Mastery & Resilience: A Tale of Two Women Coping with Late-Life Loss

Old age invites the opportunity for losses as well as gains. Losses associated with growing older include decreased physical function and the deterioration of health. There are also losses associated with relationships and social networks. Collectively, researchers have argued that these losses have deleterious impacts on older adults, resulting in a diminished sense of mastery and general loss of control of the quality of one’s life.

The concept of resilience has gained interest within gerontological research. Resilience can be described as the capacity to navigate adversity in a manner that protects health, well-being, and life satisfaction. The ability of older adults to fare well in the face of adversity, loss, and perceived lack of control is a phenomenon of particular interest. How are older adults able to maintain satisfaction and an overall sense of well-being as they experience adversity and hardship associated with aging? To address this question, researchers explored and critically analyzed narratives of two older women—Mrs. Smits and Mrs. Verhoeven—who were navigating challenges associated with preparing to move into a long-term care community.

Three overarching issues relating to resilience emerged from the critical analysis of the two narratives: the perception of one’s situation, openness to one’s vulnerability, and responsiveness to help and support from others.

For both women, perception of one’s situation was an important factor in dealing with anticipated and actual loss. For Mrs. Smits, cognitive reappraisal and framing was a potential detriment to her experience with loss. Her perception of her situation was largely negative and problem-based. Conversely, for Mrs. Verhoeven, perception of one’s situation served as a source of strength and tool for potential growth. She was able to frame for the positive and find the opportunity for growth in the face of loss or similar events that would ordinarily result in a lack of mastery or control.

Acceptance and openness to one’s vulnerability was also an important component in maintaining mastery in situations that invited loss of control. For both women, activating social supports and accessing social ties were essential in their abilities to deal with vulnerability and loss of control. In other words, having a healthy social support network enabled them to manage vulnerability and find sources of comfort and strength despite loss. Another general source of strength for both participants was the ability to access help and support from their social networks. Asking for help and support was vital in their ability to maintain mastery and bolster resilience in the face of loss.

Overall, this study has shown that life burden and function varies from person to person, and is interpreted and responded to accordingly. Furthermore, this study indicated that mastery and resilience are outcomes of long processes that develop over the life course, which involve sense-making (i.e., giving meaning to experiences). The importance of framing for the positive is important in terms of how a situation marked by loss is both perceived and experienced. Other significant findings included the importance of social connections as a tool for bolstering mastery and resilience in later life.

The practice implications for this work should encourage providers to pay attention to people preparing for or living in long-term care settings. These individuals will often maintain their ability to demonstrate mastery and resilience in the face of loss. Practitioners and providers are encouraged to provide opportunities for balanced and participatory social engagement for older adults as they manage age-related hardships and adversities.


Janssen B, Abma T, and Van Regenmortel T. Maintaining mastery despite age related losses. The resilience narratives of two older women in need of long-term care community. Journal of Aging Studies (2012), 26: 343–354. 

Self-Fulfilling ProphecyHow Perceptions of Aging Affect Our Later Years

Learn how older adults’ perceptions of aging—and their self-perceptions—can have serious effects on their health, behaviors, and even longevity.

Download FREE Copy

    Add insight to your inbox

    Join our email list to receive information about the latest research from Mather Institute. Just complete the form below to subscribe.

    Thank you!

    You are now subscribed to the email list.
    A confirmation has been sent to the email you provided.

    Continue to Website Share with a Friend