Resilience in Old Age

by Janine Wiles
Resilience in old age

Many older people live with challenges, hardship, poor health, or upheavals in life, but find ways to ‘get through’ or overcome them. Yet, when gerontological researchers consider the strengths of older people, we too often seem to see these as distinct from difficulties and the messy complexity of life and advancing age. A focus on resilience foregrounds the ‘ordinary magic’ of everyday ways humans adapt to difficulty.

My team and I drew on the idea of resilience as a way to move past the both clinical views that associate ageing with decline, frailty, and disease on the one hand, and narrowly defined views of successful ageing as minimal cognitive, social, or functional decline or loss on the other. We sought to understand ‘resilience’ from the perspective of diverse older people. These experts tell us that resilience amongst older people should not be too narrow, nor only focused on individual characteristics. Resilience is broader, more layered; it can include both vulnerability and flourishing; and when thinking about resilience we should be attentive to the contexts in which people live.

We learn from older people that resilience can incorporate and balance vulnerability alongside strength across a wide range of contexts. People can be living with chronic illnesses, personal loss, or difficult circumstances, but see themselves as resilient. Resilience is not just about ‘bouncing back’ or achieving in spite of adversity. Older people often see themselves as resilient because of adversity, and their ongoing skill in negotiating and overcoming challenges and losses over time. Resilience should perhaps be thought of as more about the courage and resourcefulness to live with vulnerability than avoiding it. Resilience is about how people thrive in the context of difficulties, whether because of or in spite of them. Resilience is an ongoing and negotiated process, a kind of plasticity or flexibility or adaptiveness.

For example, they might be financially or socially resilient even when they lose physical function. We could think of older people’s resilience, or otherwise, in a wide range of areas including psychological, cognitive, physical function, mobility, financial, environmental (housing, recreation opportunities, access to services and other resources), social, and cultural.

Resilience also operates at different scales from personal to social, from the micro- (such as individual and home), to meso- (such as families and neighbourhoods and communities), and macro-level (such as social and global-level resources). For example, a person may have good personal mobility, but live in a neighbourhood with poor transport systems; or live in a place with great accessible transport which enables them to get about even though their personal physical function is changing. Resilience factors at these different scales can work together or against each other to enhance or constrain a person’s resilience.

People have tended to think about resilience at a personal level. A wealth of research has illuminated a wide range of personal strategies and behaviours related to resilience; the older people we listened to also spoke of individual characteristics and strategies they saw as being related to resilience. These include things such as accommodating and adapting to changes and fluctuations but also knowing when to push for change; attitudes of endurance and gratitude; balancing acceptance and struggle or resistance; being mindful of having a sense of purpose; maintaining social resources and connectedness; contributing to and being involved in communities of interest; engaging in spiritual practice; reflective story-telling and life review; and even critical consciousness of and resistance to ageist norms and values in society.

After listening carefully to older people talking about resilience, we learn that resilience should be thought of as both individual characteristics AND at a collective and social level. It is both these personal, ‘inner-strength’ resources, attitudes and approaches to life, AND the social and physical environments and structures that surround a person. Our social and physical environments can contribute to, or take away from, personal resilience too. Plentiful personal resources, good family and household support and resources, well-designed and maintained homes and housing, accessible and safe streets and neighbourhoods, good urban design especially of public buildings and spaces, thoughtfully provided public transport; all of these things have the potential to contribute to a person’s or group’s resilience. More broadly, good social connectedness; high-quality built environments and systems that enable universal accessibility; culturally relevant and safe social services; critically constructive and positive social and cultural attitudes towards old age and towards cultural and social diversity in old age; and low levels of social inequities and inequalities are all resources that can enhance and enable resilience.

Narrowly defined concepts of resilience that focus on the individual or on very specific criterion are dangerous because they have the potential to shift responsibility and blame towards those in adverse circumstances. Too much focus on individual traits and ‘positive deviance’ can be attractive to under-funded decision-makers looking for easy opportunities to cut budgets, by justifying that if ‘some people’ can cope with difficult successfully, everybody should be able to. At the same time, overly positive views of resilience in old age risk romanticising the capabilities of individuals while underplaying the very real struggle and disadvantage of living with chronic adversity.

A critically reflexive approach to resilience means constantly seeking ways to acknowledge the everyday power of older people to control their lives, whilst being vulnerable, as well as recognising and addressing ways to identify and redress the contextual, social, and structural factors that promote adversity. Understanding resilience amongst older people from their perspective shows us that to enhance old age, much more attention needs to be paid to investing in and optimising our living environments to support wellbeing in old age. We need to attend to ways that public services, public and built spaces, relevant legislation, good income support and taxation systems, housing policies and other supports, and thoughtful social values and attitudes can enhance the resilience of individuals, families, and communities.

Wiles, J. L., & Jayasinha, R. (2013). Care for Place: the contributions older people make to their communities. Journal of Aging Studies, 27(2), 93-101.

Wiles, J. L., Wild, K. L., & Allen, R. E. S. (2012). Resilience from the point of view of older people: ‘There’s still life beyond a funny knee’. Social Science and Medicine, 74(3), 416-424. 10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.11.005

Wild, K., Wiles, J. L., & Allen, R. E. S. (2011). ‘Resilience: thoughts on the value of the concept for critical gerontology. Ageing & Society

Wiles, J. L. (2011). Reflections on Being a Recipient of care: Vexing the Concept of Vulnerability. Social and Cultural Geography, 12(6), 573-588.

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Rylee Dionigi April 1, 2017 - 12:49 am

Fantastic blog, Janine! Thank you for reinforcing the point that concepts like successful, positive, active, healthy ageing and/or ‘resilience should be thought of as both individual characteristics AND at a collective and social level.’ I agree that we can learn more about this process through really listening to older people. Also, I value your point that ‘Too much focus on individual traits and ‘positive deviance’ can be attractive to under-funded decision-makers looking for easy opportunities to cut budgets, by justifying that if ‘some people’ can cope with difficult successfully, everybody should be able to’ because I argue that the same thing is happening in health and physical activity promotion circles, which is a focus of my critical blog (hopefully soon to be posted!) Thanks again, Rylee

margaret cruikshank April 1, 2017 - 4:41 pm

Excellent article. In looking at lgbt aging research I kept finding resilience as
end result of challenges and difficulties and knew that was inadequate. This article really sheds light on the need to see beyond resilience as a trait of individuals. That may tend to minimize the discrimination faced by LGBT people. And we do not say that because U.S. Pres Reagan refused to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic thousands of lives were lost.


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