Resilience Helps us Adapt to Changes as we Age with Disability

What is this research about?

As people with physical disabilities get older, they may find that some problems, such as chronic pain, depressed mood, or fatigue (feeling tired), get worse. However, many of us adapt well as we age with conditions like multiple sclerosis (MS) or spinal cord injury (SCI), even if we experience frequent pain or fatigue. Resilience is one factor that could explain how we adapt to disability as we get older. Resilience is the ability to bounce back and keep going while under stress. In this research, we looked at resilience levels for people of different ages and with different kinds of disabilities. We also looked at the relationships between resilience, experiences with pain and fatigue, mood, and overall quality of life.

What did the researchers do?

We mailed surveys to about a thousand adults with either muscular dystrophy (MD), multiple sclerosis (MS), post-polio syndrome (PPS), or spinal cord injury (SCI). On the survey, we asked the participants questions about their resilience, such as how often they feel that stress makes them stronger or that they can adapt to changes in their lives. We also asked about experiences with pain, fatigue, and depressed mood. Finally, participants rated their overall quality of life on a scale between “as bad as possible” and “as good as possible."

What did the researchers find?

We found that, on average, the participants’ resilience levels were slightly lower than adults without disabilities. Participants who were middle-aged (between ages 45 and 64) reported lower resilience than the older adults (age 65 and older). This could be because physical disability may be harder to manage during middle age, when we tend to have more work and family responsibilities. We also found that the participants with MD and MS had lower resilience than the participants with PPS and SCI. Because MD and MS tend to be progressive and slowly get worse over time, it may be harder to adapt to these conditions than to a sudden disability like SCI.

Participants who had worse pain, worse fatigue, or more depressed moods reported being less resilient. Resilience, in turn, had strong associations with mood and quality of life. The results suggest that symptoms like pain and fatigue could affect quality of life by making it harder to be resilient. If we learn to become more resilient, problems like pain and fatigue could have less of an effect on our overall quality of life.

How can you use this research?

Resilience is an important resource that helps us adapt to changes as we age. You can build your resilience by:

  • Spending time with family, friends and other people in your community.
  • Doing things that you enjoy and find meaningful.
  • Thinking about things you are grateful for. Gratitude can help foster resilience.
  • Taking care of your body by exercising, eating well and getting enough rest. (See our factsheets on Exercise and Sleep)
  • Mindfulness meditation has been linked with resilience. Learn more here.

Things you should know:


Original Research Article:

Terrill AL, Molton IR, Ehde DM, Amtmann D, Bombardier CH, Smith AE, Jensen MP. Resilience, age, and perceived symptoms in persons with long-term physical disabilities. J Health Psychol. 2016 May; 21(5): 640-649.