Wisdom, or Yesterday’s News?

The Older Therapist in the Younger Practice

Psychotherapy Networker

Thank you to everyone who responded to our May Clinician's Quandary. Here are some of the top responses! Submit to next month's Clinician's Quandary here.

May Quandary: I’m the oldest therapist in the clinic where I work—turning 70 this fall—and admittedly, it’s been the source of some insecurity. We just had two new hires, both recent graduates, and they bring a lot of energy to the work, always talking new approaches and evidence-based practices with long acronyms. I consider myself a very capable therapist as I am, but I’m not sure whether to dive into new trainings or think about retiring. What should I do?

1) Old Wine, New Bottles

First, let me start by saying I’m sure you’re a wonderful therapist. Your years of training combined with unique experience is immeasurable! Be proud of your age, and the knowledge and expertise that comes with it.

You ended your question with two options: to attend trainings or consider retiring. However, I don’t think these are your only options in this situation.

I do think you should attend the trainings, because I’m willing to bet you’ll find that you’re already using most the techniques you’ll hear about. Don’t let those long acronyms intimidate you. What I’ve learned is that these new techniques usually have similar attributes to the ones you’ve known about for much longer—active listening, empathy, and the like. They’re attributes you’ve surely already mastered! I hope that all of this serves as a reminder of how great you already are. Don’t forget: it’s the therapeutic relationship, not the technique used, that contributes more to positive outcomes.

Attending these trainings could also be a great way for you to bond with these new clinicians. It’s always exciting when new employees bring in novel ways of approaching things. There’s always something we can learn from others, and what you haven’t mentioned is the wealth of knowledge you have to share with them. I’ll bet these new hires are going to be thrilled to work with you.

Katrina Ferrales, LCSW
Las Cruces, NM

2) Follow Your Own Terms

Retirement is not an either/or proposition, but rather, a personal decision. To retire because there are younger clinicians bringing fresh perspectives to the field is reactionary at best. Rather than default to insecurity, I would suggest that this therapist try out these new therapeutic modalities and embrace them along with the young clinicians that joined their clinic.

The most highly educated and enthusiastic clinicians are those who are new to the field. You’re never more current or ambitious than when you get your license. That spark of energy is necessary to build a foundation for future success. A 70-year-old clinician isn’t looking to build a future, but rather to employ the hard-won wisdom that can only come from experience. At the end of our career, we have an entirely different perspective compared to at the beginning. It’s normal to feel marginalized when newer clinicians enter a clinic, but there’s no doubt that this therapist’s combination of enthusiasm and experience is invaluable.

Younger therapists need elders as role models to help temper their natural enthusiasm with realistic expectations. This therapist has something to offer these younger clinicians, and, likewise, they have something to offer him. Namely, they can help him deal with his insecurity around this issue. It’s a cognitive distortion that needs to be named and corrected, probably fueled by the misconception that younger, eager, and more current therapists are more adequate than you. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. This therapist fails to mention the vast wisdom they’ve attained through decades of experience. I suggest you not retire by default; retire because you feel complete.

With that in mind, there’s very little downside to familiarizing yourself with new approaches. Our learning never stops, and this therapist might be surprised to find that most new therapies are outgrowths of CBT and systems theory.

Go out on your own terms rather than telling yourself half-truths about your adequacy. Insecurities point out what we need to work on, not run from. Become a mentor as well, and retire when the time is right, not when your insecurities get the best of you. Don’t run into retirement, walk there graciously. Isn’t that what we would tell our clients?

Larry Laveman, LCSW, BCD
Solana Beach, CA

3) Trust Yourself

I find it interesting that the two options this therapist is considering are to either dive into new trainings or retire, even though they consider themselves a “very capable therapist”—which they are! My advice to this therapist is for them to trust their capability. No doubt their training was different from that of the new hires, but that doesn’t mean it’s inferior. Experience is worth a lot, and if you’re helping your clients, that’s what matters. Now, if the issue is that their employer is requiring them to complete these trainings, that’s a different matter. This therapist would have to ask themselves whether they have the energy for new trainings, or whether they’d rather put that energy toward activities they could be pursuing in retirement.

We all have insecurities, and but this therapist’s have crept in while observing the new hires and thinking about his or her career and current age. Perhaps a shift in perspective shift could help, allowing them to recognize all that they bring to the job and their clients because of their age and history.

I also wonder whether these insecurities hint at something else going on. In this therapist’s position, I might dig a bit deeper, perhaps through journaling or other expression, to consider what else might be underlying these thoughts and feelings. Maybe they’re ready to retire but it’s hard to let go. Or maybe there’s an underlying fear related to staying or going.

Above all, I’d ask myself what I want. Do I want to continue working, or retire? It’s a question that sometimes takes time to answer—and I’d suggest this therapist take their time thinking about it! There’s no need to rush that process. Once they have clarity, they can find ways to challenge their insecurities and own the skills and abilities they already have. But above all, take things one step at a time, and trust yourself.

Christa Orfitelli, LISW
Davenport, IA

4) You’re Perfect for Someone

To this experienced clinician, I ask this: do you want to slow down or retire, or are you still passionate and engaged in your work? Either way, the younger therapists coming up behind you shouldn’t be a factor—your decision should be guided by what you want to do. I suggest you take the younger therapists out of the equation and explore this crossroads on your own terms.

If you wish to continue working either full or part time, then perhaps you and these younger clinicians can be of service to each other. In the center where I work, we older therapists have learned a lot from listening to trainees’ feedback and case reviews, and they value the feedback they receive from us. Maybe something like a whole-team, monthly peer supervision group could be a good place to start. It would certainly help alleviate some of your unfounded insecurity. And while I believe you may learn from these younger therapists, I have no doubt that they will learn a lot more from you and your decades of experience. How wonderful would it be to share your wisdom with these younger clinicians?

Also know that our work has not changed significantly over the years. Fundamentally, it’s still about developing a trusting relationship and holding space for the client. Acronyms aside, much of what we do has remained the same.

From my vantage point, it seems that as therapy continues to become more accessible and less stigmatized, more older clients are seeking support. I’m sure many of these clients would prefer to work with someone in their age group. I’ve seen some clients come to therapy for the first time in their 50s and 60s, whether it’s because of an eating disorder or a family member’s passing. Here in Ireland, I’ve seen older clients connect more comfortably with older therapists given the shared experience of living in Ireland during the 60s and 70s.

Regardless of what you decide, I wish you well in your future work and retirement.

Emma Murphy, eating disorders specialist and trainer


5) Never Stop Learning

I understand the insecurity you may be feeling as you grow older and come across new colleagues full of energy for the work. But I wonder why the choice is between retiring or doing trainings—unless you want to retire or seek training. If that’s not the case, what I see is a new learning opportunity for you and your new colleagues. Since you say they’re recent graduates and bring a lot of energy to the work, collaborating with them could be a great opportunity for you to feel refreshed in your work, for you to enter an exciting new chapter in your career. Maybe you’ll benefit from them, too, finding yourself inspired by their energy, passion, and ideas. Of course, you could share with them your knowledge and experience from years in the field.

If it’s a practice at your clinic, you might also consider group supervision sessions with these colleagues. And if it turns out you’d still like to get further training for your own personal benefit—and not out of insecurity—then great.

Solon, an Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and poet (and one of the seven wise men of Greece) once said, “As I get older, I always learn something new.” There are new things for you to learn, and your coworkers have things to learn from you. Take care, and enjoy your 70th birthday.

Giovanna Voutsinou, integrative counselor

Athens, Greece


Next month's Quandary: In a moment of frustration, a difficult client recently told me I’m a bad therapist. I didn’t respond, and we muscled through the rest of the session, but the comment has really been weighing on me. I feel hurt and insulted, and I’m not sure how to proceed. A part of me doesn’t even want to work with this client anymore. What should I do? Submit here.

Photo © iStock/triocean

Topic: Aging | Cultural, Social & Racial Issues | Field of Psychotherapy | Professional Development

Tags: Aging | Training | wisdom | Clinician's Quandary

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1 Comment

Friday, June 11, 2021 8:53:13 AM | posted by Susan Garner
I am 69 years of age and most of my clients are in their twenties and thirties. I have worked with many of them for more than six months. It has been a surprise for me to learn it is this demographic, young men and women in their twenties and thirties, that I tend to do my best work with. I have a private practice as well as working with BetterHelp. I would never have gotten the kind of client that I have gotten on BH platform if I had an office, only accepted insurance or out of pocket pay...many would not have insurance or the resources to pay a full fee and I would be limited to clients within a short drive to my office. (Additionally, I am able to see clients from all over the U.S. and world.) These 20 and 30 somethings do not seem to have any issues with my age and in fact, requested an "older" therapist, liberal, and with no religious affiliation when they came onto the platform. What has been most interesting for me to learn is that the demographic that I do not seem to work as well with are clients in their forties and fifties, i.e., closer to my age. I cannot tell you why my practice has emerged in this way though I can say that I am delighted that it has. It seems that these younger clients value having an "older" therapist, someone with skills and the benefit of having lived life which is not something that can be taught. For those questioning whether age is a limiting factor my experience says that is a "hard" no.