Encyclopedia of Gerontology and Population Aging

Living Edition
| Editors: Danan Gu, Matthew E. Dupre

Meditation and Mindfulness: Resources for Aged Care

  • Bruce A. StevensEmail author
  • Nicole Brooke
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69892-2_146-1

Definition and Overview

There are no universally accepted definitions of meditation and mindfulness. Meditation can be thought of as an “umbrella term” for a range of practices to achieve a desired consciousness. Mindfulness is the act of focusing on present experience. Hence, it “is a type of meditation alongside tantra, yoga, sexuality, silence, breathing and emptiness” (Bushak 2016).

While almost every religion practices some form of contemplation, meditation has been developed in the Buddhist tradition. This incorporates three approaches: (a) focused attention on a single object say breath or body scan. (b) Open-monitoring meditation is to open up awareness to whatever is present in experience whether an emotion, a sound, or, for example, a cloud, which is observed from an emotional distance. (c) Heart practices encourage a positive attitude to self or others such as compassion in the loving-kindness meditation (Verhaeghen 2017). Mindfulness is the first approach. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the popularizers of mindfulness, defined it “paying attention in particular ways: on purpose, in the moment, and non-judgementally” (Kabat-Zinn 1994, p. 4). Note that mindfulness in the West, and especially in clinical practice, is usually secular and removed from its religious origins (Nilsson and Kazemi 2016).

Key Research Findings

There is considerable evidence to support the benefits of both meditation and mindfulness. Paul Verhaeghen (2017) has provided an extensive review to how both calm the body, increase control over attention, raise awareness of the body, and benefit the sense of self – all of which potentially leave traces on brain structure. It is only natural that such benefits would be relevant to the care of the aged.

An early study of transcendental meditation and mindfulness with groups of older adults found a positive benefit for both, but most benefit was from meditation (Alexander et al. 1989). Yoga was found to help balance (Wooten et al. 2018), to improve physical function (Tew et al. 2017), to reduce falls (Hamrick et al. 2017), and to improve well-being (Ojha and Yadav 2016). Preksha meditation reduced psychological symptoms and increased well-being (Sanchetee et al. 2017). Mantra meditation reduced pain and helped mood (Innes et al. 2018). T’ai Chi Chih was found to increase quality of life and benefit lifestyle issues (Vestal 2017). In a study with the dying, it was found that participants encouraged to do a daily meditation reported enhanced well-being (Candy et al. 2012). There is recent evidence that meditation leads to neural change (Afonso et al. 2017; Shao et al. 2016).

Mindfulness has been found to benefit older people. It can help to reduce emotional reactivity (Mroczek et al. 2013). Other benefits include improving sleep (Gallegos et al. 2018), reducing pain (Zhou et al. 2018), increasing acceptance, and psychological flexibility (Moss et al. 2015). Self-compassion, resulting from mindfulness, reduces self-punishing thoughts (Phillips and Ferguson 2013; Imtiaz and Kamal 2016). Mindfulness and self-compassion were combined with good effect (Perez-Blasco et al. 2016). The idea of “mindful sustainable ageing” has been proposed (Nilsson et al. 2015). A review article examined studies of mindfulness improving cognitive functioning. This was encouraging but within limits, such as small sample sizes (Berk et al. 2017). There are also indications of a positive effect of mindfulness interventions for those with dementia (Berk et al. 2018; Churcher Clarke et al. 2017). But even more encouraging are neurological studies with biological data (Boekel and Hsieh 2018; Malinowski et al. 2017; Chételat et al. 2017). This could lead to a shift in how we approach the ageing brain (Prakash et al. 2014).

Mindfulness can enhance therapeutic approaches to treating older patients (Smith 2004). It has been found to reduce the severity of trauma symptoms in survivors of World War 2 (Glück et al. 2016). A qualitative study reported positive results of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (Williams et al. 2018). There is also good evidence of effectiveness in treating older adults with depression (Kishita et al. 2017). Sometimes mindfulness has been included in a package of interventions, while this does not isolate an effect, perhaps such results add some support to effectiveness (McCarthy et al. 2018).

There is scant research on any adverse or negative outcomes related to meditation practices. Lindahl et al. (2017) identified that not everyone will respond positively to meditation. Where highly rigorous meditation practices have been evaluated, these have had evidence to suggest that there have been possible adverse outcomes but generally only with longer sessions of practice (Lustyk et al. 2009).

Spiritual Benefits

A religion is a set of beliefs about life and the self, is usually associated with established rituals, and is certainly spiritual, but spirituality is harder to define. John Swinton (2001) suggested that it is “the outward expression of the inner workings of the human spirit” (p. 20). It can also include the ideas of inclusiveness and transcendence. MacKinlay (2015) has argued that spirituality lies at the “heart” of being, and meeting the need for it helps the aged to flourish in the last stage of life. The positive contribution of religion, and spirituality more generally, has been widely acknowledged (George et al. 2013). While it is difficult to define and measure spirituality, researchers have found that a sense of transcendence, of being part of something beyond the self, and finding meaning in life contribute to aged people’s sense of well-being (Le and Doukas 2013). Religion and spirituality have a positive effect on cognitive function (Hosseini et al. 2017). In a review article, the spiritual care of the aged was found to be valuable (Jackson et al. 2016).

Can the benefits of religion or more generally spirituality be joined with the advantages of meditation and mindfulness?


Research indicates that meditation and related techniques such as mindfulness can be helpful with the aged. The trend is to practice both in a predominately secular way. This may, paradoxically, have the potential to be an inclusive spirituality, combining the spiritual dimension with therapeutic benefits (Stevens 2016). Perhaps it is easiest to apply this with mindfulness groups. Nilsson (2014) has linked a four-dimensional understanding of mindfulness to physical, mental, social, and existential resilience. The social aspect encourages empathy and compassion with others, perhaps including fellow members of a mindfulness or meditation group, paralleling the experience of “fellowship” in some religious groups, but with arguably more training to be empathic and understanding. The existential aspect of mindfulness builds on ideas from Erick Erikson and Victor Frankl about the importance of a search for meaning, which may be aided by the kind of sustained attention that mindfulness promotes.

Perhaps the challenge is to train people in the four dimensions and to integrate the four dimensions of mindfulness. Mindfulness provides a way that chaplains and activity directors can incorporate an inclusive spirituality for older people. This might be a way of providing the benefits of religion and spirituality in later years to enhance quality of life. A “mindfulness group” is not a hard sell, even with more traditional residents. It can be presented as just another activity to be tried.

Most of those currently in residential aged care, if they consider themselves religious, identify with a faith community. They value services of worship and the support of chaplains. However, that may change as the baby boomers arrive: they have weaker ties to Christianity, and many identify with a more generalized spirituality. How might we encourage them to take a more inclusive spiritual approach in order to reap the benefits identified in the research? The practice of mindfulness might be a way to do it.

A variation from more traditional mindfulness and mediation practices should be considered as fundamental within person-centered care approaches. Carl Rogers, a founding psychologist, identified the positive value of growing an awareness of senses and valuing the person. This has developed in care provision over decades of research and growth of the nursing profession to develop person-centered care. Tom Kitwood (1997) authored the concept of personhood to develop a person’s identity and purpose. One could argue that the next development of these concepts is mindfulness in care. The principles of mindfulness in care move the nurse and care staff to a greater concentration on the moment for the person, both the aged and the care giver. It is fundamentally driven by focusing on the needs of that person at the time in order to assist carers and nurses to:
  1. 1.

    Prioritize care delivery by listening and hearing the issues and needs of the aged

  2. 2.

    Increase assessment capability through focusing on the aged person with more detail gained from being in the moment rather than going through a series of questions or tasks to complete an assessment

  3. 3.

    Empower and engage the aged person to influence their goals and activities to ones that are important to them at a time, rather than potential assessed needs a year ago or even last week which may not be relevant to the current needs of that person


Practical application of this requires carers and nurses to have greater self-awareness of each moment in care delivery, whereby focused time is allocated to listen, hear, and be mindful to what is occurring for the aged person. Within this time period, a flexible approach to responding to the persons’ current goals, concerns, and needs is reprioritized and redirected to whatever the moment elucidates. The aged person truly becomes the center of care delivery and engages in choice and decision-making to facilitate an optimal partnership.

Meditation in a moment of care delivery may require silence although in practicality it requires a focused point of contact and being present with an aged person. Where silence is afforded, the ability of a carer or nurse to provide a noncomplicated engagement and build an awareness of the aged persons nonverbal responses and signs or symptoms, as well as being cognizant of the environment, is likely to provide some of the most powerful data points and comprehensive assessment opportunities for care delivery.

Organizational culture shifts need to occur to facilitate more flexible care delivery strategies, acknowledgement that assessment is ongoing rather than periodic and staff self-awareness, along with development of capability in emotional intelligence will be critical to the development of this approach.


Mindfulness and meditation are significant opportunities for improving the care delivery and quality of care to an aged person. Fundamentally, the ability of nurses and carers to engage in greater awareness and focus at each moment in care provision is likely to increase the health outcomes, engagement, and shared partnership of an aged person. Opportunity to grow research and data to support this approach should be considered in the future.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.TheologyCharles Sturt UniversityBartonAustralia
  2. 2.The Salvation Army, Aged CareRedfern/SydneyAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Rhonda Shaw
    • 1
  1. 1.School of PsychologyCharles Sturt UniversityPort MacquarieAustralia