Older Adults Are Entering Psychotherapy in Larger Numbers

For years, the mental health community has viewed older adults as being unwilling to enter psychotherapy for emotional problems.  The thinking has been that greater receptivity would only occur when baby boomers entered older adulthood in large numbers.  However, a recent article by Abby Ellin in the New York Times reports that increasing numbers of adults older than the boomers are seeking therapy to deal with emotional issues.  The article quotes Dolores Gallagher-Thompson from the Stanford department of psychiatry as saying,  “We’ve been seeing more people in their 80s and older over the past five years, many who have never done therapy before.”  She offers the following explanation for this trend:  “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?”

Marvin Tolkin, whose therapy was described in the Times article.

Marvin Tolkin, whose therapy was described in the Times article.

As I wrote recently, psychotherapy is an effective treatment for depression in older adults.  There are a variety of other problems that can also be addressed by therapy.  Anxiety disorders—identified in 12% of adults 55 and older in one study–are quite responsive to treatment.  Many older adults have relationship issues, distress related to declining health, or unresolved feelings of grief.  Also, regrets, hurts, or resentments from years past can surface, disturbing the person’s equanimity.As Ellin notes, “That members of the Greatest Generation would feel comfortable talking to a therapist, or acknowledging psychological distress, is a significant change. Many grew up in an era when only ‘crazy’ people sought psychiatric help.  They would never admit to themselves — and certainly not others — that anything might be wrong.”  Many older adults are now realizing what most middle-aged and younger adults already know: admitting to problems isn’t a sign of craziness, and therapy is simply a way of solving problems that affect one’s quality of life.

Some older adults are hesitant to start therapy because they believe they can no longer change.  Change can occur at any age, though.   Someone who doesn’t expect to live many more years may not want to enter long-term therapy aimed at substantial revamping of the psyche.  Fortunately, there are other alternatives; many forms of therapy are short-term by design.  These therapies aim at addressing a few particularly troubling areas in relatively few sessions.   In my practice, I’ve found that many older adults come to therapy for help with just one or two specific issues that are bothering them.  Whether there are few or many problems, though, Gallagher-Thompson’s question is certainly pertinent: why, indeed, stay miserable when there is something that is likely to help?

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About bobritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to my parents' home and provide them with assistance. I maintain part-time therapy practices in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. I currently worship at Square Inch Community Church in Grand Rapids. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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