The oldest baby boomers (the generation born between 1946 and 1964) are turning 70 this year. With an estimated 76 million total boomers, the issues around aging are about to take center stage like no other time in history. In some ways, living into one’s 80s and beyond is a new frontier. Things like finances, health and housing all take on a new twist that many of us are reluctant to face.
“It’s a complicated stage of life that we’re not prepared for. During other phases of life we know what to do,” says Hazel Melmed, LCSW, therapist at Maria Droste Counseling Center. People are living longer, she adds, and maintaining quality of life through this transitional stage is challenging.
Hazel, 74, is experiencing this herself. She is semi-retired, working part-time. “I’m thinking about downsizing. I’ve begun tidying up photographs, going through birthday cards and the many things I’ve accumulated over the years deciding what to keep and what to get rid of,” she says. There is a desire to make our lives meaningful, and this becomes a time of reflection, she adds.
People in their 70s, 80s and beyond face many decisions. What do I do if I lose my spouse? Should I move into a retirement place? There’s a lot of uncertainty. “Sometimes dementia creeps in, adding another component,” Hazel says.
Change can be difficult at any age, but the changes aging adults face can mean a great sense of loss. The loss of the independence and control that come with things most of us take for granted, such as the ability to drive and live in our own home, can lead to a loss of personal identity and alter one’s self-perception. Diminished eyesight, hearing or mobility can make it harder to socialize, leading to isolation. Loss of a spouse, other family members and friends becomes more likely as we get older.
Therapy can be an excellent tool for navigating those complex transitions and necessary adjustments. Hazel has several clients in their 80s. She explains that they typically come to therapy because they are grieving, having lost a spouse or partner through death or divorce, and are now facing life challenges on their own. Often they are referred by their physicians. “They don’t recognize therapy as something to seek out, but once they come and talk to someone who is listening objectively, in a nonjudgmental way, it’s such a relief,” says Hazel. “Very quickly therapy becomes something they enjoy. They see the benefit of expressing ideas and making decisions.”
Hazel often includes their children. “[The children] just want their parents to be safe, but what they want is not always what their parents want.” Hazel helps them all bridge that gap. For the parents, therapy also offers a safe environment to resolve issues with their children, deal with feelings of regret and guilt, and talk about their experiences.
Rose* was referred to Hazel by her doctor after she lost her husband, Al, and reached retirement age. When she came to Hazel, she was extremely emotional and weepy. She was living on her own in Denver (her daughter and two sons live in other states). She was having a great deal of difficulty. She was very depressed and couldn’t function.
Rose had been the primary caregiver to Al who had been ill with complications from a heart condition for several years. She continued to work full time in an accounting firm, a career she loved, while she cared for him. Without both of those roles, she began to feel she had nothing to live for and expressed to Hazel that she wished she just wouldn’t wake up one day. She was deeply grieving the loss of both her husband and her profession. She was overwhelmed and unable to see any future for herself.
At first, Rose would miss therapy appointments because she didn’t think the time was worth it. “I worked very gently with her, getting her to appreciate her life,” Hazel says. “We started the process of helping her regain her sense of self in a new stage of life.” Part of that process was creating a journal, to help her remember the meaningful things she experienced throughout her life.
“People at this age look back and think, ‘If I haven’t cured cancer [or some other similar accomplishment], then what is my life worth?’” Hazel explains. “They think, why did this happen to me? All my friends are still with their husbands.”
Rose began taking medication for depression. In her sessions with Hazel, she was able to share events and facts of her life. Hazel reflected back to her with comments like, “That’s so interesting… tell me more.” Over time, Rose became more engaged in her own story. She talked about her work accomplishments, recognition she received, family trips and holidays. She began to see that her life had, and still has, value.
Today, Rose is doing a lot better. She moved into a new apartment where she is happy. She sees friends more often and has started volunteering at a local non-profit.
Hazel admits that she finds it fascinating to work with older clients, in part because they are reflecting back to her what she is beginning to deal with herself. She enjoys seeing them make the transition from “poor me” to “I’ve done some amazing things,” recognizing their own self-worth, both in the past and in the present. Hazel says it is helping her be more prepared for the future.
The Happiness Curve
Reaching a lofty age does not have to mean an end to happiness and a meaningful life. In fact, it can be quite the opposite. According to a Brookings Institute study, life satisfaction actually peaks from age 80 to past 90. “[Aging] brings a greater acceptance of ourselves and our lives—no matter how difficult circumstances may be at times… We no longer have to figure out who we want to become or what else we want to accomplish, for example,” writes Kaiser Permanente Health Research Institute research vice president Dr. Eric B. Larson. (Larson, 2016)
The relationship between age and happiness presents in what’s known as the “U-Curve” because it dips in the middle (middle age) and is highest on the ends (youth and advanced age). Similar studies have been done in many developed countries and the results are remarkably consistent across individuals, countries and cultures. (Graham, Ruiz Pozeulo, 2015)
Of course all individuals and situations have their own unique challenges. Cultural, socio-economic, and a host of other factors play a part in shaping our circumstances and our ability to cope with change. If you (or a family member) are struggling with age-related issues, therapy can help. Contact our Access Center at 303-867-4600 for more information or to schedule an appointment with one of our therapists.
Larson, E.B. (2016). Who’s Happier—People in Their 40s or 80s? Kaiser Permanente Health Research Institute. Retrieved on July 25, 2016, from https://wa-health.kaiserpermanente.org/whos-happier-people-in-their-40s-or-80s/
Graham, C. and Ruiz Pozeulo, J. (2015) Is Happiness Just a Matter of Waiting for the Right Age? Brookings. Retrieved on July 25, 2016, from: https://www.brookings.edu/blogs/future-development/posts/2015/11/09-age-nationality-happiness-graham-ruiz
*Rose is not a specific client, but her story represents actual experiences of real clients.