The proportion of elders in our population is ever increasing, but until relatively recently, the older client has not had much attention within counselling and psychotherapy. In this article I therefore focus on the soul’s process as it ages and discuss how we may help ourselves and our clients embrace the lived experience of ageing, in order to find peace and meaning.

Introduction

Recently, my five-year-old granddaughter said to me, as a simple matter of fact, ‘Oma, you’ll be going into a wheelchair soon.’ I thought I had misheard, so asked, ‘What did you say?’ Her seven-year-old sister ‘helpfully’ repeated with glee, ‘She said that you’ll be going into a wheelchair soon!’ ‘What makes you say that?’ I asked. ‘Because you are very old’, the five-year-old replied, and her sister agreed, ‘Yes, you are!’. Right, I thought, that’s telling me!

Trying not to sound too defensive, I responded, ‘Well, not everyone who is old goes into a wheelchair; a lot of people never have to.’ This did not compute at all; they told me firmly that, ‘Mr so and so, and also Mrs so and so, were very old and were most definitely in a wheelchair, because they could no longer walk.’ So, they thought it was clear that any time now, my legs were going to stop working and I would be in a wheelchair. The seven-year-old said, ‘Well, that could happen Oma, you might hurt your legs.’ Well, true, I am 75, and might have a fall or a stroke, or whatever, but I was not planning to have any of that happening just yet. It takes little children to face you with things, though.

The autumn and winter of nature are good metaphors for the later stages of human life. As I age, I appreciate that this second half of life can be a fascinating time of transition, offering significant personal growth. However, the latter is dependent on the love, support and understanding we receive to meet the inevitable challenges and losses involved.

‘Thoroughly unprepared, we take the step into the afternoon of life. Worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and our ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.’1

The above quote from Jung1 makes clear that during the second half of our life, we need to change how we look at ourselves and the world. He clarifies that, although during the first half, we necessarily look outwards, focusing on important matters such as education, a career, a relationship and a family, that process needs to reverse later. As we enter the mid part of life, our psychological and spiritual development needs to focus less on the ego and more on the soul, our true inner identity. Engagement with this period’s specific developmental tasks, invites us to accept the most important challenge of all: to become an elder.

The soul’s autumn, these days ranging roughly from mid-to-late 40s to mid-to-late 60s, is a very important, and (as in nature) often turbulent time. But this very turbulence also provides the opportunity for us to mature further, to become ‘seasoned’, in preparation for ‘elderhood’, the winter stage of life. The challenges and difficulties during this time are an invitation for us to learn and grow. The saying ‘life begins at 40’ is all very well, but it does depend on how we respond to the realisation that we have already lived half of our life.

Autumn has two aspects: it may give us beautiful days, with the sun shimmering through the turning leaves, while a chill in the air in mornings and evening may actually be quite welcome after a long, hot summer. The colours of flowers and fruit are beautiful: burnt orange, deep red, burgundy, all shades of purple, a deep brownish gold. Mushrooms, chestnuts, acorns and hazelnuts appear, and harvest festivals abound. However, it can also be cold, wet and very windy. This year has seen some lovely days as well as fierce storms and flooding in some areas.

So, although in nature autumn can be a time of abundance and celebration, those colourful flowers must eventually die, and the leaves of the trees must drop. I love trees in winter, when the architecture of their trunks and branches is no longer hidden under luxurious green growth. There is an honesty about it – it is as if the trees are saying, ‘This is me; take it or leave it.’ Also during this time, it may look as if nothing much is happening, but the trees are working hard, pushing their roots deeper into the soil, in preparation for spring.

Traditionally, most psychotherapeutic approaches have mainly focused on the first half of life; but I believe it is time to change this. If we see life as a spiritual journey, we need a psycho/spiritual model of ageing that will help us to walk the road that leads to elderhood. The set of tasks below, which is based on the psychologist Erik Erikson’s work on developmental stages2 and the Jungian analyst Allan B Chinen’s analysis of fairy tales,3 may be helpful in the construction of such a model.

Task one: Facing the truth

For many of us, getting older is not a smooth process: we may resist and go through a ‘midlife crisis’, denying the fact that we are ageing and trying to prove to ourselves and others that we are still young. The older man buying an expensive sports car, or changing his partner for someone much younger, and the woman who dresses like her daughter and tries to be her friend, rather than her mother, are well known clichés. It does not help that our Western culture is obsessed with youth: we have facelifts, Botox and expensive creams and potions to try to help us continue looking young. We say, ‘You’re showing your age…’, if someone remembers a pop song or an expression from a few decades ago, as if this is shameful, and something to hide. However, sooner or later, we need to face the truth, and come to terms with the fact that we are no longer young. If we resist the tasks and challenges the second part of life brings, and respond to the losses and disappointments with depression, life may look very bleak.

Frank sold his business when he was aged 66, and decided to retire. Initially, he enjoyed the lack of stress associated with running a company. Gradually, however, he stopped his various activities because of a back injury, saying that now he was retired, he was ‘taking it easy’. His children noticed that he seemed to drink a lot, and they became concerned. They suggested counselling, but Frank refused to listen. He had never been interested in his inner life and said, ‘What’s the point of talking? I’m old now and my life is over.’

Task two: Accepting losses and letting go

Facing the truth of our age is not unlike Worden’s first three tasks of mourning:4 to accept the reality of the loss; to feel and process the pain of grief; and to let go of our attachment to what we have lost. The loss of our youth goes together with many other losses. For women, the menopause signals the end of their childbearing years, the loss of their youthful looks and energy and the loss of how they are regarded by others. Both sexes may notice a loss of agility and strength, as well as the intellectual agility of youth (the students who compete on University Challenge are good examples of just how quick these young people are!). We may lose our job or get bypassed for promotion. Our role as parents may change as children leave home, and relationships may flounder when both parties realise that they do not have much in common anymore. And there are the existential losses, of parents, friends and sometimes of children.

It does not help that the older we get, the more we may be regarded as ‘past it’, no longer relevant, a bit of a joke really. Although these days there are more old people than ever before, Jenkinson5 laments that very few are elders. This is a tragedy, as in traditional societies, the elders were revered as the wisdom keepers, the ones to go to for advice. In our society, with its focus on youth and speed, we are seen as a problem, a burden, a drain on resources. We live longer, yet our experience and wisdom are not valued. No wonder so many older people feel lost and depressed. As therapists, we need to reject the negative stereotypes of old age and help ourselves as well as our clients embrace our ageing as an exciting part of life’s developmental journey.

At this stage we also let go of our addiction to certainty and develop the emotional maturity needed to be able to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty, as well as the anxiety that such insecurity may cause.

Amy, a widow in her early 70s, worries that eventually she may have to give up her independence as her Parkinsonism progresses. ‘I don’t seem to get sufficient time to come to terms with anything’, she said, ‘because as soon as I have accepted one limitation, there is something else I can no longer do.’ Initially. Amy found her illness hard to accept. She was just so angry with herself for having it, with her body for letting her down, and with doctors for not having a cure. I noticed that she bullied herself by saying things like, ‘Stupid woman, why can’t you do that anymore?’ etc. When I drew her attention to this, Amy realised that she was angry with herself; what she needed was healing, not of her body, as that was not on offer, but of her soul. Amy needed to accept what was happening and learn to love herself as she is, for who she is.

Task three: Developing wisdom

We develop wisdom in order to pass it on to others; practical wisdom, forged through learning from and reflection on experience. To engage with this task, we need to be willing to take an honest look at the darker parts of our soul, reflect on what we see and withdraw our projections. Such ‘self-confrontation and self-reformation’6 require us to face our shadow and our blind spots, as well as our inner demons and other negative parts of our personality. This can be a big ask, and often a traumatic event is required as a catalyst before we can be persuaded to do so. Reflection on and acceptance of our own darkness and of what has been hidden in our unconscious helps us recognise it in others; within therapy, people’s dreams often reflect this process.

Richard’s relationship floundered in his mid-50s, so he decided to take a good look at himself and learn whatever it was that had gone wrong, so that he would not repeat what had contributed to the loss of that relationship. In therapy, with warmth, gentle challenge and compassion, he gradually got in touch with the murkier parts of his soul. This was a painful, but ultimately helpful process, which eventually enabled him to live more authentically.

Task four: Self transcendence

Erikson sees the tasks as developmental stages and regards generativity as coming before wisdom.2 However, as self-transcendence seems to be at a different level of development than wisdom, I have, with Chinen, suggested it as a task following on from wisdom.3 Self-transcendence may also be seen as a deepening of wisdom, as none of these tasks are ever fully completed, but continue throughout life.

Self-transcendence is being willing to sacrifice one’s own happiness for the sake of others, particularly the next generation, such as grandchildren or even society as a whole. Erikson sees this task as part of ‘generativity’, a kind of altruism.2 The elders in Extinction Rebellion are a good example of this, as they are not taking action for their own future, but for those who will live on after them. Erikson sees such altruism as a sign of good mental health, as well as crucial for further psychological growth to occur.2 Without it, he says, the older person would be egocentric and stagnate, as for them, their own ambitions and desires would come first. Self-transcendence is also essential for the achievement of ‘emancipated innocence’ when we no longer worry about social convention and reclaim our childlike innocence, without being childish.3

John, a retired merchant banker, was happy rolling on the floor with his grandchildren, pretending to be different animals and making funny noises.

Betty was in her 70s, when a cancer she had previously been treated for, returned, and was now in its final stage. This was a shock; although she had always known that the illness might return, Betty had hoped that it would not. Her rapidly deteriorating condition forced her to realise that she had no choice but to accept it. She decided to make the best of the time she had left and visited a few places she’d always wanted to see. Betty’s concern was mainly for her husband, children and grandchildren, so she talked with them all and helped them to see that she was at peace with what was happening. Above all, she was concerned about her family’s welfare and wanted to make her leaving them as painless as possible for them. She put all her affairs in order, and with her family, decided not to go into hospital, but to spend her final days and hours at home. Her death was peaceful, with her family around her. She was regarded as a true elder, who to the end was more concerned about those she was leaving behind than about her own fate. It was clear that Betty had worked through Erikson’s seventh and eighth stage and completed the developmental tasks. She was at peace with the fact that her life was at an end and that the people she left behind would be able to manage without her.

Towards the end of his life, Erikson added an extra stage to the two developmental stages he had postulated previously for the second half of life, as eventually the body will weaken and can no longer be relied upon.2 Eventually, people may need help with even the simplest activities of daily living, which can be hard to accept and lead to depression and despair. ‘Yet’, he writes, ‘elders rejoice to see the sun rise brightly every morning. While there is light, there is hope, and who knows what bright light and revelation any morning may bring?’2

To conclude, the second part of life offers the opportunity for our soul to grow, through accepting the challenge of the developmental tasks that present themselves, and to become an elder. As therapists, it is crucial that we also accept these challenges, as only then can we truly help those who come to see us. Ultimately, therapists could be instrumental in changing society’s view of older people, which should be to everyone’s benefit.

Life expectancy is longer than in the past; let us use this gift well. 

Els van Ooijen has a doctorate in psychotherapy from Middlesex University and a private psychotherapy, counselling and supervision practice in Bristol. Els has written a number of books and articles and is currently working on a book with the provisional title: Soul Work: a therapist reflects.

References

1. Jung CG. Modern man in search of soul. London: Routledge; 2001.
2. Erikson EH. The life cycle completed. Extended version with new chapters on the ninth stage of development by Joan M Erikson. London: WW Norton and Co; 1998.
3. Chinen AB. In the ever after: fairy tales and the second half of life. Asheville, North Carolina: Chiron Publications; 2018.
4. Worden JW. Grief counseling and grief therapy: a handbook for the mental health practitioner. Fourth Edition. New York: Springer; 2009.
5. Jenkinson S. Coming of age. The case for elderhood in a time of trouble. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books; 2018.

Further reading

Schachter-Shalomi Z, Miller RS. From age-ing to sage-ing. A revolutionary approach to growing older. New York: Grand Central Publishing; 1995