Resiliency and Spirituality


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Nieli Langer

College of New Rochelle,

Graduate School of Human Services,

New York, New York, USA

Address correspondence to Nieli Langer, 160 W. 66th Street, Apt. 39D, New York,

NY 10023. E-mail:

Educational Gerontology, 30: 611 617, 2004

Copyright # Taylor & Francis Inc.

ISSN: 0360-1277 print/1521-0472 online

DOI: 10.1080/03601270490467038611

Niele Langer 611

Old age is characterized as a period of resiliency when the older person uses internal and external resources to overcome the challenges presented by this stage of life. By acknowledging older adults resiliency and spiritual resources in light of past and present risk factors, care providers can focus on capabilities, assets, and positive attributes rather than problems and pathologies. This paper presents a conceptual and practical framework for teaching strengths perspective counseling for older clients in which resiliency and spirituality best describe the application

or operationalization of strengths.

Old age is a challenging period in people s lives that often include sudden and multiple losses and unforeseen physical, emotional, social, and spiritual assaults to their person. Conventional gerontological assessments collect deficit-focused data such as an older person s dependencies, disabilities, risk factors for nursing home placement, available informal support, and so forth. Assessments within the traditional medical model fail to provide a language with which to discuss client strengths, a conceptual framework within which to build strengths, or tools for evaluating the outcomes of interventions intended to promote strengths. The administration of these inventories is time consuming for both practitioners and clients. For example, completion of the Resident Assessment Instrument takes five

612 Nieli Langer

days and repetition occurs, in part, every 92 days (Health Care Financing Administration, 1998). Mandated assessments may provide valuable information, yet the process for gathering data often takes precedence over understanding the needs of the assessed person (Kivnick & Murray, 2001). Human beings, who happen to be old, often get lost in the process of assessment, diagnosis, and service brokering. If our concern as care providers is to enable an older person to remain   independent  or   in the community  for as long as possible, we must tap into the personal values and lifelong commitments that guide the way that person uses his or her time, solves problems, and ultimately lives out his or her remaining years.

Wagnild and Young (1990) has identified five themes that describe the experience of successful adjustment to aging. These themes provide the foundation for their definition of resiliency: the ability to restore balance following a difficult experience and integrate it into

the backdrop of one s total life experiences. Equanimity provides a balanced perspective of people s lives and experiences, that is, their joys and losses in life. Having equanimity connotes the ability to consider a broader range of experience, thus modulating extreme

responses to adversity. The act of persistence despite adversity or discouragement refers to perseverance. Many older people refer to a survival instinct, a drive to keep going. Perseverance relates to a willingness to continue the struggle to reconstruct one s life and therefore, remain engaged in the business of life. Self-reliance is a belief in oneself and one s capabilities. Very often self-reliance emerges after a person is challenged (e.g., through widowhood) to find resources within themselves to manage daily life. Having met this challenge, the person has become more self-reliant and confident to resume his or her altered life. People who exhibit resiliency realize the concept of existential aloneness: Some of our experiences are shared while others are faced alone. People recognize the continuity of self through changing

times and revel in their uniqueness. An important aspect of adjustment to aging and loss is the ability to derive meaning from experiences and the realization that life has a purpose, meaningfulness. When people are capable of transforming negative events into opportunities, the result is personal growth and life satisfaction.

Sustained well-being and coping has become one of the cornerstones of aging research that has yet to be fully understood, but clearly, spirituality (meaningfulness) appears to play an integral part in this explanatory process of resiliency. Baltes and Baltes (1990) have maintained that even when signs of frailty become pronounced, aging adults are capable of making the necessary modification in goals and aspirations. When individuals continue to develop through their life

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experiences and find sources of meaning therein, such as spirituality, they are more empowered to cope with life s stresses and survive.

Victor Frankl, in his book Man s Search for Meaning (1963), maintains that the will to meaning is the elemental driving force in the human personality. The way we accept our fate may add a deeper meaning to our lives. Frankl argues that we always have the freedom to find meaning through meaningful attitudes even in apparently meaningless situations. Frankl cites an incident in which an elderly man sought him out because he was severely depressed due to the death of his beloved wife. The older client was helped by the following conversation with Dr. Frankl. Frankl asked,   What would have happened if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?    Oh,  replied the patient,   for her this would have been terrible and she would have suffered.  Frankl continued . . .   You see that this suffering has been spared her; and it is you who have spared her this suffering.  The man said no word but shook Frankl s hand and calmly left his office, obviously at peace. (p. 104, 171)

Frankl explains that suffering may be transmuted into meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice. For Frankl, ultimate meaning exists and is unique to each person and each situation. Each moment offers a sequence of unrepeatable situations, each of which offers a specific

meaning to be recognized and fulfilled. The ability of individuals to choose their attitude in any given set of circumstances is what gives meaning and purpose to life.

Another resource that older people use to deal with adversity is mastery. Mastery, a sense of control, can help buffer the stresses of aging. Evidence of mastery can be drawn from one s past experience or from manageable areas in one s current life. To be resilient in old age,

one needs to embrace flexibility and to accept change. In some aspects, competence is comparable to resilience as the ability to maintain competence despite adversity (Masten, 1994).With a client s ability for self-direction, counselors can enhance the client s sense of achievement by seeking mutual solutions, pointing out strengths, and using available resources. As Pearlin and Skaff note,   the process of adapting to late life may involve staking one s mastery on domains over which one can exert control and yielding it where control is now more

difficult  (Pearlin & Skaff, 1995, p. 115). Garmezy (1994) views resiliency as the skills, abilities, knowledge, and insights that accumulate over time