This is another of my psychologically oriented blogs. resilienceIt’s about a concept well-known to the person in the street. It’s called resilience or being resilient. Otherwise known as don’t let the bastards grind you down.

Retirement is a time of change. Change can be stressful. Stress has a few obvious faces for the retired person – less money, loss of status, fewer nights out, less expensive holidays and so on. However, it’s true to say that dealing with stress and so getting the most out of retirement is easier for a resilient person. So far so good and straight forward. It gets a little more complicated when we ask, what actually is resilience? Or, what makes a person resilient? How come some people cope well with the most extraordinarily stressful situations and others crumble at the threat of a rainy day when we haven’t got an umbrella?

The research we carried out when I worked as educational psychologists before my retirement, attempted to make sense of what this ‘thing’ called resilience actually constituted when applied to children . It turned out a definition of resilience is a little bit more than coping well with stress. When working with students in order to help them understand what we meant by this term resilience, we started out with the analogy of a rubber band – expanding under pressure to accommodate demands but then capable of returning to its original shape. But this did not seem quite right. We thought, perhaps more appropriately, resilience was like a muscle, in the sense that a muscle grows stronger through use. We liked this analogy because it brings into focus the idea, important to a definition of resilience, that we can grow stronger through adversity or, at least, challenge. In this sense, problems are actually good for people who are resilient. Retirement becomes, for the resilient person, an opportunity to grow, to develop. To expand but while retaining some of our original ‘shape’. Problems really are opportunities.

A further exploration of the research identified those characteristics that resilient children possessed. Incidentally, we were only interested in these characteristics if we felt they could be developed in those pupils that lacked resilience. We were not the least interested in identifying the qualities and then saying – if you’ve got them that’s great, if you haven’t tough luck. A point to bear in mind when it comes to applying the skills to the retired person. I believe that the skills described here can be developed or, at the very least, recognised and compensated for at a retirement level. However, the idea that the skills we identify are developable in the retired person is less clear cut because by retirement age it may be the case that our skill levels are pretty well set. Pretty well, but not, I believe, completely. There is always room for improvement.

The summary of our research with children was as follows. Children who were resilient, first, had a good understanding of their emotions and the effect of these emotions on their behaviour. Also, perhaps more important, they could deal with, take control of, these emotions rather than be the victim of them.  Second, they had good problem-solving skills, they cognitively understood what the nature of a problem might be and hence had the skills to resolve these problems or at least had an increased chance of doing so by virtue of what we might call their intellect. They were, through their cognitive skills, capable of reframing negative events or even negative emotions. For example, a problem does really become an opportunity or a challenge to be met; being sad about failure shows that you cared and need to try again. Pain becomes equitable with persistence rather in the way top athletes interpret it. Elite athletes, so we are told, are motivated by failure rather than crushed by the weight of if it. They reframe their failure as an incentive to try again.

This same intellect enabled the child to recognise a similar problem when it happened in the future. You might say they had learned from their ‘mistakes’. Third, and finally, they had, what we called, good social skills. In this way they were able to call upon the resources of others to help them deal with life’s challenges. Having the support from some form of caring adult is, unsurprisingly, a great help in becoming resilient although too much ‘cosseting’ and the child does not develop any ‘toughness’ because they’ve never had to stand on their own two feet, as we say. This last point is an important one within the concept of resilience.

As far as I am aware, no comparable research has been carried out with adults and certainly not specifically with retired people. But it is not too difficult to consider how the above might translate into a retirement setting. So, in simple terms, this suggests, if the above is transferable, that for a retired person to have a ‘successful’ retirement, however that might be defined by an individual, that is to meet the challenges of retirement, they need to be able to understand and control the emotional aspects of retirement – dealing with a feeling of being useless, for example. Or understanding the inevitable highs and lows or the mood swings often associated with retirement.

A resilient retired person will have a certain degree of ‘acumen’ or intelligence. They will ‘have the brains’ to work out their retirement goals, to make plans and to ensure these plans are workable. To use their problem-solving skills to work round obstacles to their retirement well-being. A resilient retiree might be said to possess the resolve, the motivation to intellectually work out what is required and what should be avoided. An obvious example being to make sure that one had enough money to live comfortably in retirement but, cognitively, setting good goals is another example.

Finally, people who are happiest in retirement, to put it at its simplest, have friends (a recent piece of research I heard briefly referred to on the radio said a person needed only two things for a happy retirement – good health and friends, so that makes the latter rather important), they can call on for basic social interaction at the simplest level, through to support at difficult times. For example, they might decide that as they are somewhat lacking in the intellectual / planning side of retirement and so this is an area where they need support. They might feel they are too prone to their mood swings and ask a friend to be their sounding board and an aid to better coping skills or helping a person develop, what if often called, emotional intelligence (an area along with multiple intelligences that I will write more about in the future). Of the three above areas probably this last one is the ‘easiest’ to take control of but, of course, we’re all different in what we find easy or hard.

So a brief summary of resilience as it applies to a retired person. In the sense mentioned at the beginning of this blog, every problem is an opportunity. Yes, it is a cliché, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that retirement which is, as we’ve said, a time of great challenge, is a marvellous opportunity not only to show resilience but to actually become a better person as a result of the many challenges of the retirement experience.

“Life ain’t all you want but it’s all you got. Stick a flower in your hat and be ‘appy.”
Cockney saying

“Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that’s good.”
Elizabeth Edwards

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