Resilience Protective Factors in an Older Adult Population: A Qualitative Interpretive Meta-Synthesis

swrSocial work research is critical to discovering new insights into the needs of citizens, and to developing useful strategies for assisting and empowering people in times of stress and in their daily lives. Research is vital, but often the findings of the research are too compartmentalized to receive widespread attention and discussion. One solution is to analyzing and combining multiple studies (meta-synthesis) in order to obtain broader insights. These insights can have far-reaching implications for social work practice.

In a recent issue of the journal Social Work Research, published by NASW Press, Kristin W. Bolton, PhD, MSW, Regina T. Praetorius, PhD, and Alexa Smith-Osborne, PhD, published their findings from a meta-synthesis of studies on factors that contribute to resiliency in older adults. Studying resiliency adds to the strengths-based perspective in social work, which focuses on a client’s strengths instead of pathologies.

The researchers reviewed the literature on resiliency in older adults, and through a specific process of winnowing (detailed in the article) they arrived at a revealing set of studies on resiliency. From this, they determined nine overarching factors that contribute to resiliency in older adults:

  1. External connections: these include family, social, and community connections; they may be formal or informal, and may include recreational activities with others.
  2. Meaningfulness: a sense of meaningfulness can come from spiritual or philosophical grounding, and may involve religious practices; the grounding leads to a lessened sense of existential loneliness.
  3. Grit: this factor involves determination, or the will to survive and refusal to be defeated, as well as positively adapting to conditions of frailty.
  4. Positive perspective on life: Positivity not only includes optimism, but also the desire and motivation to pursue dreams and not be overwhelmed by problems.
  5. Previous experience with hardship: overcoming hardship, such as grief, loneliness, and other adversities in the past can contribute to resilience in the present.
  6. Self-care: self-care involves both the body and the mind; in addition to maintaining one’s physical health, resilient people also manifested continuous curiosity and valued education highly.
  7. Independence: a resilient person would also feel a sense of mastery and control over her life, and a belief in herself.
  8. Self-acceptance: this factor includes confronting mortality and aging, with a positive, affirming outlook.
  9. Altruism: resilient people manifest a care for others, and extend themselves in giving, advocacy, volunteer work, mentoring, etc.

The findings from this study can impact service delivery by social workers and others who work with aging populations. Emphasizing the strengths that older persons have developed over their lifetimes, social workers can help them to build resiliency through external connections, meaningfulness, grit, positive perspectives, reflections on past experiences with hardships, practicing self-care, maintaining a level of independence, and developing self-acceptance and altruism. The authors call on further studies to solidify a practice for empowering older adults to be resilient throughout their lives.


  1. Nancy Jensen, LCSW

    I work with older adults and found this research very interesting. I intuitively feel that some of my depressed older clients are mourning their role losses (worker-parent-caregiver) that come with age. I encourage my clients to use tools like reminiscence and life review to keep their meaningful life experiences alive , but it is a challenge.

  2. This study is very important. These are, however, correlations, not propose as causes. Where in this list might intervention even be possible? One’s past experience of surviving hardships cannot be changed, for example. Grist for new – and URGENTLY NEEDED studies!

  3. diane kopan LCSW

    This is astoundingly important! It is strengthening and sustaining and anticipating my resolve to continue to enhance my practice as an advocacy-oriented psychotherapist and past community organizer and planner for community mental health.

  4. This research is helpful to those who work with older adults. I wonder if future research in this arena will demonstrate any unique aspects of Social Work interventions (versus other professions) that will provide quantitative evidence and marketability of a Social Work degree.

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