Part of the ageing process for all living things is the reduction of flexibility and recovery, whether it is in branch and leaf or in body tissue. For the animal kingdom, these effects are often more noticeable when the weather is damp or the wind is ‘in the east’! As I wrote this article, my elderly cat was waiting outside the house even more impatiently than usual for the raising of the curtain over the window he can see, which signals for him the first sign of someone getting up to attend to his needs. He came inside as quickly as his stiff joints would allow!
As counsellors, we work with people who are suffering in various ways, often quite acutely. We usually think of this suffering as being ‘mental’ rather than physical, and we are encouraged to attend to thoughts and feelings that give rise to distress, rather than the more basic physical manifestations of disease in the organism.
The medical profession tends to keep to the same kind of process in reverse. If you go to see your doctor and mention the word ‘depression’, I think you will probably come out of the surgery with a prescription for antidepressants. And yet, in truth, body and mind are inextricably linked.1 ‘Depression’ is a term that covers a very wide range of health conditions, and it is made up of many different elements. An acquaintance of mine once commented that she had never suffered from depression and that she had never understood it – but admitted, on being questioned, that she had always had excellent physical health. Of course, depression is not caused merely by physical distress, but the decline of physical health will always have an impact on the mind and the ‘spirits’ in general. I read that most people over the age of 55 in this country are on an average of four pills a day for various health conditions.2
With clients, we work with the ‘here and now’, but it is still possible to miss the obvious in the manner of the ‘elephant in the room’ when mental distress is linked to the decline of physical health. As we get older, for example, we need fewer calories to maintain our bodies, we need less sleep and we also tend to become more sedentary. This means that we need to adjust our eating habits and our time commitments. As our bodies become less flexible, I believe we need to become more flexible in our attitudes and our habits. This can be a real challenge, and if we are not aware of this need in ourselves, we will not be aware of the impact of adjusting (or not adjusting) to different stages of life on our clients. Those who suffer with chronic illness or disabilities have additional challenges to bear, and those diagnosed with terminal conditions are often faced with realities that most of us would rather not look at. In the words of centenarian Eubie Blake: ‘If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself!’3
In our capitalistic society, more and more people feel the pressure to work ever longer hours. This can mean no lunch break and an 80-hour week. I have had several clients over the last few years who have admitted to falling asleep at the wheel while driving, before they were sufficiently frightened to do something about their dangerously long work shifts. If we take a more ‘spiritual’ view of life, we can have a different perspective on ageing and the general slowing down that goes with the process. Illness can cause us to take stock and can force us to think about our priorities. I find it helpful to remember that I am merely a link in the chain of those who have gone before me and those who will come after me.
Yes, my individual life does have meaning. I believe that I was created for a unique purpose, but in the bigger scheme of things, I am given my time and allowed to make what I can of it, following some and perhaps preparing the way for others to come in the great ‘dance of life’. Psalm 139 (one of King David’s) comments, ‘I am fearfully and wonderfully made… my soul knows that very well…’ and talks of ‘the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there were none of them’.4
On a personal level, illness for me this Christmas has led to a decision that I will let other family members take charge of the catering next December.
In my work, I strive for a balance between individual client work, teaching and writing. For me, this is nurturing and respectful of my own differing needs and of my changing energy levels. In my daily work I also purposefully leave a gap between clients, to give myself time to write notes and prepare for the next person, and also so that the unexpected can be accommodated. This might be for example, someone getting very upset in a session, or someone arriving late.
For you, some reflection will show you how you can continue to respect your own changing needs while attempting to meet the needs of others. This may mean making adjustments to lifestyle and what you expect of yourself – but no more than you would be encouraging your clients to do. Such adjustments make us more congruent and empathic in our work. The ‘wounded healer’ is a topic in its own right, which I commend to you for further research.5
Jennie Cummings-Knight works privately as a counsellor, writer, psychotherapist and lecturer in Cromer, Norfolk. Her current research interests include dementia, death anxiety and male identity issues. She welcomes comments and feedback. www.goldenleafcounselling.com
Counselling, therapy and the ageing process
Free article: In the first of a new series, Jennie Cummings-Knight explores the important topic of spirituality and ageing. Thresholds, Autumn 2016
Denial and the ageing process
Jennie Cummings-Knight continues her reflections on spirituality and ageing. Thresholds, Winter 2016
1. http://sites.bu.edu/ombs/2014/11/11/is-thebrain-the-only-place-that-stores-our-memories/(accessed 11 February 2017).
2. http://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/a-dose-of-confusion/ (accessed 11 February 2017).
3. http://www.beliefnet.com/wellness/health/healthy-living/aging/quotes-on-aging-gracefully.aspx?p=8 (accessed 11 February 2017).
4. Psalm 139: 14, 16. World English Bible.
5. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evil-deeds/201209/psychotherapists-wounded-healers (accessed 11 February 2017).