Franz Euler, 79, is a no-nonsense electrical engineer who designed architectural fluorescent lighting fixtures before he retired in 2001. But for the past two years, he's been taking a class where he's been learning about meditation, positive thinking and yoga — and loving it.
"It's creating a linear improvement in my overall outlook — things are always getting better," says Euler, who suffers from anxiety and arthritis, but enjoys the class so much that he's taking it for the third time. "I'm getting more of my agonies behind me."
The class is called "Successful Aging," a nine-week course at Massachusetts General Hospital where Harvard University health psychologist Ann Webster, PhD, uses a range of mind-body techniques to help older Bostonians — many of them living alone, with physical problems — gain a new outlook on life.
"Everything I teach in this program is about self-care," says Webster, who also directs the Mind/Body Cancer Program at Mass General's Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine. "Instead of just going to your doctor and taking a pill for everything, you can learn to do things to help you feel healthier and live longer."
Those self-help techniques include relaxation strategies, eating healthily, exercising and cultivating positive thinking, among others.
"I think the program helps people face their challenges and keep things in perspective," she says.
Webster dispenses her evidence-based advice armed with a spunky attitude and a formidable pedigree. Before entering psychology in the late 1980s, she worked in the New York fashion industry designing clothing for girls. When a beloved aunt who was battling cancer told her what a difference volunteers had made during her hospital stays, Webster was moved to get volunteer training at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. There, she had an epiphany similar to that of the Buddha stepping outside his palace walls and seeing suffering for the first time.
"I had never worked in a hospital, and I'd never seen some of the things I saw there," she recalls. "It totally changed my life."
After earning a doctorate in health psychology from Albert Einstein School of Medicine in 1988, she spent the next 25 years directing mind-body programs for cancer and AIDS patients, first at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, then at Mass General, helping people cope with their illnesses and improve their quality of life. (She is making a documentary, "Everything Matters," about five of her patients who were told they didn't have long to live, and are still alive and thriving up to two decades later.)
Her extensive training includes work with renowned University of Waterloo psychologist Donald Meichenbaum, PhD, one of the founders of cognitive behavior therapy, and an internship and later collaboration with Herbert Benson, MD, the Harvard cardiologist and mind-body expert who pioneered the concept of the "relaxation response" in the 1970s. The theory holds that just as we can enter an unhealthy "fight or flight" pattern while under stress, we also have the ability to calm our minds and bodies by decreasing the activity of the sympathetic nervous system through meditation, hypnosis, guided imagery and other relaxation techniques.
Webster began applying these concepts to aging in 2009.
Older adults love her fun, graceful and accessible style, which helps them integrate information that is sometimes unfamiliar to them, says psychiatrist Larry Lifson, MD, who directs Harvard's continuing-education program and regularly invites Webster and Benson to give seminars.
"When I think about the populations she has devoted most of her life's attention to — chronically ill people — her kind of style, empathy and caring can be so helpful," Lifson says.
Juice and zest
Webster's program participants come from all over the Boston area and all walks of life. Their average age is 75, and many are retired and have lost their spouses. Most battle physical problems, such as insomnia and arthritis pain, or more serious conditions including cancer, Parkinson's disease and dementia. Insurance, Medicare and Medicaid all cover the sessions, which qualify as group therapy. And her classes have waiting lists, which these days are two classes deep.
The sessions cover the gamut of topics that can affect seniors' daily lives — everything from decreasing stress to staying fit to engaging more fully in life, all undergirded with research and humor. The classes are both didactic and experiential, so that besides talking about each topic, Webster starts each class with a relaxation response technique. She also has participants keep weekly journals on their physical symptoms, on topics that arise during each session, and on homework related to those topics, such as cultivating gratitude or making nutrition changes at home. Then she has them read key sections to classmates so they can inspire each other.
The first session begins with an overview of Benson's relaxation response, which she supplements with a guided imagery CD she asks participants to listen to daily. In this session, she also teaches "minis" — short, easy-to-remember breathing and counting exercises to foster relaxation — that people can do any time during the day.
"The minis are great to practice in stressful situations like waiting for medical news, going through a scary medical procedure or being stuck in traffic," she says. "I tell my participants that their breath is always with them — to think of it as a friend and ally."
Other sessions teach participants cognitive behavioral techniques to combat negative or fearful thinking, such as "awfulizing" — blowing negative events out of proportion — and "fortune telling," or jumping to conclusions before you have all the facts. Another week, Webster brings in a nutrition expert to talk about healthy eating. There's also a session on keeping your mind active, or "mental aerobics," which research shows can foster nerve regeneration, which is particularly important for older people because such renewal is thought to prevent mental decline, Webster says. "I tell people to do crossword puzzles, go to a yoga class that teaches you all new movements, study a language, get back to a musical instrument," she says. "Whatever it is, make it something new, and you can experience nerve growth. That won't happen if you keep doing the same old thing."
One of Webster's favorite sessions targets resiliency, or "vital engagement" — the connection with meaningful activities and people in one's life. In this session, she talks about the characteristics of resilient people, which include having a sense of commitment, meaning and purpose. Participants set goals based on passions and buried dreams, and in the next class, Webster asks what steps they've taken to realize their visions.
"When they get in touch with things they want to do," she says, "it gives them juice and zest."
As the class progresses, changes begin to occur, Webster says. Participants' physical symptoms start to improve. "By week three or four, people are sleeping better and reporting less pain," she says. The classes also significantly increase participants' self-efficacy and morale, according to one unpublished study conducted by Matthew Scult, then a psychology graduate student at the Benson-Henry Institute.
The cognitive behavioral therapy techniques start to have an impact, as well. Euler says the strategies have helped him relinquish control in some key areas: He no longer insists on doing his taxes alone, and he's trying to accommodate his wife's new vegan diet, as much as he'd prefer to eat pulled pork sandwiches.
"It's like the old Sinatra song says, ‘You gotta accentuate the positive,'" he says. "But you find yourself actually doing that sort of thing."
Josephine Carbonaro, 71, a retired educator at Harvard and Tufts University, says she and her husband practice gratitude techniques at home that Webster has taught them, including "shout outs" — loudly vocalizing what you're thankful for.
"Warm clothes! Food on the table! Ann Webster!" Carbonaro demonstrates with a laugh. "We do it together at night, and it really changes how you feel."
Others decide to volunteer or embark on new adventures. One participant in her 70s opted to take yoga teacher training at Kripalu, a center for yoga and health in western Massachusetts. A 95-year-old woman left class with a renewed interest in jazz and a decision to have a new sound system installed in her room in an assisted living facility. And one cancer survivor volunteered to pass out coffee and tea to cancer patients at a Boston hospital.
"That just changed his life," says Webster. "When you do something altruistically, it's good for your own health."
Besides the mind-body techniques she purveys, Webster says peer bonding has a huge influence.
"Like many of us, most of these people are used to staying at home and sitting behind screens," she says. "The fact that these groups are held face-to-face is really important." Many participants stay in touch after the classes, she says.
Webster has a special way of helping older adults see the silver lining in their "golden years," adds Barbara Moscowitz, who directs Mass General's Senior HealthWISE (Wellness, Involvement, Support and Education) program, which oversees Webster's classes.
"Ann's message is, ‘Whatever your body is doing or not doing for you, there is so much to live for if you could join me in opening up your mind and your heart,'" Moscowitz says. "And that's what they seem to do."
Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.
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