Older people often have much to offer in learned wisdom, resilience, and a sense of commitment. They have ‘been there and seen it all before’, and will often have learned how to cope with many challenges, sometimes persisting over many years.
However, people tend to become more vulnerable in older age due to failing energies and often a very real battle with loneliness. This may be for a variety of reasons; often older people live alone, with few family members nearby. A beloved pet may be of real comfort, but pets live much shorter lives than humans, and so there are more potential losses to be negotiated. Here, there is also the chance for forming a new relationship with a pet, although adjustments may have to be made in terms of the size of dog, for example, that can be reasonably coped with. Chronic illness can mean that getting out to social events becomes more of a challenge. The sensitive counsellor can support small but meaningful changes, to help enrich the life of the older person.
Bereavement is often a feature of the lives of older people, and other kinds of loss can mount up over the years to be quite a burden. Older people will sometimes have been taught to be stoical at all times and may need gentle exploration of what their own needs are, before we have a chance as counsellors of helping them to achieve their own goals. Death of loved ones, friends, and relatives can increase the sense of isolation, and can result in the older person becoming excessively anxious about personal illness and approaching the end of life. Nearly a quarter of people aged 65 and older ‘are considered to be socially isolated’ worldwide.1
Living in our fast-paced world is also a challenge for older people, along with perhaps memory issues. Alzheimer’s disease affects many and can impact on daily tasks like doing the shopping (using PIN numbers on debit cards) or remembering phone calls that need to be made. The trend for everything being ‘online’ is a real challenge for many older people and can make them feel useless and disempowered. “One in three people born in the UK this year will develop dementia during their lifetime”, says Dementia Statistics.
Changes to routine can be disastrous in losing mobility and independence, and we saw this during the Covid-19 lockdowns. I worked with the small local charity Age Concern North Norfolk for eight years between 2015 and 2023, and witnessed the need for befriending on multiple levels. The counsellor can help most by offering an empathic and genuine listening ear, and gently opening the topics that are closest to the heart of the older person. Exploration about daily essentials such as diet, sleep and exercise can help to flesh out the general picture of what has brought an older person for counselling. If there are estrangement issues in the family, these may weigh heavily in the later years of life, with a sense that time is running out. It may be helpful to give the older person a chance to talk such matters through at length, to see what small changes can be made, and how to adjust to what can realistically be achieved in the personal situation that is being described.
Essentially, older people need to feel that they are still of value and that their lives mean something to those around them. The sensitive counsellor can encourage a widening of the social network and the embracing of new challenges that are appropriate to the individual, including perhaps the revival of former skills that may have grown a little rusty.
The different generations have things to offer to each other, and exploration of how to bring them together in creative ways will be inspiring for all concerned.
1 CDC https://www.cdc.gov/aging/publications/features/lonely-older-adults.html#:~:text=A%20report%20from%20the%20National,considered%20to%20be%20socially%20isolated
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