Many seniors are seeking psychological help late in life. Most never set foot near an analyst’s couch in their younger years. But now, as people are living longer, and the stigma of psychological counseling has diminished, they are recognizing that their golden years might be easier if they alleviate the problems they have been carrying around for decades. It also helps that Medicare pays for psychiatric assessments and therapy.
“We’ve been seeing more people in their 80s and older over the past five years, many who have never done therapy before,” said Dolores Gallagher-Thompson, a professor of research in the department of psychiatry at Stanford. “Usually, they’ve tried other resources like their church, or talked to family. They’re realizing that they’re living longer, and if you’ve got another 10 or 15 years, why be miserable if there’s something that can help you?”
Some of these older patients are clinically depressed. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that more than 6.5 million Americans over age 65 suffer from depression. But many are grappling with mental health issues unaddressed for decades, as well as contemporary concerns about new living arrangements, finances, chronic health problems, the loss of loved ones and their own mortality.
“It’s never too late, if someone has never dealt with issues,” said Judith Repetur, a clinical social worker in New York who works almost exclusively with older patients, many of whom are seeking help for the first time. “A combination of stresses late in life can bring up problems that weren’t resolved.”
In years past, too, there was a sense among medical professionals that a patient often could not be helped after a certain age unless he had received treatment earlier in life. Freud noted that around age 50, “the elasticity of the mental process on which treatment depends is, as a rule, lacking,” adding, “Old people are no longer educable.” (Never mind that he continued working until he died at 83.)
“That’s been totally turned around by what we’ve learned about cognitive psychology and cognitive approach — changing the way you think about things, redirecting your emotions in more positive ways,” said Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist and professor of human development at Cornell, and author of “30 Lessons for Living.”
Treatment regimens can be difficult in this population. Antidepressants, for instance, can have unpleasant side effects and only add to the pile of pills many elderly patients take daily. Older patients may feel that they don’t have the time necessary to explore psychotherapy, or that it’s too late to change.
But many eagerly embrace talk therapy, particularly cognitive behavioral techniques that focus on altering thought patterns and behaviors affecting their quality of life now. Experts say that seniors generally have a higher satisfaction rate in therapy than younger people because they are usually more serious about it. Time is critical, and their goals usually are well defined.
“Older patients realize that time is limited and precious and not to be wasted,” said Dr. Abrams. “They tend to be serious about the discussion and less tolerant of wasted time. They make great patients.”
How Therapy Can Help in the Golden Years
By ABBY ELLIN APRIL 22, 2013 3:01 PM
April 22, 2013 3:01 pm
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