Counselling senior citizens often involves dealing with loss and grief. Losses include death of a spouse/partner, family member or friend. Others are retrenchment, retirement, loss of meaning and purpose in life, loss of independence, health issues, and loss of youth.
Loss of youth is an inevitable aspect of life but dealing with it effectively is not always easy in a society in which there exists discrimination against senior citizens.
According to a report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, ageism is the systematic stereotyping of, and discrimination against people simply because they are older. Older people are not seen as individuals but rather lumped together. Ageism is a powerful social force based on a number of myths. One of these is the myth of chronology, the idea that older people are a homogenous group because of their age alone; once an individual has reached a “magic age” they automatically become old and part of the group labelled “the elderly”. They are not simply “the elderly”; they are unique individuals.
As a result of discrimination issues of self-worth, self-esteem and self-image may arise. These are issues that may be explored in counselling for senior citizens.
The research that comes from gerontology is at the forefront of age law reform. Gerontologists inform us that biological ageing and social ageing are individual to each human being. For example, it is normal for some 80 year olds to be working, driving and active in their community, while others may be restricted in movement and require high levels of care.
I interviewed “Joy”, a carer who works for an organization that aims to help senior citizens to live in their own home as long as possible. Joy has worked in aged care for many years. She has witnessed ageism and has asked many of her clients upfront about other people’s attitudes towards them. Many clients believe that our society attributes little value/worth to senior citizens; that we do not value their ideas, views, thoughts or experiences. They do not get the respect they deserve. People do not often give the aged a listening ear. They stick to the basics in conversation i.e. the weather, their health etc. These people would rather talk about other things! Are they any different from us in that respect? The aged tell Joy that they feel exactly the same as they did 20 or 30 years ago. They are the same person. So many people just see “the shell”: the wrinkles, the lack of physical strength, the hearing aids and so on. As Joy emphasizes, the person inside that shell has not changed.
The aged have a lot to contribute, given the chance. After her first visit to a particular client, Joy sees the individual inside their shell, sees past the wrinkles, past the disabilities to the unique person within. She sees George or Betty. She gives them a listening ear by getting them talking about various aspects of their lives…she draws their story out. She hears amazing stories of things these people have experienced and overcome. She says that they have lived a life quite different from the one we are living. They have experienced World War, the depression, having to go without etc She witnesses an amazing acceptance of how things are with respect to deficits.
Stereotyping in the media and negative impacts on ageing
The Hon Susan Ryan, Age Discrimination Commissioner, is commissioning research into age stereotypes in the media. She believes that a lot of age discrimination comes from negative stereotypes of ageing. Our society tolerates a range of negative stereotypes about older people. For example, older people are physically and mentally weak, stubborn, out of date, unable to learn, seriously unhealthy…a burden to society. Such negative stereotyping can have negative impacts on biological ageing, psychological ageing and social ageing. Research has indicated that negative stereotypes can impact on memory, cardiac reactivity to stress and longevity. Susan Ryan aims to encourage the media to drop unjustified negative age stereotypes in the media and replace them with realistic images of older people, portrayals that are accurate, balanced, diverse and empowering.
Most of us, at least up to the age of 80, and many of us for years beyond that point are basically okay and can and do live independently. Susan Ryan believes we need to convince older people that they are able to have long, healthy and productive lives.
The stereotypical images of old age are not simply the result of natural life processes; they are to a large extent socially constructed.
Counselling senior citizens may involve existential therapy which may be effective for many people in their quest to find either a satisfying job or other worthwhile and satisfying pursuits. Questions about the meaning of life may arise. Lack of companionship, the stress of looking for suitable work as an older person, and quality of lifestyle issues may be the subject of counselling.
Counselling senior citizens should aim to enhance the person’s confidence in living life to the fullest possible extent for the longest possible time.
Ryan, S. (2012). The rights of older people and age discrimination in Australia (2012). Retrieved from
Scrutton, S. (1999). Counselling older people (2nd ed.) London: Arnold