29 Aug 2023

Counselling in ‘later life’

By Suzanne Walker Therapist MNCPS (Accredited), Counsellor at The Eaves

The idea of therapeutic counselling for the elderly, or ‘later life’ clients as I call them, may not be that familiar as many might imagine that older people would not engage in therapy. Counselling and talking therapy were not so well known or, indeed, available, decades ago but this has changed and services are more accessible to all.

In my private practice, I am seeing an increasing number of later life clients and I feel it’s both a privilege and an honour to work with them. The eldest I have worked with (so far!) is 87. So, what might therapy be like with this client group… Is it just a friendly chat? Is there really work to be done, and/or change that can happen? How engaged might a client of advanced years be? In my experience, there is engagement and the process can be both eye-opening and fascinating, for my clients, and for me.

As a relational therapist, my aim is always to provide a warm, open and safe environment in which the relationship between us can develop; clients can trust the space and feel ‘held’ and supported in sharing their stories. For someone who has been alive for seventy or eighty plus years, clearly there can be a lot of narrative and (as with any client), this is where we can discover patterns of behaviour, attachment history, and life choices, which informs the work. Whilst the aim may not be to effect great change or major shifts in behaviour, the opportunity to reflect – to look back on one’s life – and find greater understanding, self-acceptance and, from this, a sense of peace, can be hugely beneficial.

Unsurprisingly, working with later life clients often involves grief and loss. Many clients may have experienced the death of a loved one, often a spouse – and this can have a particularly devastating effect. Imagine losing someone who has shared your life for fifty, sixty or even seventy years. Giving space for the grief, from a place of understanding and empathy, without advice or any pressure to ‘move on’ can be deeply comforting. Sitting with another’s sad or painful feelings and engaging in conversation about the person who has died is healing, but often avoided as many people find grief uncomfortable. Some (psycho)education about the emotions that may be experienced and how these might ‘show up’ helps to normalise the process.

A theory which can be useful when working with this client group was created by German born psychoanalyst and psychologist, Erik Erikson. He described ‘8 stages’ from 0-18 months with the conflicting states of trust versus mistrust, through to age 65+, the last life stage, and the outcomes of integrity versus despair. At the later life phase, we can explore and make sense of the life lived and establish whether there are feelings of fulfilment from a ‘meaningful life’, or feelings of ‘regret’, ‘guilt’ and/or ‘despair’. Therapy can help clients to delve into their feelings and beliefs, allowing negative thoughts to be let go, and this can help move them towards forgiveness and self-compassion. Everyone makes mistakes in life, for that is simply part of being human.

As mentioned earlier, whilst therapeutic counselling for later life clients may not be about major life changes, there is one outcome which is fundamental in achieving self-acceptance and peace. And it is a concept that I feel is applicable to many clients – this being a sense of ‘enough’; for example ‘I am enough’, or ‘my life has been enough’.

“No matter what gets done or how much is left undone, I am enough.”

(Quote by Brene Brown, ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’).

Website: suzannewcounselling.com

The Eaves Counselling and Psychology

Suzanne Walker, Counsellor and Psychotherapist at The Eaves, is based at our Godalming practice. To find out more about Suzanne, or to enquire about her latest availability, please visit her profile here

The Eaves Counselling and Psychology Ltd is a select professional body of Counsellors, Psychotherapists and Psychologists, providing high quality psychological care Monday to Saturday between 9am and 9pm from our practices in Guildford, Godalming, Farnham, Haslemere and online.

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