In the years I have worked with older people, both as a therapist and in other capacities, I have come to understand that the various life-transitions associated with growing older can often pose a significant challenge to emotional wellbeing.
Often thematically centred around loss in various guises, as we become older, our changing relationships with those around us, with ourselves, and with the wider world may lead to feelings of anxiety, grief and a loss of meaning.
Retirement is one such, almost inevitable life-transition. A retiring client who has been valued and respected in their employment, who has found a place for themselves within an organisation or role, built a network of colleagues, felt competent and needed, who has perhaps risen through the ranks of their workplace over many years, is likely to feel that an enormous part of their identity is being stripped away from them. They may feel exposed, lost and unsure what meaning their life now has. If external forces such as ill-health or redundancies have led to retirement, feelings of anger and resentment may also be present in a client’s process.
In Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning1, the author describes an 'existential vacuum' – an absence of purpose which leaves an open, seemingly insurmountable void in a person’s life. For Frankl, the key to overcoming this existential anxiety can be found in the discovery of new meaning – to quote Nietzsche, as Frankl does so often throughout the book: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
In the context of retirement, I term this process recapturing meaning or recapturing identity. Like looking at an old photograph, we have a perfect notion of a place or subject as it was, but if we wish to see it as it is now, we must recapture it. We must find it again, acknowledge how it has changed and prize it for what it is now. If somebody facing life-transitions does not acknowledge their changing relationship with the world, conflicts between circumstance and internal experiencing are likely to persist.
Similarly, bereavement often impacts on a client’s sense of identity. In later years, the loss of a parent, spouse or other close relationship becomes more likely, and bereaved clients, as well as coming to terms with the loss of their loved one, may also be coming to terms with labels such as ‘widow’, ‘widower’ or ‘orphan’. This shifting self-identity can be a cause of great emotional turmoil. Becoming a full-time carer for a loved one, or experiencing the sense of loss and guilt which can follow a spouse’s relocation to care home, can equally ignite the internal conflicts inherent with a person’s changing reasons for being.
While working with a client for whom widowhood meant not only losing a spouse, but gaining a role as a carer, I found that the client needed to use the therapy space, first to freely express their difficult feelings about the situation without judgement, and then, as therapy progressed, to find a path to their own meaning – rediscovering hobbies, forming new relationships and nurturing ‘self’ outside the constraints of new responsibilities.
My role was to support the client in their decision to make changes, promoting autonomy and facilitating their search for what brings them happiness. The relationship provided the necessary support to develop a greater balance between the challenges and the opportunities that lay ahead.
Creating the necessary space to find and recapture personal meaning amidst grief and loss is likely to form an important part of the therapeutic work with such clients. As a relational therapist, I believe that the therapeutic relationship can provide a restorative function, creating an environment where the client can feel heard, affirming that they have relevance and value, both in relationship and in a wider context too. This permission to become reacquainted with self is a key step in the existential task of recalibrating a person’s place in the world, and recapturing meaning.
(Client details have been altered for confidentiality.)
Erin Stevens is a BACP member and a volunteer for our Older People Expert Reference Group. You can read Erin’s regular blog about counselling and psychotherapy at aclientfirst.com
1. Frankl, V. (2004). New ed. Man's Search for Meaning : The Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust. London: Rider.
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