Existential therapy and lifelong learning

I am investigating how people learn to find meaning, purpose and fulfilment in later life, and whether counselling can be a helpful shared learning process in this endeavour.

In this article, I outline ideas that contribute to a global campaign to change ageist social attitudes and negative stereotypes. I am also challenging medical models of psychotherapy in the ways described in my previous article about existential therapy helping us to cope with post-traumatic stress.

I felt inspired to contribute my last article about coping with the distress and suffering caused by the global pandemic, not only by the persuasive writing of Viktor Frankl but also by the wonderful example set by 'Colonel' Tom Moore who 'walked on through the storm' for the benefit of the NHS, and consequently all of us. A belated Happy 100th Birthday Tom! In my humble opinion, 'you will never walk alone'. His daughter Hannah was reported to have said this about her father:

He instilled in us that we own our own destinies, that we mustn't allow other people to make things happen for us, that we must own our own happiness and we must own our own futures.

Thank you, Tom, and thank you, Hannah, you have certainly both given me renewed hope for the future of the world.

Talking therapy for over 65s

Because Tom Moore provides such an excellent role model for everyone, and certainly challenges ageist stereotypes, I am even more determined to explore the value of counselling in later life by interviewing talking therapy service users aged 65 upwards.

As a septuagenarian grandfather, I continue to be personally deeply engaged with this topic. I am striving to make a positive difference to the well-being of adults over 65 who require practical, emotional and spiritual support, by improving their access to appropriate counselling services which address their needs and wishes. The sensitive facilitation of a process of telling their personal stories, and also finding meaning in past, present and future existence, seemed to alleviate their distress and enable my older clients to maintain, or regain, their resilience and adapt pro-actively to ongoing change and transition in their lives.

The process of seeking meaning for life experience is unique for every counselling client, as persuasively argued by Viktor Frankl. I am trying to give my research participants more powerful voices to contribute to the vital debate about counselling service development for a rapidly growing population of people aged 65 upwards, who are currently rarely consulted, even as experts on their own lives.

Yet we have a professionally widely recognised need for appropriate, adaptable and accessible mental health facilities, and we sometimes also still benefit from intergenerational learning and development opportunities. I only just started my PhD aged 70, which meant an unconventional later life transition from ageing pensioner to new student. I am growing old disgracefully and I like to think of myself as a sort of 'wrinkly rebel'. All the ideas I describe about existential therapy and lifelong learning, in fact, apply to a diverse range of people of all ages in many different circumstances.

Lifelong learning

I am interested in the idea that people in later life continue to have the learning and self-development potential to enjoy unique and varied forms of, what Lars Tornstam calls, 'gerotranscendence'. In his later life, Carl Jung wrote an essay entitled 'The stages of life'.  He came to the conclusion that adults generally started the second half of their life completely unprepared. He reflected that young people are educated to discover future goals to focus on, and to develop skills to achieve them. Older people may or may not have already reached their goals and were assumed not to be in need of further training and education. Subsequently, they went on with their lives with very outdated plans of action and, as a result, many suffered from depression. According to Jung, the afternoon of life should also possess its own meaning and purpose. Growing old in a meaningful way was not just looking back at one's life, but also looking ahead, to set oneself new goals and to aim at further wisdom.

Four decades later Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 'The coming of age': "In order to prevent that old age becomes a ridiculous travesty of our previous life, there is only one possibility: to pursue a goal that gives meaning to our life. To devote oneself to people, groups of people, an activity, social, political, intellectual, creative work. It is to be hoped, and this goes right against the advice of the moralists, that our personal passions remain sufficiently strong at an older age to prevent that we turn inward."
For me, the counselling process has often involved searching for meaning and purpose in what is happening. For example, in my counselling experiences with older people in care homes, I have sometimes encountered distressed people, clearly relieved to be gently encouraged to tell their own stories, who seem to be in what Viktor Frankl described as an 'existential vacuum'. They have lost their purpose, their motivation and their energy in life and feel that their lives are meaningless. They describe feeling as if they have stagnated and experience a sense of stasis and disconnection. In the existential philosophy at the heart of my approach, it is meaning that links us to the world and propels us forward into our futures. For Frankl, meaning has to exist before experiencing life: 'it sets the pace for being'.

For those of us who have lost a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives, there is a need to reconnect, and I argue that this is done by focusing our awareness of how we are living, what is important to us and what we value.  

I contend that meaning flows from our connectivity. It stems from the way in which we are connected and engaged with the fundamental aspects of who we are. It brings our values and beliefs together with our emotional response to the world. All these elements are needed to make sense of our present experiences as well as giving us a sense of direction in life. I share Ken Gergen's valuable 'relational recovery' perspective of counselling, viewing therapist and client as "engaged in a subtle and complex dance of co-action, a dance in which meaning is continuously in motion, and the outcomes of which may transform the relational life of the client".

I still treasure the memory of my last 'dance' with an inspiring client experiencing dementia, who took obvious delight in brilliantly recounting vivid flashbacks of fascinating autobiography, before suddenly switching to expressing momentary exasperation and powerlessness. I empathised with her 'felt sense' that an extraordinarily self-developing life story of outstanding professional care work and family responsibility now seemed to be defined by her illness and increasing dependency. I admired her resilience and respected her absolute determination to continue to manage her domain in her own way.

Conclusions

I suggest that the notion of sensitively facilitating the telling of their own story, and sometimes supporting a dignified quest for lifelong learning and increased wisdom, may be a more ethical and inclusive way to respect and comfort our elders than the somewhat medical counselling services currently offered. My previous experience indicates that an empathic, humanistic and 'relational recovery' approach to supporting people, also authentically described in some moving biographical case studies by Helen Kewell titled, 'Living well and dying well', may also facilitate increased resilience and alleviate experiences of acute emotional distress. 

The Coronavirus pandemic has dramatically brought into sharp focus the oppressed and threatened position of many older people in society globally. I will therefore end with the words of Anna Dixon, Chief Executive of the Centre for Ageing Better, introducing their recent challenging report about current research into ageist stereotyping in Britain:

"Ageism is deeply damaging, yet all too often it isn't taken as seriously as other forms of prejudice or discrimination. Britain is long overdue a fundamental culture shift to overturn these attitudes, and the media needs to reflect the diverse experience of people in later life."

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Christopher Tovey, MEd., BA (Hons) Person-centred Counselling & Psychotherapy

I am an existential therapist in private practice with 50 years previous experience and professional development in care work, including advanced qualifications in continuing education, social work and psychotherapy. I have been practising person-centred existential therapy for the last 10 years. My counselling research PhD will end in 1/2023. .… Read more

Written by Christopher Tovey, MEd., BA (Hons) Person-centred Counselling & Psychotherapy

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