Counselling for Older People - It's time to Talk
It seems to me that the first thing I ought to do in writing this blog post is to offer some kind of definition for the phrase ‘older people’. After all, I’m sure we all have different ideas about old age, how we define ourselves, and what getting older means for us.
I am a member of the BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy)’s older people expert reference group, and the BACP, rather than adopting an arbitrary minimum age as a definition, define their role as focusing on the issues which typically (but not exclusively) affect people aged 50 and above.
This means that you might be a person under 50 reading this article who can relate to a lot of what I am writing, or you might be a person over 50 reading this, for whom the issues I discuss do not resonate at all. The ideas I want to explore here are broad, and hopefully presented in an accessible way, allowing you to draw upon the parts which have meaning for you.
Studies show us that older people are less likely to seek help from their GP for mental health concerns, and in addition, that GPs are less likely to refer older people to talking therapies than their younger counterparts. I find it concerning that counselling is not always being discussed as an option for older people who are struggling, especially considering that loneliness is increasingly being recognised a severe threat to the health of older people in the UK.
Here I am going to talk about just some of the issues associated with growing older, which counselling might help to address:
We can become bereaved at any age, however it becomes more likely as we age that we will lose somebody close to us. The death of parents, siblings, close friends, or a partner impact heavily, creating new and painful voids in our lives, bringing our own mortality into sharp focus, and removing the very support system we might always have turned to in times of grief. Bereavement is a multi-faceted and very painful form of loss.
When others around us are grieving, we might feel that talking to someone outside of the situation offers us space to explore all of the emotions which come along with grief in a neutral space, where you will be met where you are, with care and non-judgement. Counselling can offer such a space.
Like bereavement, retirement can bring with it overwhelming feelings of grief, and loss of meaning. What we do, and what we are good at, can be a very important part of how we define ourselves, and when we suddenly find ourselves with lots of free-time, no routine and no regular interaction with the friends and colleagues we have built relationships with over the years, we might feel very lost. As with bereavement, counselling can offer an understanding space to work through these difficult feelings, find new meanings and reconnect with self.
A diagnosis of a chronic illness is always devastating news to receive. Whether facing a progressive illness, with the possibility of relying on carers and losing independence, or the possibility of ongoing chronic pain, the future looks very different from how it was planned and anticipated. Again, there is a loss to mourn there.
Dr Jonathan Stevens, who lived with an early-onset diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, wrote: “Don’t dismiss therapy because it can’t eliminate the fact we have Parkinson’s or the decline we are facing. But taking tablets also doesn’t offer a cure so why do we take them? Obviously to reduce the impact of the disease. Therapy is designed to do the same but in a much more personal and empowering way. The best therapy gives you the tools to be your own therapist. You can’t think yourself cured but you can think yourself to a better, more productive and helpful emotional relationship with Parkinson’s.”.
Prior to training as a therapist, my professional background was in dementia care and emotional wellbeing in older people. Through working with people living with dementia and their families, I discovered that dementia is a diverse illness, and that both those diagnosed and their families experience a wide range of difficulties and emotional responses to what is happening to themselves or their loved one.
It is very scary to receive a dementia diagnosis. At present there is no cure, so somebody with a diagnosis knows there will be a decline, but nobody can say how quickly, or what it will look like. This uncertainty and fear for the future are difficult to manage. Like with other chronic illnesses, counselling can be part of the process of managing those feelings, and for finding space for ‘self’ amidst a challenging and uncertain future.
For family members with loved ones living with dementia, the future can seem similarly frightening and uncertain. Becoming a carer for somebody with dementia requires an excellent support network, both in terms of the practicalities and the emotional difficulties which are likely to emerge. When personality changes occur in our loved ones, we might find ourselves grieving for somebody, even though they are still there.
Counselling can’t offer a solution to the onset of this terrible illness, but it can help to manage the emotional hardships that arise from its presence.
As discussed above, loneliness is a huge problem amongst older people in the UK. Socialising can become more difficult, both on a practical and emotional level, and an increasing number of older people are finding themselves alone, most, if not all of the time.
Counselling can help to explore some of the emotional difficulties and roadblocks which might prevent social interaction, as well as offering a human connection from which the confidence to develop other connections can grow.
Counselling is for anybody who might benefit from it; there is no age limit and no ‘wrong’ reason to give it a try. It seems to me that having counselling firmly ‘on the table’ as an option for people of all ages can only benefit us as individuals and as a society as a whole.