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Meditation for Older Adults

Michelle Seitzer

Meditation may bring to mind images of spirituality and solitude—of quiet, candlelit rooms in sacred spaces with music playing softly in the background. But the beauty of meditation is in its simplicity and accessibility: The benefits touch people of all ages, wherever they are able to find time and space to practice it.

Research shows more people are finding the time and space to practice meditation: American adults’ use of meditation more than tripled between 2012 and 2017, from 4.1% to 14.2%.

https://nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics/NHIS/2017

The increasing popularity of this ancient mind-body practice likely correlates to the real-life stresses of the modern boomer. Empty nest, retirement, caring for aging parents, chronic pain, losing friends and family to illness or disease: The difficult life transitions in which many older adults find themselves tend to spark an inner conflict and unrest that’s hard to silence.

And, if you once threw yourself into work but are now retired—or used to busy yourself with the kids’ schedules but are now an empty nester—the old methods of distraction are no longer a viable option. Without the pressing needs of children or a career in the forefront, your mind may quickly drift to the past—Did I do a good job as a parent? Should I have worked longer? Why didn’t I travel more?—or to future fretting: What if I get Alzheimer’s? What if my money doesn’t last? What if my grandkids never visit?

Instead of these counterproductive wanderings, learn how to focus on the present in this new chapter of your life, being fully aware of—and mindful in—the present moment.

Benefits of Meditation

Given the intimate personal nature of meditation—and, as experts suggest, it is best practiced in isolation—the benefits may vary among individuals. However, if you commit to an intentional, regular practice of meditation (you don’t have to be an expert!), the following benefits of meditation are universal and based in scientific fact:

How to meditate
  1. Reduces anxiety
  2. Prevents and treats depression
  3. Minimizes the effects of race and age bias
  4. Improves cognition
  5. Increases body satisfaction
  6. Reduces mental distractions

Dementia

As many older adults watch loved ones lose cognitive and physical function to dementia and Alzheimer’s, research around the alleviation of its signs and symptoms via meditation and mindfulness is encouraging and empowering. According to Medical News Today, for participants who committed to just 12 weeks of 12 minutes a day of listening to music or doing simple yoga meditation, the results were overwhelmingly positive—showing improvements in mood, sleep, stress levels, and quality of life.

Menopause

Menopause is another later life transition whose symptoms may be mitigated by the practice of meditation. Nina Bandoni, blogger at Sharing a Journey, started meditating in her late forties when she entered perimenopause and says it’s been an integral part of her life ever since. And it did more than alleviate menopausal symptoms.

“My meditation practice has aided in healing, connecting me more deeply to the depths of my soul, has helped guide my business, and has enhanced my intuition,” says Bandoni. “Most of the people in my yoga classes have been women 45 and over; all of us feel deeply that it enhances our lives and the lives of those around us.”

Other Health Challenges

Maybe you struggle with achieving restful sleep, or staying positive during tense situations or difficult life changes. Perhaps you’ve noticed that you have a harder time focusing on daily tasks, or have digestive problems that are a daily source of pain or stress. As reported by the nonprofit Mindworks, research shows a significantly positive impact on all of these areas among older adults practicing mindfulness and meditation.

Mental and Emotional Health

As the kids move on to starting their own families, as more friends and parents pass away, or as you may struggle with transitioning from full-time work into retirement, the cumbersome burdens of grief, loss, and loneliness may sometimes feel too great to bear.

Relax meditation

Meditation allows for quiet reflection, a place to process these influential changes and move into a new stage of life with resiliency and grace, rather than defeat and stagnation. As you become more self-aware through the practice of meditation, you may find you’re better able to control your emotions and reactions—not that you won’t feel the pain or sting of loss, rejection, or disappointment, but that you’ll know better how to move forward once you’ve allowed yourself to freely experience the feelings around them.

AARP suggests that the practice of mindfulness and meditation leads to making better choices and, as decision-making around caring for your aging parents or moving to be closer to grandchildren is particularly vital in this stage of life, this additional benefit is a powerful one.

“After seeing the benefits for myself, I routinely advocate and teach meditation to my clients,” says Cincinnati-based Mark Levine, LICDC-CS, MAC, of Minds at Peace. “I recently worked with a teacher in her fifties who retired. Suddenly her mind, previously occupied with lesson plans, drifted continuously to negative thoughts and self-doubt,” Levine explains. “By teaching her to meditate—learning to see thoughts as just thoughts, approaching her mind with self-compassion and curiosity—she went from crying in my office to a month later laughing and joking about her mistakes.”

How to Begin a Meditation Practice

Ready to begin but not sure where or how to start? Go online: A number of free resources are available. Start by researching beginner guided meditation videos or podcasts, or checking out available smartphone apps. Consider the following videos, podcasts, and apps as you explore meditation for the first time:

Meditation for beginners

Meditation Apps, Podcasts, and Websites to Get Your Started

Headspace. The Headspace app is available for iPhone and Android users, and when you sign up, you get your first 10 sessions free. After that, unlimited meditation sessions are available for a monthly fee. The app also allows you to track your progress and view your accomplishments.

Soundrown. Ambient noise helps filter out the auditory distractions that often lead to wandering (or negatively spiraling) thoughts, so the free tracks for instant listening available through the Soundrown website—which also can be found on the SoundCloud platform—offers focus-friendly sounds on-demand .

Calm. The popular Calm app providers a strong foundation for mindfulness beginners and is focused on getting better sleep and having less stress. There are over 100 guided meditations plus their unique “sleep stories” feature, in which “soothing tales [are] read by well-known voices” help you unwind and fall into a deep sleep.

Guided Meditations by Tara Brach. If you’re interested in the ancient spiritual influences on meditation, Tara Brach’s website and its accompanying podcast may intrigue you. Brach is the founder of a Washington, D.C.-based meditation center—one of the largest in the nation—and thoughtfully combines her background in psychotherapy with trainings in Buddhist teachings.

The Meditation Podcast. Narrated by Jesse and Jeane Stern, The Meditation Podcast offers “simple, straightforward meditations” for those “dealing with a health or emotional challenge.” Using audio tones that modulate brain waves and help bring about relaxation, some listeners have “given profound testimonies about how this podcast has helped them deal with strokes, anxiety and emotional loss.”

Guided Meditation for Beginners on YouTube. Entering this as a search term will return hundreds of options. Find the one that piques your interest in terms of visuals, approach, music, and, of course, the guide: The more invested you are, the better your results will likely be.

The Muse headband. Mark Levine recommends using a tech tool, the Muse headband, in conjunction with the Ten Percent Happier app for real-time neurofeedback. The book Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris—co-founder of the Ten Percent Happier app—is also a resource Levine recommends to many of his coaching clients who are just dipping their toes into the meditation waters.

Meditation for Beginners

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), part of the National Institutes of Health, describes meditation practice as a “focus on the interactions among the brain, mind, body, and behavior.”

Meditation techniques

While there are many types of meditation, most share these four common elements, per the NCCIH: a quiet and distraction-free location, a comfortable position (be it sitting, walking, or lying down), focused attention (using intentional breathing, a cherished object, or by repeating words), and an open mind.

How Do You Meditate?

With the basic principles in mind, here’s how to start where you are with what you have:

  • Find a comfortable, quiet place around the house, in your backyard, or even at a favorite nearby park.
  • Sit in a chair, put your feet up, or prop yourself up with pillows in bed—do whatever is the most comfortable position for you. Experiment a little at first to find what produces the least amount of discomfort, as you’ll stay in this position for an extended period of time. As stated at Synchronicity.org, find the position that “produces the least amount of body noise.”
  • Can’t sit still? Walking meditation or “mindful walking” is great for the body and the mind. Thich Nhat Hanh, renowned Zen Master and poet, and founder of the Engaged Buddhist movement, says this: “Walking meditation unites our body and our mind. We combine our breathing with our steps. When we breathe in, we may take two or three steps. When we breathe out, we may take three, four, or five steps. We pay attention to what is comfortable for our body.”
  • While 15 minutes is recommended by the experts for optimal outcomes, it’s okay to start small, with even just 5- or 10-minute meditation sessions. Recall the positive effects of mindful practices for those living with dementia who did just 12-minute sessions for 12 short weeks, and you’ll see: Meditation doesn’t have to be hard to be helpful.
  • Don’t worry if your mind wanders or if you lose focus while trying to meditate. Experts say it’s best to observe your thoughts as they arise and then return to the breath.

Meditation Techniques

The goal of meditation is a calm mind and body; however, any challenges you may have with being able to focus can produce the opposite effect. For those struggling to quiet the body and mind, following a specific script or model may be helpful. This one is adapted from Psychology Today:

  • Think of a word that stirs a positive emotion for you—an emotion perhaps you’d like to feel during and after meditation—such as joy or peace.
  • Picture that word in your mind. Spell it out on your arm with your fingertips. Tap out its syllables on the palm of your hand. Whatever helps you keep that word front and center, go with it.
  • Think of that emotive word as a color, and picture it in that color. Then picture the backdrop to the word in another color.
  • Keep writing the word in your head, one letter at a time, perhaps even saying the letters out loud in a soft voice.
  • Repeat these steps for 10 minutes (setting a timer will help you stay on track).

As with anything new, your comfort and ease with meditation will grow with time and practice. Don’t get discouraged if you find that your mind and/or your body is distracted the first few times you meditate. Keep moving forward, even if you don’t feel any noticeable difference. As time goes on, these mindful moments will add up and eventually transform your restless mind and body into one at peace.

Have you seen improvements in your life since beginning a meditation practice? Leave a comment and tell us about your experience!


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