The increasing value of counselling in later life

At the age of 74, I am enjoying exploring my own experiences of being in the world and getting older at the same time as analysing the diverse and amazing biographical stories told by counselling service users aged 65+ in the 14 interviews with participants in my ongoing PhD narrative inquiry.

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The value of counselling in later life

How people actively learn their world and their place in it, as well as how this may be challenged, is the overall focus of my research. I argue that our ongoing experience of life, and how we tell and re-tell our own stories over time, usually involves increasing self-awareness, developing personal authenticity and expressing our unique identity, while continuing meaningful and purposeful engagement with the world and others.

In my experience, this continuous self-development process also generates often self-critical internal dialogue and reflective activity, which is sometimes shared by us within supportive counselling relationships. It's a lifelong process of learning from experience which, thanks to my inspirational research participants, I have now positively re-framed as continuing to grow and gain wisdom until we get to the end of our personal stories.

The importance of listening carefully to the stories individual people tell about their lives

In their exploration and explanation of qualitative biographical research, Barbara Merrill and Linden West (2009) describe the complex and dynamic relationship between individual agency and social and historical contexts:

“Biographical research methods offer rich insights into the dynamic interplay of individuals and history, inner and outer worlds, self and other. The word dynamic conveys the idea of human beings as active agents in making their lives rather than being simply determined by historical and social forces”.

As an active septuagenarian psychotherapist and practitioner-researcher, understanding the self in the context of ‘being-in-the-world’ has become for me what Merrill and West might describe as a sort of ‘reflexive life project’.

I now wholeheartedly embrace the idea, expressed passionately by Ken and Mary Gergen (2000) in terms of ‘positive ageing’ perspectives, that telling our stories provides a focus for reworking who we are and communicating this to others, and for challenging, perhaps, some of the dominant stories told about people like us in the wider culture.

This phenomenon can also be understood by reference to collectively transformative political and cultural changes over the last 30 years. These social processes are providing more incentives and opportunities for reflective self-definition as we grow older, in the interplay of the global and local via mass communication technologies and in the increasing celebration of diverse lifestyles.

Why our social situation matters so much

There are also profound social and economic limitations experienced by many older people within dramatically life-constricting social contexts over the same historical period. Recent research indicates that quality of life opportunities continue to be severely limited for many people aged 65+ (Centre for Ageing Better, 2022).

This historical moment of potential for ‘positive ageing’ experiences, as commentators like Anthony Giddens (1991) have observed, seems riddled with a paradox: new opportunities for self-definition, therefore, coexist with deep-seated anxieties and existential doubt about our capacity to cope.

The biographical imperative, at all levels, may be fueled by the necessity to compose life and make meaning in a more fragmented, individualised and unpredictable culture, where inherited templates can be redundant and the nature of the life course becomes increasingly uncertain in a globalising world. My enduring interest in biography is stimulated by experiencing and investigating ageing in a post-modern culture, in which inter-generational continuities have weakened and new politics of identity and representation has emerged among diverse groups.

Women and men, gay and lesbian, black and white, young and old, may increasingly seek to continue embodying their diverse identities in later life (Gilliard & Higgs, 2013), while expressing different values and meanings from parents or grandparents. 

The social construction of growing old

Critical social gerontologists such as Biggs (2019) Grenier (2012) Phillipson (2008) and Grenier and Phillipson (2012) are now challenging the dominant social constructions of ‘growing old’. They also emphasise the importance of researching the individual experiences and narratives of older people themselves in order to fully describe what is happening. We narrative inquirers need to explore the nuances of power and social dynamics to understand better the complex relationship between social contexts and individual agency.

These ideas, centring on social identity, are important in understanding the social construction of old age. Powell and Hendrix (2009) emphasise the need to link the micro-concerns of social action with macro structures of power.

Contemporary social exclusion of older people

The social exclusion of older people has been defined as a complex process that involves the lack of or denial of resources, rights, goods and services as people age, and the inability to participate in normal relationships and activities, available to the majority of people across the varied and multiple domains of society. It affects both the quality of life of older individuals and the equity and cohesion of an ageing society as a whole.

Vanessa Burholt and an international team of researchers have used and defined the developing concept of ‘intersectionality’ as an umbrella term to describe and analyse the diverse varieties of social exclusion experienced by many older people globally (Burholt, 2019). 

Internalised ageism

Susan Pickard (2016, 2018) has described comprehensively how older people, women, in particular, are adversely affected by both contextual and internalised ageist narratives and ideology. 

In an illuminating multi-disciplinary study of how we think about age and ageing as a society, Pickard (2016) argues that none of the stereotypical attributes of the life stages is necessarily attributable to ageing itself: not the opportunities of youth (for some), nor the disappointments or transformations of midlife (for others), nor the comfortable leisured lifestyle in ‘young’ old age, nor the constraints and challenges, social, material and physical in ‘old’ old age. 

Pickard contends that such stereotypes are attributable to each stage of the life course but not to age itself. The material attributes of the body that change and fluctuate throughout the life course, without our conscious involvement, are as much a part of our embodied sense of identity as the self-invention that we nowadays are encouraged to celebrate culturally in the modern world.

However, the meanings of these bodily states have their source in society, in particular, in the hierarchical structures that separate ages from each other as well as stratify them internally, all cross-cut by the axis that places ‘youth’ on the positive side and ‘old age’ to the negative.

What is knowledge? Finding diverse truths through research

I believe that all knowledge depends on social context and culture. For example, Pickard explains how ageing socially affects women particularly negatively (Pickard, 2016,2018). She argues that there is an assumed intellectual tradition from science and medicine, through the canons of English literature, that has a patriarchal foundation.

This conventional thinking is infused historically with the perspectives of prejudiced and discriminatory men positioning women as ‘other’. This has become a ‘normalised’ attitude over time that still tends to carry the label of scientific ‘objectivity’ and is thus generally considered to be rational thinking by men, despite half the population being women (Pickard, 2016, 2018). 

Pickard has also written persuasively about the extent to which this patriarchal tradition, and also some feminist perspectives, have continued to maintain the normalised age convention of ‘the prime of life’ adult. Pickard’s valuable sociological research poses similar fundamental cultural questions about the social effects of ageism on our developing sense of identity to those asked in my ongoing narrative inquiry. 

In agreement with Pickard, my research findings argue that ageing can be re-framed as a positive and meaningful lifelong process of growth and development. We begin at birth and continue throughout our lifespan until we reach the end of our personal stories.

I contend that ageing does not need to be negatively socially imagined as the relentless and distressing experience of disintegration and decline that dominant public discourse and the media tend to stereotypically project. 

The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson argued that one of our key problems at both a cultural and a personal level revolves around issues of identity. Today it seems to me that a defining and persistent individual human existential crisis in later life is generated by our socially influenced fear of ageing and old age.

Fighting for social justice and equal rights for older people

Susan Westwood (2019) has explored the historical context of the lives of older people in the UK, in terms of the social limitations to agency, opportunity, human rights and social justice. Exploring ageing, diversity and inequality from the social justice and human rights perspective, which is also a key aspect of my research, Westwood (2019, 17-18) draws attention to the significance of advocacy and representation for ageing and equality:

“Older people not only need access to a wide range of resources in later life, and to be recognised and valued as equal members of society, but they also need parity of participation, i.e. social connectedness, social engagement, community involvement, political voice, advocacy (where required) and inclusion in research. Only when all three dimensions of equality are attained for all older people, across the diversity spectrum, will social justice in later life have been achieved.”

Counselling service users’ life stories and the dynamic relationship between individual agency and social context

As participants in my research explored childhood experiences, stories of personal attachments were told alongside stories of losses. Identified life themes about belonging and inclusion contrasted with experiences of alienation and social exclusion. People sometimes told their stories describing themselves as ‘survivors’ from situations where they had previously identified themselves as ‘victims’. 

Issues about maintaining personal autonomy and agency in later life contrasted with descriptions of having felt increasingly powerless in adverse circumstances. Participants narrated stories of searching for, and ultimately finding, meaning and purpose in life, while also experiencing acutely distressing periods of feeling uncertainty and uselessness, and sensing a sort of ‘existential vacuum’ (Frankl, 1967). 

There were moving stories of seeking and eventually finding appropriate therapeutic care later in life after disclosing much earlier, previously untold, experiences of acutely traumatic childhood sexual abuse. Inspiring stories of personal growth and transformation were recounted after notional retirement prospects had generated deeply distressing existential fears of redundancy and mental and physical decline.

Initial heartening personal conclusions for ageing counselling service users

Participants’ stories, describing both adjustings to social context and changing internal self-perceptions, indicate an urgent need to further research and explore ways of creating and developing appropriate and accessible counselling and learning opportunities for older people. 

Talking therapy practitioners and services need to take account of the increasing diversity and often extremely active and valuable social contributions of people aged 65+.

Further information about my continuing research project can be found in my article titled "Existential therapy and lifelong learning".


References

  • Biggs, S. (2018) Negotiating Ageing: Cultural Adaptation to the Prospect of a Long Life. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Burholt, V et al (2019) A critical review and development of a conceptual model of exclusion from social relations for older people. European Journal of Ageing (2020) 17: 3-19.
  • Centre for Ageing Better. (2022) The State of Ageing in 2022. London: Ageing Better Ltd.
  • Frankl, V.E.(1967) Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy. London: Souvenir Press.
  • Gergen, K. (2009) Relational Being: Beyond Self and Community. Oxford: OUP.
  • Gergen, K. & Gergen, M. (2000) ‘The New Ageing: Self Construction and Social Values’. In R.Schaie & J.Hendricks (Eds) The Evolution of the Ageing Self: The Societal Impact on the Ageing Process. New York: Springer. 281-306.
  • Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Gilleard, C & Higgs, P. (2013) Ageing, Corporeality and Embodiment. London: Anthem Press.
  • Grenier, A. (2012) Transitions and the Lifecourse: Challenging the construction of ‘growing old’. Bristol: Policy Press
  • Grenier, A & Phillipson, C. (2013) ‘Rethinking Agency in Later Life: structural and interpretive approaches’. In, Bars, Dohmen, Grenier & Phillipson. Ageing, Meaning and Social Structure: Connecting critical and humanistic gerontology. Bristol: Policy Press.
  • Merrill, B & West, L. (2009) Using Biographical Methods in Social Research. London: Sage.
  • Phillipson, C. (2008) ‘Authoring Aging: Personal and Social Constructions’. Journal of Aging Studies, 22 (2) April, 163-8.
  • Pickard, S. (2016) Age Studies: A Sociological Examination of How We Age and are Aged through the Life Course. London: Sage.
  • Pickard, S. (2018) Age, Gender and Sexuality Through the Life Course: The Girl in Time. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Powell, J & Hendricks, J. (2009) The Sociological Construction of Ageing: Lessons for Theorising. International journal of Sociology and Social Policy. 29 (1-2) 84-94.
  • Westwood, S. (2019) Ageing, Diversity and Equality: Social Justice Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Kenilworth, Warwickshire, CV8
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Written by Christopher Tovey, MEd BA (Hons) Person-centred Counselling & Psychotherapy
Kenilworth, Warwickshire, CV8

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 existential therapy for the last 10 years. My counselling and lifelong learning PhD will end in 2023.

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