about resilience, and they’re helpful to a point … but don’t go deep enough. Because there are powerful words in the Scriptures, that speak to your spirit to lift you up, to steady you, to see you through. I’ve seen this with an elderly lady with dementia. She’d reached the stage where she could hardly speak, but her face was aglow as she listened to a visitor saying, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.‘ (Proverbs 3: 5-6)
A preacher and author has said that the key to resilience is applying Romans 8:28. ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.’ In all things.
Some of the least ‘tough’ people I know, those older, gentle, quietly-spoken types have tremendous resilience. It’s not tactics, it’s not techniques, it’s not following different customs – it’s trusting God and leaning into His promises.
Manchester is in the lead when it comes to innovative ideas for older people. It’s strategy is to make life as enjoyable and inclusive for them, and everyone else. It comes up with new ideas and events all the time.
One of its latest ideas is the Chat and Natter Table. Its website says*, ‘A Chatter & Natter table is where customers can sit if they are happy to talk to other customers.
‘We are looking for supermarket cafes, community cafes, large and small cafes to get involved so that just maybe we can make the Chatter & Natter table a part of everyday café culture.
‘A Chatter & Natter table brings people together and everyone is invited! If you’re on your own, in a couple, with a friend, if you’re a carer why not sit there with who you care for, mums and babies, dads and babies, grandparents and babies, young people, older people and anyone in between!
‘When you are deciding where to sit, look for the Chatter & Natter table and sit there! Stay for five minutes while you have your drink or longer. It’s not about making friends, just having good old fashioned human interaction!’
Isn’t that a brilliant idea? It could work all over the world. Owners could advertise ‘a Chat and Natter Table Inside’ and it would draw shoppers, mums, workers popping out for lunch, all sorts of people!
Perhaps you could put the idea out to cafes you know?
Unless you’ve been meditating on a mountain top with no transmission, you’ll know that Wales beat England 21-13 in the Six Nations rugby match last Saturday. Max Boyce probably wrote another song to commemorate it. In the crowd was an 82 year old who’d never been to a rugby match before. (Perhaps she moved into Wales late in life.) She said that meeting the team was wonderful, adding, ‘It will be hard to top that one. I’m 82 years of age and to have something like that happen to you at my age is amazing.’
But why should that be? Amazing happens at all ages. In my book, ‘What’s Age Got To Do With It?’ you can read about men and women in their nineties and more who are still doing ‘amazing’. Like 100-year old Bo Gilbert, chosen by a leading London designer for a Harvey Nichols’ advertisement for the 100th issue of Vogue Magazine. And the 101 year old Douglas Higgins, who wrote a book at the age of 100 to tell his story to others so that they too, might discover Jesus: and the 101 year old Doris Long, who abseiled down the Spinnaker Tower in Plymouth to raise funds for charity. When interviewed, she said she hoped the wind would be less buffeting next year. There are others too – and they are not exceptions. It’s just that we don’t hear about them, mainly, perhaps, because stories about older people don’t sell newspapers. On the other hand, every week on my social media pages others drop in at least two stories of ‘amazing’ older people.
Why is this important? Because we shape our lives on our expectations. Proverbs 4:23 says it well, ‘Above everything else, guard your heart; for it is the source of life’s consequences.’ In psalm 139 King David writes, ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!’
Nothing is impossible with God. I’m looking forward to ‘amazings’ until the day I arrive Home with Him, and then even more!
In his book, ‘Happy Ever After’, behavioural scientist Professor Paul Dolan says that we’ve been ‘lied to’ about what makes us happy. Speaking with Andrew Marr on BBC Radio 4 this week he said that it’s not success, or money, or status, that makes us happy. People at the top of the tree can be the most miserable. An example is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid of Dubai, one of the richest men in the world. These days his photographs in the press show a deeply unhappy face, so different to when he was younger. (I lived in Dubai for many years, was a journalist there, and met him a few times.)
Science journalist Linda Geddes talked about the effect of sunlight on our minds and bodies. Going for a walk in daylight increases the light value a thousandfold, and it doesn’t even have to be in full sunshine. Studies have pointed out the benefits of going for a walk, especially in the countryside where there are trees. Perhaps GPs should write walks in the country as part of their social prescribing.
Our mood is affected by our bodies, as well as our mind, said Prof Edward Willmore. He has studied the link between mental health and physical inflammation. Where there is inflammation the immune system in the brain can overreact and cause depression, he said. (Interestingly, researchers are studying this same inflammatory response as being a cause of Alzheimer’s disease.) He mentioned studies looking at whether taking anti-inflammatory medication could reduce depression. Stress is said to start an inflammatory pathway.
The most striking story was writer Laura Freeman’s account of how she cured herself of anorexia. Anorexia is a notoriously difficult condition to treat. She did it by reading books, she said, ‘books and books and filling my mind with good things.’ Which is exactly what the Bible tells us to do – fill our minds with good things.
I often think (and probably say!) that if we followed our Designer’s Handbook, the Bible, we would be a lot healthier and happier. ‘Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise,’ the apostle Paul told the believers at Philippi (Philippians 4:8, NLT). Note that he says FIX our thoughts. As a counsellor I found that many people believe they have no control over their thoughts, but we do. We can choose what we want to dwell on. Going over and over negative thoughts (ruminating) is a major cause of depression – ruminating, it’s called.
Surely, Paul summed it up best when he said that in every situation (and he found himself in some pretty horrible ones) he had learnt to be content. He had also learnt that he could do ‘all things through Him who strengthens me.’ He didn’t wake up one morning feeling content – he had to learn to be, rather like Laura Freeman, who filled her mind with good things.
Let’s do that this year, then! Let’s not look for this elusive happiness, but learn to be content, whatever …
‘Is it true that doing puzzles or crosswords won’t prevent metal decline’, asked James, talking to me earlier this week on Transworld Radio. (A good, well-balanced station – worth listening to.) He was referring to a news item in the media that day.
The answer, say the experts is no, they won’t prevent mental decline. Brain training games do what they say – they train in the techniques of the game, but they don’t boost cognition. (Though some say that games that train in shape recognition and spatial awareness can help, because they also help cognition.)
So what is meant by ‘cognition’? Cognition, says the dictionary, is ‘the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.’
At the risk of inflaming debate, that’s what I’d call ‘the mind’. And there’s strong evidence for ‘the mind’ being much more than the physical part of us we call the brain. For example, there’s still no medical explanation as to how someone whose brain is very damaged by dementia can suddenly come back to themselves for a little while. It’s like seeing someone emerge through the fog, and it’s not uncommon.
The experts say that we should develop a high level of cognition as early in life as possible, so that we have a reserve to see us through in old age. We do this through learning, reading, and in relationship with others.
How to boost cognition in later life?
First – enjoy the company of others as often as you can. Experts such as Professor Robin Dunbar, anthropologist at Oxford University, insists that our social interactions are more important than anything else. Our brains light up with synaptic connections more when we are face to face than when we are reading, or learning, and definitely more than our screen time.
Second – consider our Brain & Soul Boosting for Seniors programme. They do what they say on the cover. Group leaders give us such positive evaluations. The sequence of each session encourages engagement, affirmation, and building on participants’ life experiences to unpacking the Scriptures.
Thirdly – discover how sticking to a handful of key practices reduced the onset of dementia by 64% in the men living in a Welsh valley. Google ‘Caerphilly Study, BBC) and up comes a very readable report, with photographs.
Most importantly, we’d all benefit if we simply did what the Bible tells says – to renew the spirit of our minds. (There’s a good link here: https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-renewed-mind-and-how-to-have-it .) (Ephesians 4:23)
There’s so much stress and chaos in life today, and stress induces an inflammatory process that is now being researched as a cause of dementia.
Christmas is a great time for showing the love of God and telling the salvation story. It’s when you’ll see people who don’t normally come to church turn up for the Carol service, and often to church social events. Church members go to a lot of trouble putting up posters around town and invitations through letterboxes. The angels must smile at their warm hearts and their Christmas time outpouring of mince pies, cups of tea, cakes, goodness and kindness.
But sadly, there are many older people in every community who don’t respond to invitations like this. Research by Age UK found that nearly a million older people have a low view of themselves and their life rarely or never has any meaning. Many have absorbed damaging ageist attitudes.(1) They tend to be under nourished because they eat their meals alone and can’t be bothered most of the time. Some end up in hospital severely undernourished. In a leaflet on loneliness the Church Urban Fund said they are isolated because they have the wrong view of others, in other words, they fear they will be judged and rejected. Some great work is being done by befriending programmes where volunteers visit people who are referred to them by a GP or social agency, usually in crisis.
But there’s a programme that has been working quietly for some years now that can be a vehicle for reaching shy older people at grass roots level. Where individuals get to know each other and create ‘safe spaces’ for their older folk.
It’s called ‘Street Associations’ (SA) and has been working for some years in Birmingham. (Google ‘Streetassociations’). It sees lonely people drawn out and into community on individual streets. Neighbours get to know each other, and people build relationships. 98% of people surveyed said it had brought generations together and 99% said it had made their street feel friendlier. (See http://streetassociations.org/the- )
How would this work for churches?
Each Street Association is run by individuals on their own street. Someone gets the vision and forms a committee. They are sent a Starters’ Pack which explains the how-to and contacts with the organisation. Many SAs have been running for years now: streets where people once were anonymous and isolated are now communities where people smile as they pass and talk to each other. There are stories on the SA website of people who rarely spoke to others before their SA was started. They organise community events and generally work as communities used to work before they were fragmented by modern living.
For Christians it’s an opportunity to obey what Jesus said was the second most important commandment – to love your neighbour as yourself. It also follows Jesus’ pattern of going out to where the people are. It isn’t a church plant as such, which again, relies on drawing people in, and looks first and foremost to preaching the Gospel: it’s about individuals building relationships. Older people are best reached with the Gospel in relationship. If only a few people from a local church were involved in a SA on their streets they would quickly reach isolated older people in a natural, every-day, way. They would begin to see their value, and as relationships developed, be drawn to Jesus.
A couple saved up all year to be able to attend a friend’s wedding in a different part of the country. The invitation had said that their presence was more important than their presents, but ‘however if you do want to give us a gift can it be cash please?’ or words to that effect. It left them in a bit of a quandary because they couldn’t afford the travel and accommodation cost as well as a gift. They asked (on Mumsnet) which was the most important?
When it comes to the older people in your life there’s no question about it. Your presence will be more precious than gold. Because, while older people have accumulated many possessions, many have less of what matters most of old – relationships with others. One of the sad things about older people, a GP told me, is that they lose the cohort of their generation – the friends and people they have had in their lives.
So, buy gifts for grandma and grandad, but don’t spend much on them. Instead invest in spending time with them over Christmas. It may be that the best option is to have them stay with you. To make the most of it here are a few tips from former care home manager and psychogeriatric nurse, Janet Jacob:
Make them feel welcome and part of the family.
‘Make a fuss of them,’ says Janet. ‘It’s the little things that make a difference. A little chocolate on their night-stand, with a comforting Bible verse, and a cup of tea in the morning.’
It’s the same when you are visiting older people, in their own homes or in a care home. Janet advises, ‘Go and spend an hour with that person, help them to feel valued, not just a quick visit in and out. The gift of time – giving that time, sit with them, let them know that they’re valued – they are important, and they’re not forgotten.’
Whether at home or visiting, remember that older people benefit from spiritual support. Janet once took a box of ‘After Eight’ chocolates and wrapped a Scripture verse around each one. ‘They had a sweet taste on the tongue and on the heart,” she said.
It’s as this old song says – little things mean a lot! Https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zie4K70DZdk
A little stress is not a bad thing. A looming deadline is guaranteed to get me writing, and a little stress, now and then, boosts energy as you rise to the occasion. But having continual stress, even at minor levels, is so bad for you it can lead to chronic disease, according to researchers at Harvard University. They explored the question ‘What impact does stress have on the brain in physiological and cognitive terms?’ and reported their answer in the journal Neurology. They found that being stressed raises levels of the hormone cortisol, which causes inflammation. Several other leading research are investigating cortisol and inflammation and its effects on the brain’s immune system, which they suspect may be a cause of dementia. Harvard researchers found that consistently raised cortisol levels affects memory and causes the brain to shrink. Cortisol also affects the body’s sleep-wake cycles, blood pressure and the way carbohydrates, fats and proteins are metabolised.
Harvard’s Dr. Justin B. Echouffo-Tcheugui said ‘it’s important for people to find ways of reducing stress, such as getting enough sleep, engaging in moderate exercise, incorporating relaxation techniques into their daily lives, or asking their doctors about their cortisol levels or taking a cortisol reducing medication if needed.’
Staying closely connected with friends and family could be the most important antidote of all. A large Swedish study of people ages 75 and over concluded that dementia risk was lowest in those with a variety of satisfying contacts with friends and relatives. Churches with house groups, or life groups as they’re sometimes known, bring all good things together – cups of tea (and perhaps cake), a Bible study, (sometimes peppered with vigorous argument!) and fellowship and laughter. Other studies have shown that people regularly attending a place of worship tend to live longer than others.
There’s also the power of the Word of God, which we tend to forget. It’s not just words on a page (Hebrews 4: 12 – 13). God knew that in a fallen world there would be stress. Philippians 4:6 tells us not to be anxious about anything, ‘but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God,’ (ESV). And the following verse promises, ‘And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ Older people have usually lived through more experiences than younger, and and many will tell you how God took them through times of stress, and distress, with His peace. If you have older people in your church why not ask them how God brought them through the bad times?
Grandparents are GOOD for their grandchildren. Most of us know this, of course, as do our bank managers, but now it’s official. ‘Research shows that kids who grow up having a greater emotional closeness to their grandparents end up being far less likely to struggle with depression as adults,’ says research published by the Illinois Association for Infant Mental Health. ‘Raising your children near your parents and giving them the opportunity to form their own strong relationships is the greatest gift you could give them, it says.’ It helps them develop emotional intelligence (which gets you further in life than IQ), and also results in most grandparents involved like this living longer.
And the grandparent effect lasts a child’s whole lifetime. I’ve lost count of the times someone responds to the Gospel message with,’My grandmother used to say things like that,’ or, ‘My granddad used to take me to church.’ Talking about his career options with a 30 year old recently, I said how God had everything planned out for him, before he was born, even. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘My grandparents used to take me to church. They used to say things like that.’
Grandparents are just one of the reasons God designed old age. Our latter years are no mistake. They are full of purpose, and blessing grandchildren is one of them.
Christian providers of respite, residential, nursing and dementia care. Also retirement apartments for assisted living and for extra care housing, and fully equipped houses for missionaries' home leave.
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