Our so-called “Golden Years” can be full of joy: the pleasures of grandchildren, the freedom of a well-earned retirement, the wisdom and insight that come from age and experience. But aging can also be stressful, as seniors (and their children) deal with illness, the deaths of family members and friends, and the physical and mental changes that come with getting older.
Meditation and mindfulness are free, accessible and positive ways to deal with these stresses. You can help an elderly relative learn meditation techniques. (And if you’re stressed out by the challenges of caring for an elderly relative, meditation can also be a great way to help manage caregiver stress.)
Read on to learn more about meditation, its benefits, and how to start making it a habit.
What is meditation?
At its most basic, meditation is simply the practice of training the mind to increase awareness, attention, focus and calm. Mindfulness, which is often talked about along with meditation, is the ability to be present and engaged in the moment, rather than ruminating about past events or worrying about the future.
Meditation benefits for the elderly
Scientific research is showing that meditation and other mindfulness practices can be effective ways to help improve focus and ease the psychological symptoms of depression, anxiety and pain related to stress.
One of the biggest benefits of meditation is that it’s free. Yes, you can pay for meditation apps or courses, but there are also lots of no-charge, high-quality guided meditations available online.
Meditation is also accessible: if you can focus on your breath, you can meditate. It’s also very safe: You don’t need to be in great shape, and meditation is as gentle an activity as things get — which is a huge benefit to the frail elderly.
Can meditation improve Alzheimer’s and dementia symptoms?
Right now, no scientific studies have shown clearly whether meditation can improve or reverse the cognitive declines associated with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, or lower the risk of getting these conditions. But: Alzheimer’s, dementia and other cognitive conditions are stressful — so meditation may help seniors with these conditions (not to mention their caregivers!) self-soothe and alleviate some of that stress. And that certainly can’t hurt.
How do we begin? Meditation and mindfulness techniques for the elderly
People of any age can be intimidated by the idea of meditation. But meditation and mindfulness are some of the most accessible practices around. All you — or your parent — need is a place to sit, stand, or even lie down, a few minutes, and your breath. Here are some steps to get started:
- Find a comfortable place to practice: Images of meditation often show people sitting cross-legged on the floor, in Lotus position. And that’s great. But if the floor isn’t accessible to a senior with arthritic joints, any comfortable position will do: seated on a chair or a cushion, standing, or even lying down. Sit up as straight as you can, with your neck relaxed and your chin slightly tucked. Rest your hands loosely on your lap or your knees. Close your eyes if you’d like, or focus on a spot on the floor in front of you.
- Set a timer: There’s no need to sit for hours. Even 5 or 10 minutes is helpful. As meditation becomes more familiar, you can slowly increase the length of your meditation sessions. A short meditation, most days of the week, is more beneficial than trying to sit for an hour once a week.
- Notice your body: Pay attention to the sensations of your body — without judging them or trying to change them. Notice the temperature, the sensation of a breeze on your skin, any twinges, your itchy nose.
- Notice your breath: Focus on and follow the sensation of your breath. If you’d like, you can count as you slowly inhale and exhale.
- Notice when your thoughts have wandered: This is bound to happen. When you notice that your thoughts have strayed beyond your breath and body, gently bring them back.
- Don’t judge yourself: People often think that they are “bad meditators” because their minds wander. It’s a common misconception that meditation is about clearing your mind completely and entering some kind of Zen, enlightened zone. But there’s no such thing as an “good” or “bad” meditation. In fact, meditation is simply about noticing where you’re at and returning to the breath, over and over, with compassion and without judgement.
- Close with kindness: When your timer goes off, don’t just spring out of your chair and get on with your day. Take a few moments to notice your body, and your thoughts. Thank yourself for taking the time to focus on your own wellness. Try to take some of the calm and focus of your practice into the rest of your day.
Making meditation a habit
The more regularly you or your elderly relative meditate, the more benefits you’re likely to see. According to the Headspace meditation app, you don’t need to meditate every single day in a row (although kudos to you if you do). They recommend practising for 10 or 20 minutes at a time, at least three days a week.
If your elderly parent or relative has expressed an interest in meditation, you can help them schedule times in their week to practice. Better yet, commit to practising with them, in person, on the phone, or on Zoom, Skype or FaceTime. This can be a great way to connect with a parent, even if you don’t live close enough to visit in person. Siblings can use the CareEasy app to assign and schedule “meditation practice with dad.”
Consistency can help establish any habit, so it’s helpful to choose the same time and place to meditate each day. It can also help to know why you’re meditating: to reduce stress? To be calmer? To have less pain, sleep better, focus more? It’s easier to stick with the practice when you have a longer-term goal in mind.
Guided meditation resources
There’s no shortage of books, websites, apps and programs on meditation and mindfulness. Here are some places that seniors and their caregivers can start:
- Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness, by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Now in its second edition, this book is the foundation of the internationally acclaimed mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program. Many provincial health plans cover some of the costs of this eight-week program, which uses mindfulness meditation, gentle yoga and group discussion to reduce the symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and to help people cope with pain and other stressors.
- Developed by a former Buddhist monk, the Headspace app, available for iOS and Android, aims to demystify and make meditation accessible for everyone. After a free trial, a monthly fee lets users access articles, exercises and unlimited meditation sessions on everything from sleep to stress.
- Calm is another popular mindfulness app, focused in particular on reducing stress and improving sleep. Its “sleep stories” feature is designed to help soothe listeners and ease them into sleep.
- Tara Brach’s podcast provides weekly guided meditations and talks that combine Western psychology and Eastern spiritual practice.
Schedule weekly or daily meditation for your Circle of Care
With CareEasy, you can set daily, weekly or monthly meditation reminders for your entire circle and keep track in the joint calendar available in the app. This is an easy way to encourage everyone you care about to take some time for themselves and prioritize their mental health. To get started, simply download the free CareEasy app below!