In this paper we address four questions. First, are older adults among this sample of participants, who live in poverty, resilient? Broadly speaking the answer is yes. We classified 75 % of our sample as resilient. Second, is the ecological approach an effective framework for understanding resilience in the context of poverty in this sample? Third, if the framework aids out understanding of resilience, how do the resilience factors identified in the context of poverty match onto the factors in the framework outlined in Fig. 1? We find that our data map onto ecological framework in terms of individual, community and societal factors. However, we find that there are some additional factors to be added to the ecological model, and conversely some factors present in the original model for which are not supported by the findings of this study. For ease of reading we address questions 2 and 3 together. Finally, we ask how may resilience be promoted in older people who are not yet resilient? We address this issue in our discussion.
Are Older Adults among Sample Participants Who Live in Poverty, Resilient?
Table 2 shows the demographic characteristics of the participants. Of the 16 participants, 12 were identified as resilient and four were not. In the non-resilient group, the two women participants were active in the Project and the two men were on the Project’s waiting list and were not receiving the monthly allowance. Three participants had been exposed to additional stressors. One man was forcibly displaced (Mr. 3) and the two women were suffering either from disability or illness (Mrs. 1 and Mrs. 2). The fourth non-resilient participant was Mr. 4. Within the resilient group there were also participants who had been exposed to additional stressors: Mr. 14 was awaiting surgery and Mrs. 13 was caring for a sick daughter and was not receiving the allowance. Thus, it was not an accumulation of stressors that contributed per se to a lack of resilience.
We give two detailed illustrations of how we classified our participants. Mr. 8 was classified as resilient because he showed no obvious sign of distress. He had adapted to a life of poverty, and viewed his life positively:
Currently I feel fine, I do not feel bored, I do not feel afflicted, because you have to try to get ahead, because some people may feel bad. You need to get ahead and be active.
On the other hand Mrs. 1 was not resilient because she is distressed, not positive about her circumstances and is unable to participate fully in life.
Well, because of the years I have and who knows until when God will remember me, and I feel sad and feel alone. And well I don’t know if my children will be able to bear with me and help me anymore, and I hope that welfare (The Project) will not leave me.
Is the Ecological Approach an Effective Framework for this Sample and how Do Resilience Factors Map onto the Framework Outlined in Fig. 1?
Overall we find that the factors that emerge from our analysis map well onto the ecological framework at individual, community and societal levels. We discuss factors at each level in turn. We highlight where new factors are relevant and also identify factors in the framework which did not emerge in our analysis.
Individual Level of the Ecological Model of Resilience
Four individual factors were noticeable in distinguishing the resilient participants from those who were not: psychological resources/factors; material resources; biological resources; and gender and age.
We found several psychological factors common to our resilient participants. The first was mastery. Mr. 14 suggested that his ability to deal with what life threw at him enabled him to thrive, alongside an awareness that there would always be problems that would need to be confronted:
My life hasn’t been easy, but I know how to deal with that… problems will always exist…it is not that because you don’t have money, you’ll feel ashamed, no, no. (Mr. 14 Resilient)
Other participants demonstrated life-long optimism, as illustrated by this man:
You have to be active! Even if you are sick, say no! I’m blessed! Even if a knee is hurting, say to yourself “I am healthy”. Not like other people, that when are asked "what do you feel?" they answered "Sick .... Sick ...” , well then called over the disease, one has to be active, and draw forces from you don’t have. (Mr. 10, Resilient)
A sense of control was apparent amongst the resilient participants. Mrs.7 suggested that having control over what she could cook was important:
Very important (the allowance), because I don’t have to depend on what my daughter is going to cook for lunch, because I know what I have and what I can do today, what I have to cook for tomorrow.
In contrast, a lack of control contributed to Mr. 3’s lack of resilience. He was forcibly displaced by guerillas and talked about how his life had changed from one in which he was in control to one in which he no longer was, and this made him unhappy:
A horrible thing, the sadness is killing me, because I used to live where I lead, where I decided everything… because what had happened is that I have to wait till 1 or 2 p.m. to drink a cup of coffee, or chocolate, I have to wait for people’s good will. (Mr. 3, Non-resilient)
Control is important for resilience in two ways. First, for most participants there is an objective lack of control through their lack of money. At the same time, what appears to be more important in terms of whether participants are resilient or not is perceived control. Mrs. 7 has only the allowance, less than 2 US$ a day which does not give her much objective control over her life, but she perceives and exercises control with her limited budget in determining what she can eat.
The second individual factor influencing resilience is the presence of material resources. Participants spoke most often of how money allowed them, or prevented them, from paying the rent. In the case of Mr. 8, his resilience was enhanced because he had money that allowed him to buy things for the house:
Because I receive money as well, I say ‘Ok, what we are missing in the house?’ What do we have to buy? (Mr. 8, Resilient)
He demonstrated how being able to buy things allowed him to exert control over his life. Two resilient women talked about the importance of money to pay the rent. In both of these cases, the money came not from the Project but from other sources. Mrs. 13 said:
…then he (ex-boss) gave us a small house where to live, therefore, in that house there is like a small flat on the ground floor that is being rent out. We use that money to pay the food and bills. (Resilient)
In contrast, two of the non-resilient participants spoke of how the lack of money to pay the rent made them either ill or unhappy. Mr. 4 said:
…I feel desperate, yes. That is making me sick, not having money; for example, soon I have to pay the rent and I don’t have money, then ... I don’t sleep, because I keep thinking. (Non-resilient)
Mr. 8, although resilient, identified the problems of being without money for:
Being without money is sorrow, you feel bad when you don’t have any money in your pocket, to say I’m going to buy something…(Resilient)
Whilst these material resource issues function at the individual level, they also function at the community level such as housing (in)security. Mrs. 13 was provided with housing security and social support from her ex-employer. Further, since there were relatively few social policies that protected older people from financial insecurity or homelessness, it was also possible to see this as a societal level issue. It is also important to bear in mind that the participants were living in poverty. All but one either received the allowance or were on the waiting list, and thus received no money. All but one of the participants received less than the poverty line of the UN’s 2 US$ a day.
Resilience was enhanced by biological resources, which primarily concerned physical health. Many participants argued that good health was the key to wellbeing. Mrs. 16 summed up this view:
Health is to be able to walk, to see, to talk; to be able to eat, to do exercise, to be able to do everything… without asking favors to anybody, not even my family. (Resilient)
Resilience could be, at least temporarily, threatened by short-term anxieties about health, as outlined by Mr. 14:
At this moment I’m stressed because I will have a surgery. Then I think if I have to be one or two months recovering, I will feel uncomfortable because I will not be able to be with the group. (Resilient)
For some participants permanent health issues contribute to a lack of resilience:
The only thing that bothers me is that I cannot go out by myself like I used to do. (Mrs. 2, Non-resilient)
Mrs. 2’s poor health reduced her sense of personal control and, combined with the lack of social support, inadequate neighbourhood infrastructure and a lack of welfare services, contributed to her lack of resilience.
Gender and Age
In the original framework age and gender were identified as separate factors. However, in our data these two factors were interlinked. When participants were asked about what growing older meant to them there were gender differences amongst those who were resilient. Whilst the women associated ageing with new freedoms, men found it difficult to accept their age. Mr. 14 associated wellbeing with feeling young:
We have to pretend like if we were young, like fifteen years, twenty (Resilient).
Moreover, the male participants suggested that success was associated with money and recognition, but they found those difficult to achieve in later life. Mr. 5 said:
Now with the years I have, you don’t advance at all, so you have to be like this, because there is nothing else. I mean I can’t progress, I don’t have enough to start up a business and progress more. (Resilient)
On the other hand, the resilient women perceived aging in three ways: as the best time of their lives; (b) associated with freedom; and (c) as a time where they could think about themselves. When we asked Mrs. 15 “what do you like about ageing?” she replied:
Freedom! It’s the most beautiful thing I have. (Resilient)
She found that after a lifetime working as a live-in maid, it was only when she stopped working that she could begin to care about herself. Mrs. 7 said that after becoming a widow and attending the Project, her life changed:
I feel more secure in everything I do, in what I see, in what I feel… I started to feel like a bird that started to fly; because before I was next to my husband, a man who loved me, and I loved him for 40 years, 4 children; but it was 40 years of standing all his drunkenness. (Resilient)
Thus, for women, old age was liberating, whilst for men, old age was a potential threat to their resilience. This threat seemed grounded in men’s perceptions of losing their place in the world.
We note that although health behaviours appear in the original framework it does not emerge in our data. There are two reasons why this may be the case. First, questions about health focused on perceptions of health rather than health behaviours. Second, it may be that in order to enact health behaviours, such as exercise or diet, one needs to have a standard of living that permits the opportunity to think about these things.
Four factors contributed to resilience at the community level: family; social support; social participation; and social cohesion. We deal with family first in part because of the significance of family to Latinos (Cárdenas and López 2010) but also because it was the most important in our analysis. It is interesting to note that family was not specifically identified in the original resilience framework, although it has also recently also been highlighted by Donnellan et al. (2014).
The data demonstrates how non-supportive family contribute to a lack of resilience. Mr. 3 represents the clearest example of this, and these two quotes were especially relevant:
Well I’m with my son but I’m not ok there. After you become old you are a nuisance everywhere.
It is pretty bad, because I’m unprotected and all alone. Dr., my daughters, one is married and is in Tolima, but I don’t get along with my sons-in-law, …how I will be there? How I’ll go to live where the son-in-law don’t like me? … the help of nobody, … living with my son where I’m not welcome. (Non-resilient)
Mrs. 1 was suing her family and said:
I’m locked up here and alone. …apparently they are going to take me to other place, I don’t know, who will receive me... is that none of them, that’s why I sued them… (Non-resilient)
Conversely, resilient participants stressed the importance of their families, not only in terms of the support they received from them, but also in the support they give to their families:
I am the one that is looking after them (grandchildren), because their mother works. (Mrs. 9, Resilient)
For me (family) is very important, because after I became a widow 9 years ago, then I had the support of my children were found. (Mrs. 7, Resilient)
But family meant more than support. Family provided identity and status. The resilient men saw themselves as the head of the family, both financially and in status, as Mr. 14 said:
At least you get 80.000 pesos (the allowance – USD$40), and well at least you can give money to buy groceries, paid utilities… it is important to not waste them because that is for food and rent. (Resilient)
Mr. 14 continued:
My son, he knows I like that (community leadership), so he feels proud of me….
Mr. 8 echoed the importance of being head of the family:
I am the head, while you’ll exist, you are the head of the family. (Resilient)
For others, such as Mr. 5, it was the emotional and long-standing bond of marriage that contributed to resilience:
At this age, we have just each other. (Resilient)
The presence of family, the positive support and the role it provided contributed to resilience. On the other hand, lack of family and familial support or poor family relations was detrimental. Thus, it was not only the presence of family but also the quality of familial relationships that were important in determining resilience.
As we have shown in relationship to family, social support was an important contributory factor in promoting resilience. However, social support was drawn from broader sources, both with respect to friendships but also with lasting ties, such as Mrs. 13’s support from her past employer, reported above. Mr. 14 highlighted the importance of support from friends, the need for conversation and the reaffirmation of identity:
Having the friends of my group is… ah, I feel young in the group… I feel like a teenager, I talked with them, I dialogue, and then all of that fills me with satisfaction. (Resilient)
On the other hand, those without social support were less likely to be resilient, as illustrated by Mrs. 1:
I’m suffering a lot, but I ask God to not let me live many years, because there is nobody that can look after me (Non-resilient)
The same social activity or relationship often serves more than one purpose and this is true in the context of resilience. We have already shown that some familial relationships can be supportive and the same is true for friendships. When we look at social participation, we find further linkages. As the majority of our participants were engaged in the Project, they were engaged in social participation. Mr. 10 illustrates the relationship between social participation and social support:
We meet there all the best friends … when we get hungry, we said ‘today is your turn the mid-morning snack’, so we go to the shop and buy a soft drink, bread, and tomorrow is other one’s turn, and the day after tomorrow to other. (Resilient)
Mr. 8 talked about the way that participation motivated him:
We have a group of ‘tejo’ (traditional Colombian game)…. So that motivates me a lot. Because I direct the group and I feel happy because I am doing a good labour… (Resilient)
In contrast, although Non-resilient participants described themselves as active persons they reported that they were not engaged in activities. As Mr. 3 suggests, the lack of participation affected their physical and mental health:
Oh my God I’m getting ill of not doing anything. (Non-resilient)
Another Non-resilient participant agreed:
When you are not doing anything, a week passed and nothing happened... there is nothing to wait for (Mr. 4, Non-resilient)
Sense of Community
Participation in the Project also provided a sense of community, especially where participants had become community leaders. It was most clearly illustrated by Mrs. 7:
It is very important for my life. Because through them you learn a lot of things, through people I know, if I know more important people, I can help more people … I come here frequently, to obtain information… then I have a commitment that I need to continue doing it. (Resilient)
Mr. 14 also worked as a volunteer and commented:
I feel proud of myself and satisfied for that. (Resilient)
The sense of community was not present in the original resilience framework although social cohesion was.
It was clear that the resilient participants were socially active, and this participation enhanced their motivation to develop social networks. Further, it gave participants a purpose in life and protected them from boredom and sadness. Those who were not resilient, in contrast, found themselves isolated and this impacted on their physical and mental health. Participation in the Project contributed to resilience and this is a potentially confounding factor. However, it was not the case that participation in the project was a necessary condition for resilience. Half of the non-resilient participants were engaged with the Project, and two of the resilient participants were either on the waiting list or not in receipt of the allowance. In future work it might be interesting to look at a sample of participants on the waiting list and compare them more systematically with those already engaged on the project to examine the role of the Project itself in promoting resilience.
The most obvious example of how resilience could be fostered at the societal level was the Project, an important aspect of the social and welfare services provided by the city of Bogotá. There were other societal influences that had the potential to promote resilience such as social policy. In addition, the religious underpinnings of Colombian society were also important. On the other hand, other societal factors had the potential to undermine resilience, such as violence and displacement and poverty itself.
Social and Welfare Services
We examine the role of the Project itself. For Mrs. 15, the Project director had become family:
I have found like a mom in Mrs. Y. (Resilient)
On a more practical level, Mrs. 7 and Mr. 10 identified the financial support that the Project provided as a key feature contributing to their resilience:
…very important (the allowance), because is my Money, with that Money I don’t have to ask my daughter I say ‘look I have this money’, No!, with this money (the allowance) I received, I buy what I want. First I have to buy something to eat, and I can say that I’m going to do some “arepas” (like corn cheese pasty), and if can I’ll go and buy a scarf. Yes it is very important for me this money (the allowance) (Mrs. 7, Resilient).
It is a help [the allowance] for self-sustaining but not in large quantities, but it is important to know how to enjoy every penny, if you do it could be enough. The money is not for spending in just one day. (Mr. 10, Resilient)
Although earlier we discussed finance in terms of a material resource, it is clear that it is also an important societal resource, in this case, directly provided by the Project, and thus functions at two levels, which was not considered in the original ecological framework.
A strong theme in the data was the role played by religion and faith in resilience, and again this did not appear in the original resilience framework. The belief in God provides a life view framework that is strong in Colombian society (Reyes-Ortiz et al. 2007). The resilient participants were grateful to God. For example Mrs. 7 said:
We have to be grateful with God, with what he is giving us and with what the government if giving us. (Resilient)
Participants believed that their faith was rewarded with material assistance and this appeared to promote resilience. Mrs. 13 believed that her house was a gift from God:
Well, she (Virgin Mary) helps a lot, she, the Virgin did the miracle that we have been given the house, it was to her I prayed and asked for it. (Resilient)
Others in the resilient group avoided asking God for more even though they were still aware that they needed more. There was a sense in which their destiny was in the hands of God:
Well, no, I don’t ask anything else to God, what I already have is very big (Mrs. 13, Resilient)
For those who were not resilient, religious beliefs were often the only source of hope; despite their distress and suffering, they referred to belief in God’s will and mercy. Mrs. 2 articulates this:
God takes care of you; God has mercy;
Mrs. 2 continued saying:
I believe in God and hold the hands of God; because now I … you lost friendships, now you not even have any friends… the friends are just few. (Non-resilient)
Religious beliefs helped the resilient group to cope with their poverty. Their sense of destiny, and their belief that their situations were “God’s will” were important. This was true not only for the Resilient but also for the Non-Resilient.
The Project is an example of how social policy can promote resilience. However, there is one example of where the interaction between social policy and the individual was unsuccessful. Mrs. 2 was one of the Non-resilient participants, she was living in extreme poverty and was considered to be at a high risk and vulnerable. However, she was not willing to leave her house, or allow somebody to help improve her living conditions, even though this was a realistic option.
Mrs. 2. I thought one day, God, ergh! But I cannot resist this, and evil thoughts came, of killing myself, to take my own life… see I have the water cut, gas cut... more or less 3 to 4 months ago. (Non-resilient)
This resonates with findings from Donnellan et al. (2014) who found that not only was the availability of resources important in facilitating resilience but also important was the willingness to access those resources.
Violence and Displacement
Alongside poverty one aspect of Colombian society that distinguishes it from North America or Europe is the frequency with which people face violence and displacement. As the original framework (Fig. 1) was developed in the UK, violence and displacement was not included in the original formulation. Mr. 3 describes how these experiences have influenced his life, and have contributed to his lack of resilience. He had experienced a productive, rural life until he got on the wrong side of the guerillas:
I achieved some things there (countryside), and I had a good time, and then I was kicked out by the guerrillas, and then I had nothing to eat (Mr. 3, Non-resilient)
Collectively, societal level factors contribute to the development of resilience or hinder its development. Social policies, cultural and historical influences such as religion and violence, are all influential. However, their influences on resilience are best understood in their interplay with individual and community levels. Note neither neighbourhood nor the economy emerged as factors spoken about by participants in our analysis. However, the economy is important, at the macro level, since it is fundamental to issues of poverty.
Outside of our discussions of the ecological framework of resilience, another issue warrants some comment and analysis. In the methods we note that poverty and increasing age were not the only stressors faced by our participants. A number of our participants faced additional health, family or displacement issues. This was true of half of our small resilient sample, and the proportions were less amongst the resilient sample. Researchers are beginning to examine the influence of cumulative adversity on resilience (e.g. Seery et al. 2010). Seery et al. (2010) suggest a u-shaped curve where those with some lifetime adversity had higher wellbeing than those with high levels of life-time adversity or none. In the current study it is difficult to determine the precise impact of such stressors, since we are reliant on participants mentioning them spontaneously. However, it would be an important area of future research.