Promoting older people’s resilience

An Australian Association of Gerontology paper explores the development of older people’s resilience through disasters and adversity.

A new position paper released by the Australian Association of Gerontology explores the development of older people’s resilience through disasters and adversity and asks how relevant organisations can harness that strength and experience.

As the paper notes, Australia is experiencing more frequent and severe natural disasters as evidenced by recent bushfires, heatwaves and floods. On top of these extreme weather events, we have had to cope with a pandemic. “AAG thought it would be valuable to not only look at the impact at a community level, but also to look at the impact of individuals,” the paper’s author Tom Voight told Australian Ageing Agenda.

AAG particularly wanted to gather insights into how older people cope with – and bounce back from – such adverse situations. Although older people may be perceived to be vulnerable to negative outcomes, they can have better coping skills than younger people, he said. “People who have experienced multiple traumas tend to develop coping mechanisms. Not everyone does, but some do,” said Mr Voight, who was a senior policy and research officer at AAG until November last year.

These coping mechanisms equip older people to contribute to community responses to disasters “through sharing knowledge and experiences of resilience,” says the paper – called Promoting Older People’s Resilience.

Some researchers have suggested there may be various protective factors that are beneficial in helping older people to develop resilience. The more commonly cited protective factors identified include:

  • life experience
  • physical activity
  • social support
  • social cohesion
  • access to social resources.

Personality traits and specific characteristics can also help a person to develop resilience. These include:

  • intelligence
  • creativity
  • humour
  • flexibility
  • spirituality.

Post-traumatic growth

There is evidence that for some older people exposure to life-threatening traumas can have a positive outcome. The life-threatening trauma can become life changing, as a worldview is challenged to such a degree that it leads to a re-examination of core beliefs and goals.

This is called gerotranscendence, explained Mr Voight. “Around 20 per cent of people as they get older have a change in their priorities,” he said. “They move away from a framework of a materialistic and pragmatic view of the world to perhaps one that’s a bit more transcendent, even cosmic, potentially spiritual as well.”

Gerotranscendence can be a component of post-traumatic growth. PTG describes a process where people use their trauma to grow and move forward with their lives. Mr Voight has personal experience of PTG. In 1998, he restrained an armed offender holding a fellow staff member at bay with a loaded sawn-off shotgun in the reception area of Kempsey Community Health.

Whilst the event was traumatic and life-threatening, benefits have arisen out of the experience Mr Voight told AAA. “At a personal level, I received an Australian Bravery Award,” he said. “And ultimately, it has led me to what I’m doing now which is my PhD looking at the impact of life-threatening trauma on bravery award recipients.” 

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Tags: aag, disasters, older people., resilience, tom voight, trauma,

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