Encounters with Adversity: A Framework for Understanding Resilience in Later Life

Encounters with Adversity: A Framework for Understanding Resilience in Later Life Introduction

This paper reviews the available literature on coping strategies used by adults to gain resilience. Collins and Onwuegbuzie (2010) observed that a number of issues affect adults that they need to overcome them using coping strategies. The aim of this paper is to identify the type of strategies that adults employ to manage obstacles in their lives. In addition, the paper reviews the available literature to determine whether the coping strategies used by adults differ with gender.

A research by Cuijpers et al (2013) indicated that as people grow older and move through life, they experience an extensive range of life events. These events vary in type and nature. Zebrack and Isaacson (2012) further stated that for some, major life events are characterized as difficult, challenging, or even traumatic while for others these events are opportunities for growth and development. Manning (2013) and Ryff (2003) asserted that individuals who manage to navigate adversity and hardships in a manner characterized as flourishing and are often considered resilient. The very nature of this claim has made resilience a topic of considerable interest within the field of gerontology. Despite the popularity of resilience as topic of scholarly investigation, relatively little research exits examining resilience from the perspectives of older adults themselves (Wiles, Wild, Kerse, & Allen, 2012).

While we have been able to assess, measure, and predict resilience in a manner that quantifies experiences with adversity and hardship, we have done comparatively less work exploring resilience as an experience or way of being from older adults’ perspectives (Salloum& Overstreet, 2012). The research presented in this article explores resilience as older adults, willing to discuss their encounters with adversity and hardship, experienced it. Additionally, this research contributes to the scholarly discourse on resilience and aging, and offers a conceptual framework for understanding resilience in later life that is grounded in the narratives and experiences of older adults.

Adult Coping Strategies

(a) Background research

Adults become vulnerable to a number of issues, which leads to stress. In this regard, several authors, scholars, and researchers have sought to understand various strategies older adults use to cope with stressful situations in their life. As explained by Moosa (2015), some of the stress factors in adulthood include death of a spouse, retirement, loss of muscle strength, physical impairments, cognitive impairments, isolation, loneliness, visual, auditory, disabilities, as well as onset of illness amongst others. Meuret et al (2012) further illustrated that adults have developed various coping strategies against these adulthood stress factors depending on their situations.

Several research studies have been conducted on adult coping strategies over the past three decades. After reviewing the available pieces of literature, Sinclair (2004) concluded that much of past research has focused on the multidimensional nature of strategies used by older adults to deal with stress. He emphasized that adult coping strategies are not one-fit-all methods but rather dependent on specific situation and the person. Herskovic (2013) explained that coping strategies used by older adults are simply measures for reducing anxiety. He further asserts that most researchers in this field have focused on the ideological nature of adult coping strategies. He acknowledged that adult coping strategies are either religious or secular in orientation. He concludes by asserting that adults choose coping strategies depending on their personal preferences and beliefs.

(b) Coping theorists

As explained by Lerner, Lamb and Freund (2010), theories developed to explain coping strategies are categorized into three groups namely (1) strategies for alleviating emotions, (2) strategies for resolving the problem, and lastly (2) strategies for seeking social support. He further explained that gender differences determine how adults use the first category of coping strategies. In addition, the last strategy that involves seeking social support depends on gender. As explained by Moosa (2015), the female gender commonly uses the first and the last adult coping strategies to manage obstacles in life. Some theorists have constructed other models that classified adult coping strategies using approach-avoidance dichotomy (Moosa, 2015).

On the other hand, Lerner, Lamb, and Freund (2010) provided a more practical assessment of coping strategies by considering three elements namely non-productivity, productivity, and reference. Using this model, they explained that productive coping strategy allows the adult to reflect on the problem and tackle it. Older adults use this approach to tackle obstacles in their life. Moosa (2015) asserted that this approach is not dependent on gender of the adult. On the contrary, the nonproductive coping strategies are commonly used by female genders to manage their feelings. This helps them gain resilience while trying to manage obstacles in their lives. Using the last category, adults manage obstacles in their life by enlisting help from other people such as relatives, friends, and counselors (Herskovic, 2013). However, it is imperative to note that some of the people who offer help are not professionals. For this reason, older people need the right advice to enable them cope with the problems that confront them.

(c) Interrogation

Research shows that coping strategies and defense mechanisms adopted in childhood are often carried into adulthood (Baqutayan& Mai, 2012). However, the continued use of childhood coping strategies can hinder the development of adaptive cognitive, social, and emotional coping mechanisms that the rigors of adulthood demand. In the same way, Territo and Sewell (2007) note that dependence on childhood defense mechanisms impairs the development of the self, which is needed for successful negotiations of the difficulties of life. Notably, Schiraldi (2009) asserts that adult survivors tend to use childhood avoidant defense mechanisms, where they become fighters, accommodators, deniers, victims, escapists, over-achievers, or pleasers. Some of the coping strategies employed by young people that are often carried into adulthood include repression, emotional insulations, and rationalization. In essence, emotional insulation entails a discussion of the alleged victimization in a disconnected manner. On the other hand, rationalization involves providing reasons or justifications for the abuse. It also involves intellectualization, which entails the management of the situation as a purely abstract issue requiring analysis.

Research consistently shows that people who employ mature coping strategies gain happiness satisfaction, and gratifying personal relationships. However, some of the childhood defense mechanisms employed by adults prevent them from feeling overwhelmed but come at a cost. For instance, the strategies used to manage powerlessness and helplessness could overcome the survivor and develop into a new problem. The paper explores some adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies used by adults and examines the manifestation of any differences between men and women. It also explores the essence of adult self-care and the reasons some adults fail to take adequate care when faced with traumatizing situations.

Positive and Negative Coping Strategies

Some of the stressful situations that adults face emanate from the death of a loved one, terrorist attacks, unemployment, loss of a job, and other traumatic events (Balgaonkar, Bidkar&Manganale, 2014).The above are examples of challenging experiences; however, adults react to the situations differently. Ahmad and Xavier (2010) showed that in most cases adults react to these stressors with uncertainties and strong floods of emotions. However, Devi (2012) showed that people adapt to the problems by making certain adjustments to their lives to enable them to overcome the challenges. Atteya (2012) argued that gaining resilience is a continuous process that requires time and effort, where the concerned person should take a number of steps to rectify the situation. Resilience is a process of adapting in the face of trauma, adversity, threats, tragedy, or critical sources of stress (Gordon, 1997). Being resilient does not imply that the individual does not experience difficulties. On the contrary, it infers the individual has the mechanisms required to weather the negative effects of a debilitating experience. Miller (1999) noted that sadness and emotional pain are prevalent in traumatized people. For this reason, the road to resilience involves substantial emotional distress.

Positive coping strategies are actions a victim takes to reduce or manage stress in a manner that is not detrimental or harmful. People who employ these strategies tackle challenges better and make it through tough times (Zeidner, &Endler, 1996). For most adults, any strategy that promises not to be ineffective or harmful is worth trying. However, some adults find that certain strategies work better than others concerning stress reduction. In effect, some strategies work effectively or ineffectively depending on the particular situation or event. Gold and Roth (2013) argued that when adults confront a situation they regard as stressful, they tend to react spontaneously as a coping strategy. However, they soon realize that each stressor requires a unique coping strategy. Nastasi and Borja (2015) observed that as the intensity and nature of stressors increases, a critical mass of tension inevitably manifests. Routine defensive measures may fail to work in such a situation, which implies the person has to devise other methods of overcoming the challenges.

Ideally, adults choose coping strategies for a number of reasons. Persike and Seiffge-krenke (2012) observed that the most fundamental objectives are to reduce the adverse effects of environmental conditions, to adjust or tolerate negative realities and events, to keep a positive image of the self, to maintain a steady emotional equilibrium, and to continue having satisfying relationships with fellow adults (Rashid &Talib, 2015). However, most adults discover that coping strategies elicit three crucial outcomes. They regain emotional status quo, resume his or her normal activities, or feel overwhelmed psychologically. In this case, Aldwin (2012) observes that adults choose either avoidance versus confrontational or combative versus preventive coping mechanisms. However, they realize both approaches have positive and negative consequences. The most effective coping strategies for adults are positive reframing, active coping, emotional support, humor, and religion (Doosje, Landsheer, Goede, &Doornen, 2012). On the other hand, Allison (1997) argues that adults who resorted to behavioral disengagement and substance abuse report negative outcomes because the habits exacerbate the problem. Therefore, Greene (2007) advises it is imperative for adults who face emotional disturbances and other social problems to seek professional help and family support. Haggerty (1996) cautioned that resorting to self-destructive behavior may appear an effective strategy in the short run but is costly. Nevertheless, the society should appreciate the rigors of adulthood and responsibilities that come with it have an adverse effect on the mental and psychological states of individuals. For this reason, constant attention to people who show signs of emotional stress is paramount.

The literature has established that adults face many stressors that predispose them to anxiety and depression. They are confronted with various stressors that cause emotional and psychological imbalances. Therefore, they have to initiate coping mechanisms to enable them to live normal lives. However, some of the mechanisms they adopt are infective because of a number of reasons. It is notable that the same stress trigger initiates different reactions in different people; as such, not a single coping mechanism works uniformly across board. However, the literature has ascertained that increased awareness is the first step towards an effective coping technique. Consequently, the victim has to process information that would help him or her to come to an efficacious resolution. Subsequently, the person has to modify behavior to enable effective response. Peaceful resolution occurs when one moves on with life despite the challenges. In any case, the ultimate goal of every coping mechanism is to arrive at a peaceful resolution.

Undoubtedly, the choice of the coping mechanism depends on the individual. For this reason, it is incumbent upon the adult to evaluate the coping strategy that works to his or her advantage. In certain cases, monumental stressors may require instrumental coping, which is a combination of effective coping skills to change one’s behavior and reaction to stress. Nonetheless, it is important for adults to refrain from self-destructive behavior that worsens the situation. Alcohol and drug abuse may appear to offer temporary reprieve but eventually aggravates the distress. For this reason, having a positive attitude, and seeking professional help is advisable. The objective is to ensure the victim returns to normal life as soon as possible. The literature review provided above suggests that there is dire need for more research into the relationships between adult coping strategies. This is because little research has been conducted in this field and there are few available pieces of literature. The literature pointed to some coping strategies used by adults. It has also identified the role of gender in choosing coping strategies thus supports the specific needs of the research questions. Lastly, the literature will contribute to the knowledge of how adults use coping strategies to manage obstacles they face in their lives.

Research Methods

Design and Sample

This qualitative study employed a grounded theory approach (Glaser and Strauss, 1990) to explore and understand the adult copying strategies. It was guided by three research questions: How do older adults employ coping strategies in relation to resilience? What coping strategies do the use to manage obstacles in life? How does this differ by gender?

Data were collected using an interview format and findings from the data emerged suggesting that the older adults were intentional and methodical in the type of coping strategies they use to manage obstacles in life.

Participants were not randomly selected or predetermined during the initial planning stages of the project; rather older adults were selected to participate in this study based on the firsthand experience with the phenomenon of interest – having experienced hardship and adversity at some point in their lives. This study used a theoretical sampling approach, common in qualitative design (Corbin & Strauss, 1990; Lincoln &Guba, 1985). The participants in the study illustrated a convenience sample of older adults ages 53 to 94 with an average age of 71, and 48 female and 35 male  who were willing and able to discuss their experiences of adversity and hardship. Participants were sought based on a variety of settings and living arrangements, the participants resided in the Southeastern region of the United States, and were community dwelling.

After participants identified themselves as being interested in participating in the project, each participant was contacted by email or telephone. The researcher introduced himself and explained the nature and intent of the study. The date, time, and location for the first meeting were agreed upon. The sample size was 83 consisting of 48 women and 35 men. Additionally, there was considerable variation regarding socio-economic status and educational attainment. Initial interviews lasted from one to three hours. Participants were asked a series of questions about the type of coping strategies they usually use to manage obstacles in life, how older adults employ coping strategies in relation to resilience, and lastly the internal and external resources used in dealing with these experiences of overcoming. The findings present here came from resilience narratives and participants’ perspectives on resilient aging. Interviews focused on how the participants experienced and understood their resilience in relation to hardship and challenges, or avoid obstacle in their life.

A grounded theory approach was then employed to analyze the narrative data from interviews. This approach examines the contents of the data for the common themes or patterns, which evolve from the narrative (Denzin& Lincoln, 2000; Lincoln &Guba, 1985). The themes and patterns were either observations or a concept that are repeatedly reported by informants. Grounded theory is an appropriate qualitative method for this project. Strauss and Corbin (1990) explain that grounded theory is an approach that uses a systematic set of procedures to develop an inductively derived emergent theory about a phenomenon, or to refine concepts in order to construct theory. The primary objective of grounded theory is to expand upon an explanation of a phenomenon by identifying the key elements of that phenomenon, and then categorizing the relationships of those elements to the social context out of which they are derived, and using the systematic process of constructivism accordingly (LaRossa, 2005). In this case, the researcher was expanding on the phenomenon of resilience. The researcher arrived at an emergent theory, conceptualizing the relationship between resilience and coping strategies. This theory is discussed below in the findings section.

Each transcript was coded line-by-line, identifying key words and themes, uncovering rich informative responses from the interviewees. This process was ongoing from the start of the project, reflecting the use of the constant-comparative method, a method comparing new data to previous data while analyzing in order to develop a grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). After performing an initial, manual open-code on the interviews, salient concepts were identified, and created codes allowed me to move from the general to the particular, encouraging a deeper reflection and more engaged analysis of the text (McCracken, 1990). Strauss and Corbin (1990) state “the first step in theory building is conceptualizing,” indicating that open coding is that part of the analysis describing the phenomenon found within the text (p. 2). Essentially, each line, sentence, and paragraph in search of the answer to the repeated questions coded, what is this about, what is being referenced here? Key words, concepts, or codes emerged from the data. The axial coding was then to relate the codes (categories and their properties) to each other. To maintain a level of clarity and organization, the researcher looked for causal references and attempted to fit things into a basic frame of generic relationships (Strauss and Corbin, 1990). Once the categories were related, the related categories were then grouped together into larger themes. This process is known as selective coding, where codes from the axial stage are refined and further developed.

Through constant-comparison analysis, interpretations, and syntheses of the emergent themes, as well as taking into consideration the existing literature on resilience and aging, four main findings emerged. These are presented below. Emergent findings were then categorized into larger concepts or major themes from the data, reflecting the substantive nature of resilience and the implication it has for experience resilience as a way of being. These analyses incorporated how participants experienced resilience in a manner that allowed the researcher to arrive at an emergent theory of resilience in later life. This conceptual framework of resilience as a way of being is the primary finding. Additionally, secondary findings that examined management strategies and protective practices associated with resilience were also presented. The researcher discusses how these findings are also part of the resilience process for the participants in this study.


The findings presented here offer insight into How do older adults employ coping strategies in relation to resilience? What coping strategies do the use to manage obstacles in life? In particular, analysis of the data reveal the importance of having a resilient identity as way of informing how participants made meaning of adversity while achieving a comfortably with vulnerability. The participants whose data were analyzed here illustrate three overarching themes in their narratives as they describe the adversities, hardships, challenges, and even opportunities associated with growing older. Overall and key themes that emerged from the data were: social life support, healthy life, and promote your personality. These constructs and their emergent sub-themes are discussed below; a conceptual map is offered to further illustrate these findings.

Social Life Support

Overall, participants articulated several key factors that were important and vital components to how they understood themselves as resilient. Collectively, these factors, behaviors, and beliefs comprise resilience has way of being for participants. Additionally, interviews with participants suggest that resilience as an experience is affable and that participants can articulate what it means to be resilient as they age. Within the sphere of key factors that make up resilience, several features of resilience emerged. There were several key sub-themes that emerged: having a strong social, activating social support, and recognizing the ordinary. A major theme in these data is the importance of having a strong relationship. Majority of participants discussed being resilient with having family, wife, husband, and friends rather than having resilience. For example, one participant discusses his resilience as along marriage and she could help him with resilience.

M – And she copes by more, much more an external process. Now on the other hand it has…. We have stayed together for thirty-five years. Therefore, it hasn’t been terrible you know. So, any way that was in response to your…

In addition to having a strong resilience identity, participants were adamant and intentional about the importance of their social support networks as a vital component of how they were resilient and how this identity was maintained. In other words, participants stressed the important of engaging in connections and activating social supportnetworks and resources. This process of engagement and activation was strategically based on the adversity or hardship, and thus I refer to the activation of social support as a vital component of resilience for participants. For many participants, the ability to access social supports in the form of family, friends, community outlets, or any other types of social interactions or engagement was formulaic in relation to adversity or hardship. In other words, participants were clear and strategic about how their social support networks worked for them and which facets of the network were engaged at what time in the process of dealing with adversity. For example, one participant explains how her networks were accessed after losing her husband unexpectedly.

P: How do I manage? I think its more about how could I manage without the people in my life. When something horrible happens, I know just who to call or which people in my life to reach out to. It really depends on what Im dealing with. I know for certain that there are a handful who are always there and at this point, I know its best to seek their support and love before trying to handle hard times on my own. When I became a widow, I knew which ladies to have by my side. Which cones would help me and make sure I was getting out of bed each morning.

This quote illustrates the intentionality of one participant’s activation and strategic use of her social support network. Its usage here was intentional and it reflects similar experiences with social support activation as evidenced in the data.

Promote personality

Participants recognized several key to promote their personality and they take strategy steps to cope with resilience strategies as important to their experiences of being resilient. They start promoting their personality by thinking and taking positive steps in their life. The positive steps taken by adult vary depending on the situation and may include change of behavior, attitude, and prejudice among others.

They learn adaptive approaches to solving issues and stressors in their life. This process comes with new learning, creativity, as well as new patterns of behavior that promotes and enhances their personalities. The adult would promote their personality through the call for change of mind and hearts. They start seeing the world differently as they tackle the stress factors in their lives. They use the existing knowledge and procedures to solve technical personality problems.

When asked about the strategies participants used to manage resilience, participants described the importance of self-talk or the use of positive and regular dialogue with self. Participants engaged in self-talk also promote their personality by talking themselves through adversities. In other words, participants would remind themselves of their ability to be resilient in the face of adversity.

Another strategy that emerged from the data was mentality. When asking participants how they can cope and avoid obstacle in their life. Participants were explicit about the importance of promote their personality and the important of solving their problems as all part of how they coping strategies in relation to resilience.

P: I think that I tend to try to distract myself a lot by you know committing to things that I hope are going to be distracting in a way or in a good way.



Another one said;

P: Is just really understanding what makes life important to you and then pursuing it to a level that is acceptable. Not perfect by satisfactory, I mean she cannot dance as well as she used to. She cannot do some of the routines but she is still dancing 

In addition to discussing their conceptualization and confrontation of problems, participants also discussed the importance of having all the variables for resilience in place, or having a resiliencefit. The resilience fit refers to having a fine-tuned formula from years of practice with navigating hardships in life. For many participants, resilience fit encompassed elements of social support (which people and how much), physical well-being, mental health supports, and self-compassion they needed and in what balance to feel they are being resilient. Furthermore, participants discussed the importance of environmental factors as part of the fit.

Healthy Life

Having a healthy life is important for adult and it can be enhanced through coping strategy. Copying strategies play significant roles in preventing and controlling some adulthood diseases. For instance, coping strategies that promote self-care, develop self-reliance, promote coping with challenges, as well as solve problems are helping in promoting healthy life in adulthood. Such coping skills help adult make choices that enhance their personal health as well as reduce the effects of stress factors.

Furthermore, adult prefer to use coping strategies that promote positive lifestyles. As a result, they do not engage in harmful lifestyles such as smoking, alcohol drinking as well as other forms of drug abuse, which are harmful to their life. By following these lifestyles, they eventually promote healthy life while coping with the stressors. In essence, coping strategies directly determines the decisions adults make concerning their lives and health.

Quit Bad Habit

Coping skills help adult quit bad habits. In general coping skills help adult quit behaviors that leave them hungry, stressed, or worried all time due to some undesired conditions. Through this technique, they learn how to stop worrying but instead devise mechanism of getting out of the problem or stressful condition. Worrying too much causes unhappy lifestyle, this eventually lowers immunity, digestion, as well as blood sugar level as well as other myriads health conditions.

In addition, copings kills help adult quit bad habits such as smoking cigarettes, which may create several health conditions. Apart from carving for cigarette, coping strategies help adults quit other bad habits such as frustration,increased appetite,difficulty concentrating, irritability, anger, anxiety, nervousness, as well as restlessness. Coping strategy is an effective tool for quitting these bad habits, which might severely affect the adult’s health if not controlled appropriately. Most respondents acknowledged they managed to quit different kinds of bad habits due to the use of copings strategies.

P: Yeah. I can’t do that anymore.  I had to quit smoking.  Which was probably a good thing.

P: Of course I eliminated the drugs.  Certain tools I learned to use and realizing that you got to deal with life on life terms. Like you said everyone has problems.

Having therapeutic relationships in place was an emergent theme prevalent in many of the narratives. The importance of seeking out and engaging in therapeutic relationships with clinicians or in some cases chaplains was vital across the interviews. Participants recognized that resilience was contextual and relational and their mental health work helped them in their experiences with hardship. One participant explained the importance of mental health care.

P: I can tell you about hardship. Substance abuse and depression dont discriminate. Despite the fact that Im in this place of transition, I still consider myself to be resilient. Im learning with, the help of my therapist and caseworker, how to overcome some of these obstacles. Im learning the importance of taking care of myself. Its hard and as a man Im conditioned to not practice this, but Im to the point now where I know I have to take care of me. Im learning my triggers and places of risk and am trying to be more proactive with my health. I cant expect others to deal with my emotional health if Im not going to.”

Spiritual Relationship

Coping skills help adults establish strong spiritual relationship, which is essential for their health and behavior enhancement. There is significant relationship between coping strategies and cognitive framing for religious well-beings. Most adults tend to become religious as they concentrate their old age life in discovering their destiny. They find conform and peace of mind in religious matters. This is accelerated by the coping strategy adopted by the adult against various stress factors affecting their lives.

The spiritual relationship gives adults comfort level that is beyond their personal understanding and the impact of stressors. In addition, it gives adults a way of dealing with various uncertainties and ambiguities directly affecting their lives. Most adults reported to have overcome bad habits such as worrying, smoking of cigarette, restlessness, as well as nervousness by developing strong spiritual relationship with other people. Lastly, spiritual relationships fill the heart of adult persons with feeling of richness and independence.

P: My spiritual life of course. I pray a lot. I rely on intervention. The holy spirit in my life.

P: I think we did a lot of things that were helpful. There was a minister at our church who is no longer here but, but who, who were with us at the time 6:06 very helpful in terms of spiritual support.

Personal Exercise

Coping skills and strategies help adult improve their personal exercise, which is essential for maintaining good health. This is basically because some coping skills and strategies contain elements of personal exercise. Some coping strategies demand adults to indulge in various physical activities such as running, walking, playing which eventually improve their personal exercise plan. Furthermore, adults have learnt to live very healthily and do quite well by just changing some of some of their exercise regimen.

In addition, some coping strategies sued by adult involves fight or flight response to the situation. The personal exercise is helpful for surrogating excessive stress hormones as well as restoring the body and mind to calmer and more relaxed state following the stress factor. For instance, copping strategies such as taking a brisk walk in the fresh air when stressed and tense helps the old to improve their personal exercise plan. Many old people have admitted benefited from improved personal exercise by taking a brisk walk when they are stressed.

P: But you can live very healthily and you can do quite well if you just change some of your exercise regimen. He was right. I you know, nowadays I play golf. I walk. I do a few exercise in my basement healthy.


Adults experience an extensive range of life events some of which are characterized as difficult, challenging, or even traumatic while for others these events are opportunities for growth and development. They are vulnerable to a number of issues which leads to stress and the necessity of coping strategies. As explained  byBalgaonkar, Bidkar and Manganale (2014), some of the stressful situations that adults face emanate from the death of a loved one, terrorist attacks, unemployment, loss of a job, and other traumatic events. Adults react to these situations differently depending on their chosen coping strategies and the environment where they are. Generally, adults adapt to the problems by making certain adjustments to their lives to enable them to overcome the challenges.

This research examined the coping strategies used by the adults. The research used survey design and qualitative methodology to collect and analyze data about the research phenomenon. The qualitative methodology sued here was grounded on theoretical approach. The findings of the research study offer insight into how older adults employ coping strategies in relation to resilience as well as coping strategies in managing obstacles in life. In particular, analysis of the data reveal the importance of having a resilient identity as way of informing how adults do make meaning of adversity while achieving a comfortably with vulnerability. Overall, adults articulate several key factors that important and vital components to how they understood themselves as resilient namely social life support, promote personality, healthy life, quit bad habit, spiritual relationship, and personal exercise.



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