By Cathy Kelley, LCSW, Counselor at The Meadows
John is a 64 year old male who retired early despite the cut in his income (now living at poverty level) and the loss of his medical coverage to avoid dealing with the distress of "having" to work with people he didn't get along with. Conflict with coworkers and bosses has been a theme throughout John's career. John has lived alone since his divorce 18 years ago and he has not dated anyone over the past 18 years. He spends most of his days sleeping. When awake, John listens to music or watches the television. John doesn't answer his door and limits his phone calls to his 90 year old mother who he continues to attempt to get approval from. If you listen to John he is very critical of himself (as was his father towards him) frequently calling himself stupid, dumb, fat, loser, or ugly. John often states that he "hates" people. John believes that life and people have taken advantage of him and that he is powerless to change the outcome because it is his "bad luck" in life. John's cholesterol and blood pressure are high. John buys in excess (more movies, music and model cars then he could see, hear or assemble in his lifetime). John denies that his hopelessness, isolation, excessive sleep, lack of energy, lack of motivation and loss of enjoyment in the things he used to enjoy could be symptoms of depression. Yet, John (who is a real person) truly needs help to get out of the abyss of his depression.
Needless to say, for John or anyone else for that matter to continue to live such an isolated, lonely and unhappy life with the belief that life is simply something that has to be tolerated would be a very sad outcome. John's struggle is but one of many examples why it makes sense for a person to enter treatment later in life. The fact is that growing older does not offer immunity to suffering and what greater loss then the loss of opportunity to have lived life with a sense of contentment over the journey versus pain, suffering and resentment over what was and was not experienced. As the saying goes "life is not a dress rehearsal." We get one shot at this life and do you really want to reach the end of your life filled with regret and remorse, knowing the opportunities to live life differently are gone? Or worse yet, do you want to throw away the opportunity to experience inner peace and healing because you are "too old?"
It is not easy dealing with all the age related issues of being an older adult. We often are faced with the illness and or death of our parents, friends or spouse. Our children are usually grown by this time living their own lives which can be joyful or distressing based on how well they are doing as adults and how much we depended on our role as a parent as part of our identity, purpose and value. We can be facing a number of health issues from fairly minor to life threatening. Careers are often winding down or ending. Retirement may not seem to be all it was cracked up to be. Again, if we have felt we found our purpose, identity and value through our careers it can be a set up to begin to feel worthless when our career is over. We become aware that time is limited and that we don't have forever to figure it out.
So, why would you consider entering treatment at this stage of life? When there is a never ending list of reasons you can come up with of why it's not a good idea to go inpatient such as you can't change, you're spending part of your kids' inheritance, this is as good as it gets, you have vacation plans, you want to sleep in your own bed, it's not that bad, your family depends on you to be there for them, or your just "too old" to name a few of the rationales often given.
The truth of the matter is no matter what age you are it takes courage to come into treatment and people typically do not make such a choice when their life is going in the direction they would like it to be going. It is far more likely to happen when everything you have tried is not working, there is a real possibility that you could lose your job, family, or friends, the pain of life continuing as is feels worse than the fear of entering treatment or the negative outcomes have become too high a price to continue to pay.
For the older population, what is known is that there are greater risks involved when you become sick or injured and that at any age emotional well being effects physical well being and vise versa. One example of this is that people are three times more likely to develop depression after a heart attack and that one in three people who have had a stroke develop depression. In addition, the depression increases the risk of a second heart attack or death from a heart attack or stroke. A second example of how our emotions and health are correlated is the impact that stress can have on the body. Research clearly shows that stress can create several medical problems i.e. raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, produce muscle atrophy, elevate blood sugar, place excessive demands on the heart, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, kill certain brain cells, speed up the aging process and shorten life spans. In addition, when stress is chronic it can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to cancer, infection, diseases, ulcers, asthma, anxiety and depression.
The body in essence is attacking itself with the surge of biochemicals ( dopamine, epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and cortisol (which can lead to bone loss, brain cell death and immunosuppression ) that stress activates. Unfortunately, the body does not distinguish between real and perceived danger. So whether you are running for your life or creating catastrophes in your mind your body is responding in the same way with a biochemical dump. Now add such things as alcohol, drugs, trauma, or grief, on top of anxiety or depression and it is fairly easy to see how your life can become seriously compromised.
If you have been struggling, there is a rhyme and reason to the obstacles that have been blocking your way to joy, peace and happiness. However, your life experiences do not define who you are but more what conclusions you have come to about yourself and life in response to what you have been told, witnessed or viscerally experienced. Your life experiences make sense out of the nonsense of how your thoughts and behaviors can become so off course with the facts or even self-sabotaging such as overspending, taking on too many projects, never saying no, having affairs etc. The truth (data) and your experience may not fit together such as being told as a child it's your fault your parent was unhappy or angry or that you were unplanned, a disappointment or worthless. The experience (what you heard, saw or felt) is real but the message is misguided (you are lovable, you have value and worth and you are perfectly imperfect - better known as human) and in all likelihood the messages and behaviors you experienced as a child were similar to the experiences your parents or caregivers received in their childhood. It is what is familiar and known and in all likelihood will continue into each new generation until there is additional information and options. Family systems typical will not know how to do it differently or that there are other ways of communicating, feeling, coping, loving or being relational with self or others without adequate data and though many of us have said "I will never..." we frequently find ourselves repeating the words or actions that we swore we would "never do."
Remember today you have a choice on the quality of your life experiences and whether you spend the rest of your life with joy and happiness or pain and suffering. It is never too late to reclaim your authentic self and to heal old wounds. None of us get a free pass from our history and time alone is not the healer of all wounds. It takes courage, desire and effort to interrupt old negative thoughts and behaviors, to identify the lies you may have told yourself about who you are and to reconnect and release painful experiences. However, it is much easier than living in the depths of despair, addiction and fear.
If you have taken on the role of judge and jury over the outcome of your life - Stop! Do not impose or accept a life sentence of suffering (this is based on a distorted belief of self and or life). Life was not designed to be endured it was designed to be embraced and you were not created to be tortured or to rescue the world. You were created to be uniquely you. You can continue to suffer until death (old message) or you can take a leap of faith in yourself and life (the truth) that your senior years have much more to offer than loneliness, regret, resentment or pain. You can find peace and healing if you are willing to embrace, explore, release and accept the truth of who you are in the presence of all you have experienced and what you have and have not done in your life. Age is not a viable reason to neglect your physical, spiritual and mental well being. It is the exact opposite.
Resources from the following websites: Mayo Clinic, University of Maryland, U.S. News Health
Cathy is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the state of California and Arizona. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Human Services and a Master's Degree in Social Work with a sub-concentration in severe and persistent mental illness. Cathy has worked as a counselor at The Meadows for several years. Cathy's areas of experience and passion are trauma reduction work, addiction, mood disorders, and relational issues. Cathy has over twenty years' experience facilitating groups and has been trained in EMDR.