This story is part of The Resilience Project, a Stuff and Sunday Star-Times investigation into how people have survived life shocks. Go here for stories about financial and business resilience, or teaching your children resilience.
Joan Rutherford exercises frequently, works up to 10 hours a week and enjoys happy hour with other residents at her retirement village most days.
The 88-year-old was looking forward to an Australian cruise with friends when the Covid-19 lockdown began and now she’s out of pocket $5000. Her husband died 26 years ago and Rutherford has lived alone ever since.
But the Auckland woman credits her positivity and optimism for her long and healthy life. Aside from a few skin cancers, she says, she’s very healthy.
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She takes pride in her grandchildren and recently arrived great grand-child, she’s social and focuses on the things she can do.
“I find if I get down at all I begin to get headachey. As much as you can, be positive. It lifts you up.”
People over 80 tend to think about what’s going well for them in life, says associate professor at the University of Auckland’s School of Population and Health Janine Wiles.
Octogenarians are more likely to have had people close to them die, have dealt with illness or injury, perhaps multiple times, and might not be driving or living independently.
Overcoming these challenges and gaining experience also gives people a better repertoire of coping skills, she says.
Millennials – who are now aged between 22 and 38 – have become known as the burnout generation, with some research suggesting they respond to emotional exhaustion differently to Boomers.
Psychiatrist and University of Auckland senior lecturer Tony Fernando says studies have shown senior doctors tend to be more resilient than junior doctors, whose burnout rates are much higher.
“It could be life experience, or there might be some brain changes that make them more adaptable,” Fernando says. “Older people are more realistic, more accepting of life, more accepting of illness and death because it’s real to them, and they’ve seen it.
“People will think those who are older, they have more illness, they have more loss, they’re frail, or not living in their own homes any more – you would expect they are more fragile. No, they’re not.”
Stuff journalist Brittany Keogh visits her 87-year-old nana at the place she’s worked at for 50 years – and has no plans to retire.
The Ministry of Health’s 2017 Healthy Ageing Strategy said by the age of 65 people can expect to live half their remaining lives free of disability, or with manageable, functional limitations. The strategy sought to prioritise resilience, saying there was increasingly clear evidence that healthy lifestyles and physical and mental resilience were determinants of health in older age.
“Resilient people are more likely to age well and avoid cognitive decline or loss of function until very late in life. Resilient people can overcome stressful obstacles and recover from events that might tip a less resilient person into state of poor health,” the report said.
Resilience develops through physical activity, healthy behaviours, mental wellbeing and social connectedness. Healthy behaviours included good nutrition, drinking minimally, not smoking tobacco, and taking part in mentally stimulating activities and relationships. There was strong evidence that social isolation or loneliness was linked to poor mental and physical health outcomes.
Health literacy was also important. People needed to be empowered to make decisions that affected their health and care. Resilience included the capacity to make good decisions, act on health information and navigate the health system.
Professor Wiles says discussion about resilience in health needed to steer away from individual to collective responsibility. Resilience was just as much about having access to resources, and knowing how to seek support, as it was a personal outlook.
Exercise, for example, was one of the most important things in building good brain health, but not everyone had the luxury of being able to walk safely, or easily.
Rowan Michel is testament to how much walking can build resilience. When he was discharged from hospital following a bone marrow transplant, he struggled to walk to the front door. Now, he and wife Robyn spend their days walking everywhere.
Rowan, 65, was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2018. Just days earlier his mum had died. Rowan and Robyn were living in a central Auckland apartment block they managed. When Robyn told their employers Rowan was sick, they were asked to leave.
After turning to an MP for help, the pair moved into state housing.
“I lost my job, lost my mother, lost accommodation, lost the car, almost lost my life, it all sort of dominoed, really,” Rowan said. “I’ve never heard of so many things happening all at once to a person. I don’t know how we endured it.”
Robyn knows: “The way we got through it is, when we lost the car, we started to walk.”
Rowan spent five weeks in hospital following a fifth attempt at a bone marrow transplant from a German donor that saved his life. The couple started building back his strength by walking in a figure eight around the living room before Robyn encouraged him to walk to the front door. Then they started walking outside and up the road.
“I used to say, ‘Rowan, come on, stand up straight, don’t look at your feet,” Robyn said. “Just look at where you’re going and don’t think about your legs’.”
Rowan would sit down on boxes along the street to catch his breath but now, the couple can walk all the way into the CBD from their home in Ōrākei.
“Robyn’s mum lives in Pukekohe and I’m almost thinking about walking there,” he said.
Rowan credits Robyn’s support for his recovery. If he is ever having a bad day, Rowan said he thinks about what he has been through and it stops his complaints in their tracks.
“I’m walking, I’m alive.”
Tony Fernando has treated people with chronic pain, illness, and sleep disorders. He considers himself a realist and tells his patients illness is as normal as break-ups, traffic, or a grumpy boss.
“You don’t have a lot of control over things in life, however we have a choice in how we respond. Accept it. Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation.
“I don’t actually tell people that things will get better. I tell people, ‘we have to be realistic. Anything can happen.’ We don’t have control over a lot of situations, but we can control how we respond to these situations, how we relate to this stress and these thoughts.
“In a health crisis we have the option of freaking out and thinking of the worst scenario, we have the option of ignoring it, or we have the option of seeing it for what it is. People think that having an illness is a problem. It’s not a problem, it’s part of being human. If someone views illness, or conflict, or rain, as a problem, then we’re not very realistic. It’s normal for us to have illness, to die.”
Fernando says more people than not will understand or accept health conditions, and continue to live their lives as best they can. Some will become so obsessed and focussed on their health issue that it becomes their whole life. Their energy focusses on fixing, rather than accepting, which creates more problems. They become anxious, and suffer more, Fernando says.
“They’re not at peace with what’s happened to them, and they’re carrying the extra burden of their response.”
Joan Rutherford says we’re all body, mind and spirit and neglecting just one of those will have a domino effect on our resilience and happiness. Lockdown was a test of that – the residents in her retirement village were separated and although they were treated very well by staff, and had a cheeky happy hour from a distance, she missed her family.
But, she had learned about overcoming loneliness when her husband died suddenly. Then, she forged on by joining social groups and spending time with friends, even though it wasn’t quite the same.
“You could get very down about it but that’s not very useful, is it? So I try and think of something good. Try to keep the mind going. I would say, change the things you can. Do something positive for yourself every day, and the things you can’t change, don’t dwell on them.”