Conscious aging: Research supports a ‘plasticity’ of the brain that we can learn from

Nancy Sawtelle and Emily Rice are two Eugene residents who teach a class that focuses on the mental and spiritual aspects of the aging process.

We all know we’re getting older, don’t we? After all, it’s hard not to wake up in the morning and realize you’re a day older. The physical changes become more obvious, and there are mental changes as well — it can be depressing.

Eugene’s Emily Rice, 62, and Nancy Sawtelle, 60, have been helping women navigate these changes through a series of “conscious aging” workshops, which focus on the mental and spiritual aspects of the aging process.

“The Conscious Aging Workshop for Women was designed by the Institute of Noetic Sciences, so it’s based on research, and then it was developed for people over 55 or so,” Rice says. “This is primarily because there’s a large number of boomers in the population, combined with people living longer and the desire for people to live the third stage of their life in a productive and happy way and not be grumpy old people, so they developed this workshop.”

The Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) was founded in 1973 by Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who, in 1971, became the sixth man to walk on the moon. He reported a sense of “universal connectedness” on the way back from outer space. In his words, “The presence of divinity became almost palpable, and I knew that life in the universe was not just an accident based on random processes … The knowledge came to me directly.”

IONS studies the knowledge systems surrounding this inner and outer awareness that many people experience or want to understand more fully.

The website outlines their areas of study, which include the effects of meditation, prayer and even how chocolate affects mood.

Conscious Aging fits under the education category, and IONS provides resources for facilitators to offer an eight-session workshop series on Conscious Aging in their local communities.

Currently, more than 600 IONS Conscious Aging facilitators are conducting workshops around the world. The goal of the workshops is to empower participants to celebrate the later stages of their lives, and harvest all the wisdom and experiences they have sewn with less fear and anxiety about growing older.

“We put our workshop on just for women,” Rice says. “Women sit together in small groups of three or four and talk about these topics. And I can tell you without a doubt, out of the three workshops we’ve held so far, one of the greatest benefits is talking with other people.”

Rice says the workshops can be taken online, but the benefit of the workshop is intentionally getting together with others in your same situation to take on the topic of aging.

“We talk about reviewing the past, learning what you can from the past, letting go of something from the past, setting intentions for the future and rethinking some of the information we have been given about aging so we can think about it in a more positive way,” she says.

Sawtelle says she is “smack dab” in the beginning process of “eldering,” or re-envisioning herself as growing older. She became involved with IONS as a student of neuroplasticity, which is the scientific belief that many aspects of the brain can be altered (like “plastic”) even into adulthood.

Before this new research, it was widely believed that the brain developed in early childhood and then remained essentially unchanged. Behavior, environmental stimuli, thought and emotions may all affect brain structure.

“I found the ideas of reframing our belief system, letting go and forgiving (to be) profoundly liberating,” Sawtelle says.

Since retiring, she’s completed training as a life coach and women’s retreat leader.

“There is so much research into neuroplasticity that changing your thinking, even when you’re older, can change how you feel,” Sawtelle says. “It’s easy to have a pessimistic bent, but the research is demonstrating how to create practices for yourself to shift that so we can be happier as we age.”

Rice took the online course on the advice of a friend, then became a facilitator — and friend — with Sawtelle.

“We found these topics really resonate with us,” Rice says, “the review, forgiveness, letting go, setting your intention. We decided to get authorized to facilitate the workshops and put one on last winter. The response has been wonderful and we continued to do it.”

They’ve offered their workshops at Eugene’s Unity of the Valley and Willamalane Adult Activity Center. When they offered their first workshop for women ages 55 to 70, “we got corrected by a few women who said workshops are a matter of mind not age and since then we’ve had women who are over 70,” Rice says. “It’s been very rewarding to see the interaction between the people in their 60s and 70s.”

Workshop participants come from a wide background, from homemakers to those with careers. “Different walks of life, but they find they have a lot in common and that’s very reassuring,” Rice says. “It’s comforting to know that other women are thinking and having issues about some of the same things that they are, and that they’re open to talking about it. It’s amazing that after one or two sessions women open their heart to what’s going on.”

As women, they felt more comfortable teaching the workshop to women only, and participants say they appreciate it because women have a different perspective.

Rice and Sawtelle are open to conducting the workshops for men, or for men and women combined, if they can find a male facilitator.

The workshops are six to eight sessions of individual modules. Each weekly session is a combination of inspirational readings, small group discussions, individual writing, guided meditation, and large group sharing limited to 16 women.

It’s “not for wimps,” Rice says with a smile. The discussions are a lot of work, and it takes emotional strength to accept and acknowledge some things that can be difficult. At Unity of the Valley, for example, the topic was forgiveness. “It brings things up that you maybe haven’t dealt with yet,” Sawtelle says. “It’s like going to self-compassion training.”

They charged a sliding scale fee of $80 to $100 at Unity of the Valley, which included the course workbook and other materials.

“We don’t talk about physical things, we talk about mental and spiritual aspects of aging,” Rice says. “It’s more aligned with personal growth. We want to make it available to everyone and not so expensive that we exclude people. What keeps me doing this is not the money. It’s really a service opportunity, and people say they haven’t found another venue that is offering this.”

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