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
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.”
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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self-efficacy and morale, according to one unpublished study conducted by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
Health WISE (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.” n
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