Tougher Than They Look

Resilience, the subject of a large-scale study published recently in The Gerontologist, reminds me of what a Supreme Court justice once said of pornography: It’s hard to define, but we know it when we see it.

We’ve all noticed resilience’s effects, haven’t we? Most older people cope with several chronic diseases and have encountered losses and challenges. Some seem to withdraw into isolation and inactivity even when they remain relatively strong.

Others respond more like the late Evelyn Nade, whom I met in a New Jersey nursing home a few years ago. She was 82 then, a wheelchair user who couldn’t rise from her bed without two aides using a mechanical hoist — yet she was the sunniest person in the place, the president of the residents’ council, the founder of a Red Hat Society chapter and a formidable poker player.

Age, health and finances can’t fully explain such disparities, so social scientists are constantly exploring other factors that might play a role.

When I spoke with the new study’s lead author, Lydia Manning, a gerontologist at Concordia University Chicago, she took a stab at a simple definition of resilience: “How people manage adversity and hardship over the life course.” Often, she said, they talk about learning this trait, this sense of themselves as people who can negotiate obstacles, from tough experiences earlier in life.

Scientists have been writing and thinking about resilience for several decades. Now, in Dr. Manning’s study of 10,753 people (average age: almost 69) drawn from three waves of the national Health and Retirement Study, “we’re starting to measure it,” Dr. Manning said — “as squishy and fuzzy a concept as it is.”

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