Ask St. Ann’s – Older Adults Can Find Strength, Peace Through Meditation

By Sister Mary Lou Mitchell

Do you sometimes feel that all the news is bad and the pressures of life are insurmountable? Well, you’re not alone.

The daily hurdles we all face, coupled with the constant stimulation of the modern world, can feel overwhelming. If you’re an older adult, you may also be dealing with isolation and boredom, particularly in this age of COVID-19. But let me assure you: peace is within reach.

It involves a simple practice for decreasing stress and increasing your sense of well being:

  • Sit in a comfortable position.
  • Focus your attention on one thing. (More on this shortly.)
  • Let go of everything else — thoughts, emotions, worries.

Doing this for 20 minutes at least twice a day r–educes stress, improves health and increases the ability to creatively handle difficulties. It is especially helpful for older adults who are unable to pursue vigorous physical activities that can help fight stress.

The researcher and physician Herbert Benson years ago examined the daily practices of people from various religious faiths, including Buddhist monks, Roman Catholic nuns, and others. He found that these individuals followed the steps above through daily meditation, yoga or prayer. As a result, they all had better than average mental, physical and spiritual health.

The good news is you don’t have to be a monk or a nun to achieve those results! You can do it simply by practicing some form of meditation or relaxation technique in which you focus on a single thing and temporarily tune out everything else. This helps us by decreasing the activity of our sympathetic nervous system (our “fight or flight” response): lowering the blood pressure, reducing stress and sensory overload and calming the mind and body. It’s a way of rejuvenating ourselves so we’re better prepared to handle what life presents us.

What should you focus on? That’s up to you. It might be an object: a peaceful image, a flower, a photo of a loved one. It could be a phrase you repeat (a mantra), a Bible verse, a favorite prayer, a line from a poem that brings comfort. Some of the seniors I spend time with at St. Ann’s Community like to focus on the altar in our chapel, which they can see on TV. You might also choose to focus on a relaxing piece of music or your own gentle breathing.

Whatever your choice, the objective is to remove all distractions, clear your mind, and simply be in the moment. In doing this, you’re not denying what’s going on in your life or the greater world, you’re just not focusing on it for a while. Think of it as a stop sign in your mind.

For older adults, meditative practice is one way of offsetting the “three plagues” of aging: loneliness, helplessness and boredom. Try it and I think you’ll find a greater sense of peace, emotional strength and resiliency.

In the mindfulness programs I lead with seniors at St. Ann’s, I often share a poem by Mary Oliver called “Praying” which expresses the beauty of meditation:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Mary Lou Mitchell, Sister of St. Joseph, Ph.D., RN, is the director of pastoral care for St. Ann’s Community. She can be reached at 585-697-6446 or [email protected].

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