As part of a special project, I’ve recently started in-depth interviews with residents at one of the skilled nursing facilities where ElderSparks meets. Listening to my first two subjects — an 87 year-old woman and another who was 93 — tell their stories, I began to understand the emotional trauma of being forced from one’s home because of impairment. This is H~, describing the state she was in immediately after her move:

I wasn’t in too good condition. I was forlorn. I didn’t know what was happening to me . . . I was very depressed . . . Didn’t know whether I was coming or going. It was too fast. Not having children, that was hard too. There was no one left. I was very lonely. I felt lost. My whole life was changing.

B~’s experience was nearly identical:

I cried and it was incredible. But one lady came and stayed with me, and she made me eat, and I guess I was given something to sleep, but for two or three days I cried — I cried me a river. I think it was one of the most terrible episodes of my life. I wasn’t used to institutional living; I wasn’t used to eating at certain times every day; I wasn’t used to the food . . .

It’s such a dramatic change. It was for me, it was absolutely, I thought I’d kill myself altogether. I was happy [before] . . . and I couldn’t understand why I was here.

I’m sure there are ways to ease the transition, but can the fear and despair be eliminated entirely? What if they were a perfectly natural response to extremely challenging circumstances — as stressful as any significant personal loss or transition ­— and that suffering through them is often the only path forward?

Seniors like H~ and B~ are evidence there is light at the end of the tunnel — things can and do get better. The role of resilience in positive aging cannot be underestimated. Here is the advice that B~ now gives to newcomers:

[You’re] living in a completely different atmosphere than what you had in your own home. And it’s a shame you lost your own home and your ability to run it but don’t forget, we’re not young anymore, we’ve aged, and we can live a life without responsibility in a place like this: we don’t have to worry about laundry; we don’t have to worry about food and cooking; we can go out if we want to, we can go out once or twice a week, and you can go where you want to go, you can go for a ride. You can have a nice time in this place — give it a chance. If you’re religious, we have a place for services; we have wonderful people who come and talk to us; we have discussion groups. You’re coming into a place where you’re not going to sit and rock in your rocking chair. You’re going to have to move around and you’ll feel better for it. Now if you don’t know certain things, there is always someone who will help you, and tell you and make you feel that you belong here.

The thing each person has to do — this is what took me awhile to do — is to realize you have no place to go. I, today, have no place in the world to go. If I walked out of here, I would have to sleep in the gutter. Realize this is [salvation] for many people . . . It took me some time to realize this — it saved my life actually. And I wasn’t easy.

Want another example of resilience? B~ likes mystery stories:

A couple of dead bodies exhilarate me! 

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