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Counselling in Old Age

By Diana Armstrong BSc (Hons) MBPS

Looks like the old dog can learn new tricks after all.

Before I started counselling work with Older Adults my views on old age were pretty warped. I expected old grannies in wheelchairs, whose main concern were their grandchildren (with names they probably wouldn’t remember) and a nice cup of tea with a biscuit. As a counsellor I had doubts around whether older people would still be perceptive to change and learning – would they even want to work with me? Were older people so wise that they were beyond depression or anxieties?


It seems my preconceptions were mutual. My clients disclosed to me they expected yet another young hotshot, fresh out of nappies, who would use the counselling sessions to tell them how to live their lives. Being listened to, really listened to, as a person with an individual history, making plans for the future – all that came as a surprise. I often heard at the beginning of a session ‘What’s the point, I won’t be able to change anymore anyway’ or ‘It’s just old age, you’ve got to accept it.’ The most motivated client told me in our first counselling session: ’I need rubbed out and drawn afresh.’

One of my first challenges came when trying to identify the older adults among my clients in the waiting room of the counselling practice. A common definition of an older adult is ‘any person over the age of 65’. Liz Taylor, Jane Fonda, Lauren Hutton, Woody Allen – they all have collected their bus pass years ago. Tom Waits, Kim Basinger, Don Johnson and Ozzy Osborne won’t have long to wait. Thanks to Botox, healthy nutrition, exercise and a little nip and tuck here and there and old age does not look old anymore. Why should it feel old?

Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, an American Organisation, which promotes life long growth, speaks of older adults in a different style: “We are the risk takers; We are the innovators; We are the developers of new models; We are trying the future on for size. That is our role.” (Gray Panthers Action Network, 2008).
 
Older adults are becoming ever younger in spirit and body, a fact that even the games market has caught on to: Handheld brain gym games promote the fact that your brain age does not have to correspond to your biological age, cosmetics sell pro age lotions rather than anti ageing creams, promoting mature sensuality – so does this mean old age is nothing but fun and sky diving?

Thankfully we are now aware that old age does not have to mean constant deterioration and hardship. It is a privilege to grow old, not a problem. However, old age does have its challenges – financial worries can become stressful, health can deteriorate, bereavements become more commonplace.
 
“Depression is generally considered to be the most common psychiatric disorder among older adults (Blazer,2002; Ames&Allen,1991), although recent evidence suggests that anxiety disorders may actually be more common (Blazer, 1997)” (as cited in Laidlaw et al., 2004).

The suicide rate in older adults compared to that of younger people is higher throughout the western world (Kinsella & Velkoff, 2001, as cited in Laidlaw et al., 2004) and attempts are more likely to result in death (Hepple & Quinton, 1997, as cited in Laidlaw, 2004).

Maybe this is due to the belief that there is no help – that counselling won’t be of use? There is clearly a need to promote hope here. So go on, spread the word!

Working with Older Adults has been a joy and a privilege for me. The issues have been varied and the stories inspiring – covering delayed PTSD after WWII as much as anxiety attacks, low self esteem, depression, bereavement and memory loss. There is an increased sense of disempowerment in this age group, of being treated as a child by their offspring as well as medical staff. Empowerment was the aim of the sessions, and yes, there were amazing changes and massive improvements. There was learning and progress – on both sides of the counselling room.

Obviously, there are plenty of reasons to go for counselling in older age – and now we know that there is plenty of reason to believe that counselling will be useful and effective – whatever your age.

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