Bubbie and the Buddha: The Benefits of Meditation for Seniors

In a recent study, nearly 70 percent of people over the age of 60 reported experiencing loneliness, a risk factor for functional decline and early death. But those who took part in an eight-week meditation program reduced those feelings of loneliness—and gave their immune systems a boost as well. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles, is published in this month’s issue of the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity.

Yoga has long been known to help ease depression and loneliness by raising concentrations of gamma-amminobutyric acid (GABA), the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating the nervous system. High levels of GABA have a calming effect. Of course, loneliness isn’t just an emotional issue; it’s a form of stress that can have physical manifestations as well, says Randal Williams, a Kripalu Yoga instructor and teacher trainer, who isn’t surprised by the study’s findings. “When I was a child I used to go to religious services with my grandmother,” says Randal. “This was her way of connecting with others. Whether it is to do yoga or meditate or walk or sit and share tea, getting together with others has a positive impact.”

Although it might seem difficult to encourage older people to embark on a new practice or habit later in life, the good news is that meditation can take various forms. Mindfulness, Randal points out, can also be found in activities such as gardening, painting, and straightening up the house. “Paying attention still requires energy, to be sure, but it can help to bypass the resistance that may be there against being physically active,” he says. “Over time the improvement in outlook may help the senior to want to move. As the mind becomes more flexible the body will follow.”

Here, Randal offers some tips for getting seniors started on a meditation practice.

Share your own experience. Perhaps you are both new to meditation. Perhaps it has benefitted you already and you can say why. Ask them whether they might be interested in joining you. It could be simply to hang out with you and connect. Perhaps set a regular date and time; make it an opportunity to cultivate love and enjoyment rather than a pressured experience.

Experiment a bit. If the elderly friend or family member is mobile,she might try a walking meditation or a gentle yoga practice. But keep in mind as a precaution the issues that come with age:If the senior is less mobile, then by all means simplify the practice—single, slow movements can be just as effective as something more active.

Reframe the issue. If your grumpy grandpa says that he’s not interested in this New Age stuff, skip the whole re-education spiel and take him for a car ride into the country. Find green spaces, take walks, help him pot some plants, make time to share a beverage, and look at old photographs. Aim to support him to awaken and enjoy his senses. Learn from him by gathering ingredients and cooking his favorite recipes, doing chores with him around the home—laundry, dishes, and yard work. That’s old-school meditation practice.

Broaden the approach. There really is no limit to the ways in which we can practice meditation. Aside from all of the above techniques, you might encourage the elder in your life to begin a yoga nidra, or guided relaxation, practice. There are some great audio resources available. It’s a totally supported, restful low-impact practice that still lets the mind develop awareness.

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