Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Ryan Adams.

For many, the word ‘mindfulness’ conjures up mental images of New Age hippie types sitting cross-legged on multicoloured pillows. However, mindfulness practices are quickly becoming mainstream as more and more people are recognizing (and studying) the positive impact it can have on their overall well-being.

“A decade ago, there were about 70 journal publications about mindfulness. In 2014, there were over 770,” states Ellie Weisbaum, a Toronto-based mindfulness practitioner, teacher and PhD candidate, on her website.

Mindfulness can make a difference in successful aging. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Stephane Mignon.

This research on mindfulness has helped validate its many physical and psychological benefits – especially for older adults. For example, meditation has been shown to decrease blood pressure and inflammation. There have also been links between mindfulness and improved coronary artery disease outcomes, as well as improved circulation and digestion.

In terms of supporting mental health, meditation has been associated with enhanced short and long-term memory and reduced stress. It has also been shown to help individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. Lastly, mindfulness meditation has also been linked to decreased feelings of loneliness in older adults.

For those who may be skeptical about mindfulness, it’s clear that there is strong scientific evidence to back up the positive health claims. However, let’s take a step back and break down the concept of mindfulness.

Defining mindfulness

While there is no one agreed upon definition of mindfulness, Weisbaum describes the concept as being aware of what’s happening inside and around us in the present moment. 

“Learning how to attend to the present moment, and not letting our minds run to the future and the past, is at the core of a lot of mindfulness practices,” she says.

Meditation is a well-known component of mindfulness and what Weisbaum describes as a “focused awareness practice.” However, there are many mindfulness tools, besides meditation, that people can incorporate into their lives. For instance, mindful eating and even mindful movement like yoga are also ways for people to engage in the practice. These variations are what other mindfulness practitioners call “engaged mindfulness.”

“Engaged mindfulness is about taking some of the core foundations of what we call mindfulness practice and seeing where they weave
into your everyday life.”

“Engaged mindfulness is about taking some of the core foundations of what we call mindfulness practice and seeing where they weave into your everyday life,” she explains. Daily activities like brushing your teeth or eating breakfast are great opportunities to bring your attention back to your body, instead of letting your mind wander to other places.

However, mindfulness is more than just a collection of daily activities. It also involves a shift in perspective on how many people approach their lives.

“There are many times in our lives where we’re asked to focus on the present moment, like when we’re doing a task or when we’re working,” says Weisbaum. “The thing that’s novel and different about mindfulness is that it asks us to attend to those things with kindness and compassion towards ourselves and others.”

Changing our own narrative around aging is important tool that shifts how we feel about growing older. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, mjtaylor110.

Three ways to age mindfully

So now that we understand what mindfulness is and what it can do, how can we incorporate it into our daily lives? Here are Weisbaum’s key takeaways for older adults: 

•Rewrite the narratives around aging
As we all know, the conversation around aging is typically very negative and as the years go on, certain age-related hypothetical scenarios start to pop up in our heads. What if I get sick? What if I lose a loved one? My mother got cancer at this age. What if that happens to me? However, focusing on these potential negative outcomes can directly impact your current state of well-being.

“All these narratives and framing we have around aging predicts for us how we’re going to live out that experience,” says Weisbaum. So instead of fighting the clock, embrace it. Focus on how you feel right now, rather than how you might feel 10 years from now. By training your mind to focus on the sensations of the present moment – like the sun on your face or the feeling of your breath filling your lungs – you will find that you will feel happier and be less consumed with those stressful  “What If?” questions.

•Build up your mental fitness
Similar to establishing an exercise routine, it can take time to build up a regular mindfulness practice. If you set a really high, unattainable goal – say, to meditate for 30 minutes every day this week.

Many of us often spend our days rushing through daily tasks and distracting ourselves from negative emotions. Therefore, it can be quite overwhelming to do the opposite and take a step back and really focus on how you’re feeling at that moment.

“Just like with physical fitness, we want to build up our mental fitness in a way that makes sense for us,” says Weisbaum.

•Test out different types of practices
It’s a common misconception that mindfulness is about emptying your mind. You likely will get distracted while meditating or doing another kind of activity – and that’s okay. Noticing these moments and redirecting your attention back to the area of focus is all part of the practice.

Take the time to find a practice that works for you. For example, if you have mobility issues, instead of doing a practice like a body scan, which would require getting up and down from the floor, you can try doing a seated meditation in a chair.

While it might feel awkward or uncomfortable at first, over time, practicing mindfulness can be a great way to truly embrace getting older and adopt a more positive mindset about aging.

“Often where we find challenges, we have the greatest growth,” says Weisbaum.