Essential guide to mindfulness for older people

Mindfulness seems to be the buzzword of the moment ­ newspapers, magazines and online feature articles extol its benefits to those of us living increasingly stressful lives. It was the theme of the Mental Health Foundation’s Mental Health Awareness Week 201 5, and if you type ‘mindfulness’ into Google search, you’ll get more than 28.5 million results

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a type of therapeutic practice where people are encouraged to be fully in the present moment and is used as a way of managing and accepting thoughts and
feelings. The idea is to pay attention to your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations calmly and without being judgemental.

It is based on traditional Buddhist meditation practices, but also incorporates a variety of techniques such as controlled breathing as well as body awareness activities, such as
tai chi and yoga and can be beneficial to people of all ages.

The benefits of mindfulness

There is strong evidence to suggest that practising mindfulness can improve people’s emotional and physical wellbeing. It is being used to help ease stress, depression, anxiety, and
chronic pain, as well as improving concentration. Organisations such as the Mental Health Foundation, promote mindfulness as aneffective tool to help people improve their general wellbeing and enjoy their lives. NICE, the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, recommends
mindfulness­-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) for patients who suffer from recurrent depression.

Cancer Research UK recommends mindfulness­based stress reduction (MBSR) as a complementary therapy to help cancer patients cope with pain, insomnia and nausea. By relieving symptoms, MBSR helps improve the quality of patient’s lives.

But you don’t have to be clinically depressed or ill to benefit from mindfulness. Life takes a toll on us all and older people especially can find it difficult to cope with issues ranging from bereavement and loss of independence to coping with new technology and an ever­changing world. Practising mindfulness helps people resist the trap of constantly going over past issues
and events or getting overwhelmed by worries about the future. It helps people relax, become more aware, cope with daily stress, and make better decisions.

Mindfulness practice has been adopted by businesses, schools, prisons, and even governments ­ here in the UK, an All Party Parliamentary Group has been set up specifically to examine the benefits of mindfulness.

Mindfulness and older people

Although most studies into mindfulness tend to focus on people of working age, there are strong indications that mindfulness­based interventions could be extremely useful for older people. The interconnectedness of mind and body lies at the heart of mindfulness and this makes it highly relevant to older people who are more likely to experience physical health problems with associated psychological issues ­ such as reduced mobility and depression. It is thought that mindfulness can be particularly empowering to older people as it focuses on abilities rather than difficulties which may help older people to feel more engaged in decisions about their care. It can also help to reduce reliance on medication and it can potentially help vulnerable groups in nursing homes and those with dementia.

How do you practice mindfulness?

We all practice mindfulness without thinking about it from time to time. For some people, it might be watching waves crashing onto the shore, for others it could be watching a flickering log fire, or doing a jigsaw puzzle. Whenever you are focused on the sensations of the present moment and are not carried off on a stream of anxious
thoughts, you’re being mindful.

Mindfulness usually requires a commitment of about 1 5 minutes to an hour each day of formal practice sitting in a quiet place and training the mind to stop wandering and become more focused on observing the breath, relaxing the body, and accepting thoughts and feelings. You can teach yourself ­ there are many books and online resources available, but most older people will probably benefit from some guided sessions with an experienced teacher.

Here’s a short video from UK Mental Health with someone talking about his experience
of mindfulness

If you prefer to consult books, then Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world, co-­written by Professor Mark Williams and journalist Dr Danny Penman is a good place to start. Mark Williams co­-developed MBCT and is the Director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. The book offers an 8­ week course of simple, yet powerful exercises which you can build into your daily life. The accompanying website FranticWorld also has more background and interesting articles.

Another good place to start finding out about mindfulness is the Mental Health Foundation’s BeMindful website, and they offer a four­ week online course which costs £60. There are also numerous podcasts and YouTube videos with mindfulness exercises and even mobile phone apps, such as Headspace, if your older parent is comfortable with technology. Simple mindfulness exercises to get started

Here’s a simple exercise taken from a Harvard Medical School Help Guide, which teaches basic mindfulness meditation. It could be a useful way of introducing your older parent to the concept.
1.  Sit on a straight­backed chair or cross­legged on the floor
2. Focus on an aspect of your breathing, such as the sensations of air flowing through your nostrils and out of your mouth, or your belly rising and falling as you inhale and exhale
3. Once you’ve narrowed your concentration in this way, begin to become aware of sounds, sensations, and your ideas
4. Embrace and consider each thought or sensation without judging it good or bad. If your mind starts to race, return your focus to your breathing awareness again

It’s often difficult to stay in the present moment. The Harvard Help Guide also provides a simple way of training yourself to practice informal mindfulness as you go about your daily routine, whilst showering, eating, walking, stroking a pet etc:
Start by bringing your attention to the sensations in your body.
● Breathe in through your nose, allowing the air downward into your lower belly. Let your abdomen expand fully.
● Now breathe out through your mouth.
● Notice the sensations of each inhalation and exhalation.
● Proceed with the task at hand slowly and with full deliberation.
● Engage your senses fully. Notice each sight, touch, and sound so that you savour every sensation.
● If your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to the sensations of the moment.

Other useful myageingparent articles:

How mindfulness can help people live less stressful lives

Other useful links:

Mental Health Foundation: Mindfulness
NHS choices: Mindfulness for mental wellbeing

 

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