“You must have more important things to do than listen to me.”
An apologetic approach to counselling
Sadly, it’s not uncommon for counsellors and psychotherapists to hear such apologetic openings from their older clients at the beginning of therapy. Whilst it may be tempting to read such self-deprecating comments as a shield for nervousness, they also have their roots in ageist societal attitudes that diminish expectations of later life.
If we believe (as is often portrayed in media representations of older people), that physical and mental decline, depression, unhappiness and loneliness are inevitable as we age, we develop a form of ‘self-stigma’ that reduces the likelihood that we’ll recognise and act upon symptoms of depression and anxiety as we age.
Ageism is the foundation of barriers that keep the common mental health problems of older people hidden and untreated.
Ageing doesn’t have to mean sadness, loneliness and decline
A vicious circle emerges that reinforces notions that ageing automatically results in sadness, loneliness and decline and if we don’t believe that we are worth the time and resource required to improve our quality of life, we don’t ask for and receive the help that improves our wellbeing.
Recently, I was alarmed to learn of evidence showing that people with poor self-perception of ageing live, on average, 7.5 fewer years than those with a positive view of later life.* The shocking thing about this statistic is that it suggests that ageist attitudes may contribute to lowering quantity as well as quality of life.
We need to start with our own beliefs and actions
Whilst there are some glaring examples of ‘everyday ageism’ such as beauty products marketed as ‘anti-ageing’, it’s important that combating ageism starts with the questioning of our own beliefs, actions and practices that may unwittingly stop older people seeking and receiving the help they need.
Counsellors and therapists who work with older clients are taking steps to make access to therapy easier. These include demystifying the processes of therapy by providing clearer explanations of what is involved in therapy and by being flexible in the way they work to meet the needs of the older client rather than the needs of the service. Offering home visits, encouraging clients to bring a friend or partner to initial sessions, partnering with trusted community organisations, and addressing the practical concerns that their client has before beginning the therapeutic work, have all been found to be effective ways of allowing older people to engage with counselling services.
It’s vitally important for the mental health and wellbeing of older people that we continue to work to identify and overcome ageist attitudes and practices.
There is no upper age limit to benefit from counselling
Data from NHS England shows that people aged 65 and over who are referred for talking therapies are more likely to complete their treatment and have better outcomes than the rest of the population. Despite these positive results, the figures also show that the likelihood of being referred for psychological therapies reduces with age, so challenges remain to bust those myths about ageing and poor mental health.
I believe that counselling changes lives and that there is no upper age at which this is true.
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy is committed to delivering a strategy that raises awareness of the mental health needs of older people, challenges ageism, opens new possibilities, and increases the numbers of older people who live fulfilling and positive later lives.
* Levy,B., Slade, Martin D., Pietrzak, Kasl, S.V., Kunkel, S.R., (2002), Longevity increased by positive self-perceptions of ageing, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, no.2, 261-270.
Jeremy Bacon is the Older People Lead at the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
Have you been affected by any of these issues?
If you have been affected by any of the issues described in this blog, or simply need someone to reach out to, you can call Independent Age’s freephone helpline for information and advice on 0800 319 6789. You can also contact the Mind helpline for information and advice on 0300 123 3393, or text 86463.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Independent Age.