Facing Old Age: A Life-Stage to Embrace?

Andy Lincoln, Psychodynamic Counsellor, Leicester

Andy Lincoln, Psychodynamic Counsellor, Leicester

 

Welcome to our featured therapist BlogSpot.  In this edition Psychodynamic counsellor Andy Lincoln discusses life-stages, ageing and the psychic process of retirement.  Andy brings to our attention the importance of discussing old age as a life-stage as equally fundamental as childhood, adolescence, or adulthood.

 

‘I grow old… I grow old…

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind! Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think they will sing to me.’

-TS Eliot

TS Eliot’s poem ’The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ ends with the sad reflection of Prufrock’s view of his old age, unfulfilled, having been unable, in his words: ‘To have squeezed the universe into a ball, to roll it to some overwhelming question’ and to have made a decisive move to declare his feelings to the woman he loves. He says:

‘I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And, in short, I was afraid.’

Approaching old age is as much a development stage in our lives as the stages of childhood and adolescence. Erik Erikson (1965) described the final stage of ego development as being a balance between ego integrity and despair. Being able to look back on our lives having adapted successfully to the triumphs and disappointments of life, or experiencing the despair of knowing that time is now too short to be able to start a new life or try out alternate roads to integrity.

Prufrock’s sadness is a result of his regrets and the recognition that he cannot go back to reclaim his lost hopes for the love that he did not have the courage to claim.

Perhaps the most crucial point at which we become aware of the approach of this final stage of our lives is when we must think about or must adapt to retirement.

I met a retired friend shortly before I finished full-time work, he said how he had retired in the autumn and by the spring he realised that he had sunk into a life of drift and day-time television, before starting to garden and take an allotment. This began to make me aware of what may lie in store for me as I faced the end of my full-time career.

Robert Atchley a professor of gerontology described 6 stages of retirement. Firstly, the Pre-retirement stage characterised by hopes, plans and dreams. The second he divided into three paths:

  • The ‘honeymoon’ when people act as it they are on an indefinite holiday, pursuing things that they did not have time for while at work.
  • The ‘immediate retirement routine’ taken by those who maintained a busy schedule outside work and transfer to this activity into retirement.
  • the ‘rest and relaxation’ period, choosing to do very little.

However, this stage is often followed by the third stage: Disenchantment, when the absence of challenge, routine and lack of mental stimulation can lead to restlessness and dissatisfaction or perhaps even depression. The challenges posed in the stage of disenchantment can be overwhelming and carry a risk to our mental well-being. The shadow of Prufrock’s lonely and melancholy walks on the beach seem to be close by.

If this disenchantment is not to take hold, a process of Re-orientation; the fourth stage, is needed. This involves designing a new life style and seeing yourself as a new person out of the shadow of the previous work life. This can be an exciting process of creative re-invention, but to some can seem an impossible task when visions of slowing down in life are challenged by the need to keep creating.

Recognising the dangers of not being able to successfully navigate these challenges is important, and may involve seeking help, to be able to understand our feelings and to plan our lives in retirement

Counselling can help people preparing for retirement work out how they can navigate this important change in life in a supportive and reflective way. It can also help those who are lost in the stage of disenchantment, perhaps feeling depressed, anxious or despairing, to understand why they are feeling the way they are and to support them on the journey towards a new and creative re-invention of themselves.

Sucessfully navigating the first four stages is prudent to establishing Atchley’s fifth stage, what he called the Ultimate Goal of retirement; mastering a rewarding routine of a satisfying and enjoyable balance of activities and most importantly the realisation and acceptance that we are happy. This can be seen as thriving in retirement, living a full live with activity, social contact, making the most of the healthy years after work ends and before the inevitable decline in health begins.

This final stage, the End of Retirement, can come about gradually or without warning, a gradual decline in mobility, a stroke or perhaps the onset of dementia. It is a stage that all of us who reach this stage of old age will have to navigate, either by learning to let go of parts of our lives, adapting to new circumstances or summoning the courage to keep going.

If you are facing retirement, or are retired and recognise some of the stages described and would like to explore life-stage counselling with Andy or another of our therapists, please contact us to arrange an initial appointment.

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T.S.Eliot, (1961) ‘Selected Poems by T.S.Eliot’, Faber and Faber

 

  1. Erikson, (1965) ‘Childhood and Society’, Revised edition, Hogarth Press

 

Robert C. Atchley,(1974)  “The Meaning of Retirement,” Journal of Communications, 24:97-101

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