Occupational Wisdom

What Therapists Can Teach Us about Growing Old Gracefully

Magazine Issue
March/April 2018
Occupational Wisdom

It happens to the best of us. No matter who we are, what we accomplish, or how well we take care of ourselves, we keep getting older. For a while, many of us vigorously deny it. But at a certain point, as you purchase your senior’s ticket at the movie theater or realize everyone else in the bustling, new restaurant is younger than you, it comes to you: you’re now an “older person.” You may not feel it in your heart, but you sense it in your body, and catch it in the way certain younger people react to you. In certain shafts of uncharitable light, you may even be startled to see it in the mirror.

But wait, we’re therapists. Maybe that gives us some kind of advantage in the process of moving into post-midlife. Perhaps there’s a special kind of occupational wisdom that gives clinicians an edge in coping with the inescapable phenomenon of aging—and dying. Or maybe not. In the conversations that follow, three prominent psychotherapists look unflinchingly at their own impermanence and the ways in which it’s interwoven with their longtime practice of therapy. With uncommon clarity and deep candor, they share how their experience with older clients has shaped their slant on their own mortality. They also look at the converse—how their own aging may be changing the way they approach psychotherapy. Do our clients’ infirmities threaten us? Allow us to connect with them better? Make space for something else entirely?

Iconic existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom, age 86 and author of the seminal book Staring into the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, traces how his quality of presence with clients has changed over time. Erv Polster, who’s 95 and a prime mover of Gestalt Therapy, delves into a little-acknowledged element of older people’s inner lives—including his own. Joan Klagsbrun, age 72 and a leader in the field of Focusing-oriented therapy, identifies some of the subtle gender differences in the experience of aging, and shares how a client spurred her own wake-up call about how to approach the end of life more creatively.

What unites these therapists is their remarkable comfort with the notoriously uncomfortable, even shame-ridden topic of aging. Sure, they understand the losses, indignities, and fear that accompany the process, but they also plumb the possibilities and, yes, the unsung pleasures of growing older. There’s nothing of Pollyanna here; these senior clinicians are walking the walk of aging and know its complexities firsthand. But what emerges from these conversations is something larger—a way of getting beyond our youth-obsessed concerns to tune into a more nuanced, dynamic, and often even joyful view of old age. For those of us who are already elders (or are approaching elderhood), it’s deeply validating. For many younger people—who can’t imagine how “old” and “joy” can exist on the same plane—hearing from them may be an enlivening education.

Perhaps this is the most overlooked opportunity of aging—the chance to be a teacher. Until recently, the topic of growing older and facing our own mortality was closed, or at best discussed with thin-lipped stoicism. But as therapists—and as parents, siblings, and friends—we can open up the discussion on this stage in the life cycle as one that brims with both challenges and discoveries. We can do this in our conversations with clients and others, offering our full presence and support to make it safe to plumb the experience. We can also, perhaps more subtly but profoundly, do this work as role models.

As each of us grows older, we can try to embrace the full possibilities of aging, even alongside its challenges. That’s a genuine gift for our clients as well as the important people in our personal lives, regardless of their age. And, lest we forget, it’s a gift we can give ourselves.

Marian Sandmaier

Marian Sandmaier is the author of two nonfiction books, Original Kin: The Search for Connection Among Adult Sisters and Brothers (Dutton-Penguin) and The Invisible Alcoholics: Women and Alcohol Abuse in America (McGraw-Hill). She is Features Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, and other publications. Sandmaier has discussed her work on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Today Show, and NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Fresh Air.” On several occasions, she has received recognition from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for magazine articles on psychology and behavior. Most recently, she won the ASJA first-person essay award for her article “Hanging Out with Dick Van Dyke” on her inconvenient attack of shyness while interviewing. You can learn more about her work at www.mariansandmaier.net.