Many of us find getting older not what we expected and rather difficult to come to terms with. What steps can we take to age well? And how may we help our clients age well?
In David Treadway, Ph.D.’s thoughtful talk about “Aging Well” at the 2015 Psychotherapy Networker Symposium, he provides the answers to these questions.
While aging often feels like the difficult stage of adolescence of not being sure of who you are or what you are doing except that your body is not blossoming in all the wonderful ways, there are many things that you can do to make this one of the happiest periods of your life.
The Five Remembrances
I am of the nature to grow old.
I am of the nature to have ill health.
I am of the nature to die.
I am of the nature to lose everything I ever cared about.
I am the sum total of my actions and my future actions.
As per this sitting meditation from buddhism teachings, there is no escape from growing old, ill health, death, loss or the consequences of our actions.
When Death Comes by Mary Oliver
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Mary Oliver’s poem is a thoughtful one about appreciating our lives. As per Treadway, it is an invitation to open up to the miracle of your life, shortness and fragility, the bell/music that is you…
Questions to Consider Raising with Clients:
- What are your issues with aging and what are you doing well?
- What are the issues around aging that are coming up and how is it impacting your work?
- What are you thinking about in terms of your career/retirement?
Some people need to do this work and some do not.
Thoughts/Concerns We Have About Aging:
- It’s scary; it takes different forms for different people.
- It brings up thoughts/fears about death.
- One client had a specific fear about being alive in a coffin.
- Some people believe in an alternative to death > they will be transported to a better life.
- Some people fear the process of dying or fear of diminishment.
- How am I going to go on if I can’t go on well?
- Because of medical advances, people are living past their dignity (having control of their mind but no control of their bodies etc.)
- Many of us have thought that we can have an exit plan > culture is shifting; many of us are too entitled to tolerate that loss of control and that’s terrific.
- Sadness – anticipating not being able to see children/grandchildren grow up – the kind of loss over which you have no control but you can feel the weight of it in advance.
- Grieving about the future is another type of grief.
- Money, marriage and health
- However we’ve managed money, it’s usually not enough. Most of us are looking at a reduction of lifestyle. Many of us are looking are frightened of living on fixed income. The act of earning money gives a feeling of control.
- Marriage – biologically, it was not intended for us to live this long or to have 50-60 year old marriages. This stage in marriage is really challenging (when you no longer have the same shared task of raising kids that serve as the glue). It can be exciting. It depends on whether the couple can work through what has transpired (death by 1000 cuts), if they can forgive one another for what they have been through, re-negotiate relationship, time for openness and change.
- Health is a gift. We’ve lost people in this demographic to cancer, heart disease etc. Many of us therapists welcome the opportunity to work on aging issues with clients because we are behind the safe therapy screen and we don’t talk about these concerns with our friends.
- We maintain ourselves by exercising, eating well, doing yoga and caring and nurturing the soul and mind.
- Losing one’s mind is a big fear.
- There is a built-in bias regarding retirement; some people want to avoid/delay retirement as long as possible.
- Many are having a good time at this stage of renewment; ask yourself/your client – are you enjoying yourself? If no, what can you be doing to have more of a good time?
- Change gets much harder when you get older.
- You have to deal with financial/retirement planning when everything is less secure.
- Many of us are dealing with dependent parents.
- Many of us are dealing with life’s results – about how how parenting worked out, marriage worked out or didn’t, career worked out or didn’t, how did the road we took take us away front he road we might have taken?
- Finding meaning and purpose in life as we get older is challenging – what does it matter? to whom does it matter?
- Once you move into retirement > renewment > finding meaningful work and play is very important > refreshing and stimulating!
Some Secrets to Aging Well:
- Develop a beginner’s mind
- Experience brand new things where you can be a failure (it’s great to be at an age where who cares if you’re good at it) – whatever “floats your boat”
How are people happier at this stage?
- We have greater appreciation of our strengths and weaknesses
- It is easier to accept/say the serenity prayer (accepting what we cannot change)
- The gift of one day at a time – we’re all at least viscerally aware that all we have is one day at a time. (If you have the “gift” of illness, it’s easier to step into the gift of each day.)
- We learn to grieve together (grieving alone lasts forever) – connection, caring, belonging or spirituality – this is how we confront our challenges.
- Religion is just one way to spirituality. For many people, spirituality is some variation of feeling at one with the universe, with the world where you’re just expressing your oneness with things. This often comes from being in nature. This allows our worries to lessen. We are all stardust that never gets destroyed; it just gets transformed into other forms. It is out of that place that one can pray easily.
Anne Lamott’s prayers are:
- Morning prayer: “Whatever”
- Evening prayer: “Oh, well.”
It is important to:
- Maintain a balance between good mindful self-care and adventure/risk-taking
- Assert and develop own autonomy; need to place self first (for those of you who have been caretakers for others otherwise you will get worn out)
- Deepen intimate relationships
- Open to the grief in our lives
- No one gets to this stage without a broken heart. Let us feel our tears and then let them go.
- At the same time, cultivate an attitude of gratitude: I’m here.
- Dissolve the difference between work and play; make sure that what you do for work is meaningful to you. This is what matters.
3 Good Interview Questions for Clients:
- In what way is your marriage better or worse than your parents?
- In what way are the differences you’re having impacting your intimate life?
- Given the issues you’re talking about, in what way is aging impacting things?
As per Treadway, asking your clients these questions vs. traditional assessment (or genogram type) questions gets you much more valuable information and also lets your clients know that even if they don’t want to talk about certain topics right now, you’re open to discussing them at a later time.
Grief Related Questions to Ask Clients:
- With whom do you have unresolved issues?
- With whom do you have to make amends?
- With whom do you have to offer some forgiveness? (think about ex-spouses, estranged children, parents who died etc.)
Exercise: Think about someone in your life that you feel you have some unresolved issues – that you want to make amends with, offer forgiveness or say “F… you”.”
Write one sentence to that person now.
With clients, Treadway sometimes has them do this in piecemeal. In other words, he may have them use a “grief book,” which enables you to name all the people you feel unresolved grief towards. Each page has the beginning of another letter and each day/session, you meditate and then write a letter that day with the feeling of grief you have on that day. This enables a client to slowly work through their sometimes complex emotions.
Another helpful book for this purpose is Nothing Left Unsaid: Creating a Healing Legacy with Final Words and Letters (affiliate link). This book enables you/your client to write letters to all the people (spouse, best friend, children etc.) we would want to say something to before we die.
Big Picture Evaluation
Let’s think about the whole picture – what is working and not working in your life – in your financial life, personal life, professional life, social life, spiritual life etc. On a scale of 0-10, how would you rate each one?
If your client rates his/her spiritual life a 1 (out of 10) but all their energy is spent complaining about their partner, does it matter? Choose your life!
Brainstorm with your client for outside of the box possibilities for whichever section of life they want to improve upon (without worrying about whether these possibilities might/not happen).
Miracle Question (another way to encourage brainstorming)
Close your eyes and pretend you went to sleep and during the night, your ideal future 5 years ahead happened and you discover this the next morning. What happened? What kind of room did you wake up in? How would you know that your miracle came true?
Translating Client’s Ideas Into Possibilities
Where’s the upside and downside of setting up X?
What dreams can be made to come true or need to be surrendered?
This helps client develop a strategic plan of action. Making a plan doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to do them but having made the plan gives you control/choices. We often live with incoherent anxiety/fear of our lives. Making a strategic plan will help you/your clients feel grounded, have mastery over life.
The key to aging well is owning, choosing the life as best as you can feel your oasis, grounded sense of security.
Finally, have some sort of daily meditation practice to serve as an anchor, to keep you centered and grounded.
A loving-kindness meditation:
May you be safe and protected.
May you feel ease of mind and comfort of heart.
May you see yourself with love and compassion
May you be at peace
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What are your thoughts about Treadway’s guidance regarding aging? Do you have any guidance to add?