Specialist in Issues of Midlife & Older Adults

Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Problem That Has No Name – Part 1

lost confused direction signThe Problem That Has No Name – Part 1

This post is Part 1 of a series I’m writing about a phenomenon I notice in my work with midlife and older individuals and families as a mental health counselor. In this part, I’ll describe this surprisingly common situation and in Part II I’ll talk about some solutions that seem to help people get through it.

Before I get into that, though, I want to say that counseling is my third career. My first involved living in a spiritual community where our goal was to learn and practice skills that could make ours, and others’, lives better. I learned and practiced practical skills such as becoming a licensed EMT, teaching an EMT course on a Mohawk reservation in NY, helping with home births as a doula, providing medic services in a rural clinic, and selling books around the US and Canada including our vegetarian cookbooks and the well-known Spiritual Midwifery.

Later, my activism took a turn and I moved to California to raise my three daughters. There I became involved in creating and managing early online communities (starting at The WELL). What I learned while living in intentional community, I applied to the digital environment working always to provide people information, support ideas and fun. In those years very few women were online. In order to educate women about the potential benefits of what was to become the Internet, I founded the first commercial online service focused on women’s issues and interests: Women.com. We wanted women to be able to have convenient access to tools which could help them with their health, families, relationships, education and jobs.

After many years working in the technology field, I knew it was time for me to do something else. My attention turned towards counseling psychology and graduate school. Working originally with hospice patients, my practice evolved into a passion about learning about aging and empowering people as they go through older life. For the past decade or so, I’ve been focused on serving clients ranging in age from their 50’s up to their mid 90’s.

This “problem that has no name” has to do with a huge identity crisis I am seeing so often in my clients between the approximate ages of 68 to 72 years old. This age range makes up the majority of people who seek out my services. There appears to be a disturbing surge in anxiety and depression in these years. My clients report:  “It came on so suddenly!” “I feel like I am regressing, I never used to be like this!” “I don’t know what the matter is with me!” They typically then experience shame, self-criticism, insecurity and isolation from friends and family. They turn to doctors in hopes that prescription medications can “fix” them.

Why is this such a problematic time of life? Is it the number 70 and what that represents? Quite likely. Is it that people typically think well now I *am* old? My clients ask, “How will I get by?” “Who will take care of me?” “Will I be alone?” “What am I capable of doing and what do I have to or want to let go of?”  “Who am I now?!” One man calls it “How then shall we live?” Another male client says “Is this all there is?” And a 70 year old woman refers to this time as the “What’s it All About, Alfie” years.

For the first time in human history, people are living this long. Science has helped extend the quantity of life. However, we have been slower to catch up the issues of the quality of life. We are encountering a mass phenomenon – people running into the challenges of this transitional state that happens around age 70 – and one of our biggest contributing problems is that we pretty much have no language in our culture to describe it! It is “the problem that has no name”.

Betty Friedan coined this expression when she wrote about of the challenges facing women in the 1950’s and early 1960’s in her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique.  She explored and exposed the widespread depression and anxiety in women who, post WWII, were pressured by the culture and consumerism to try to fit into a fabricated feminine image which offered them sole identities as housewives and mothers.  With narrowed choices about work and roles, women became massively disillusioned, unhappy and self-critical. Then came what is called the 2nd wave of feminism which gave language to this phenomenon.

Similarly, today we are largely ignorant and seemingly uncaring as a consumer culture about the pressures and narrowing options available to us as we grow older. Negative stereotyping, messages about not being valued and feeling invisible is widespread. The result is a huge wave of disenfranchised, oppressed, aging individuals who are unaware of this bigger picture. Rather than understanding the ageist backdrop affecting their lives and moods, they fall into self-criticism, fear and depression.

The good news is that there is a groundswell happening in its early stages that is beginning to illuminate this 21st century problem. Because this is the first time in human history that we are living so long, as one of my clients put it “we (humans) haven’t had a chance to study it yet”. However, there are more and more activists who have been or are forging ahead.  Robert Butler, MD was one of the pioneers – he coined the word “ageism” and won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for his expose Why Survive: Being Old in America. New York Times author Paula Span educates us regularly in her insightful column “The New Old Age”. Ashton Applewhite has a no-holds-barred bestselling book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto against Ageism. And Dr. Bill Thomas, MD regularly travels the country to shake things up with his “Age of Disruption” tour.  People are beginning to wake up to the harm that perhaps the last “ism” – ageism – is causing in America. Naming it can only help.

In Part 2 of this article, I will describe some tools and ways I’m seeing people use to navigate the transitional passage from their mid to late sixties to early 70’s. Some of them include:

  • Mindfulness, contemplation and loving kindness practices
  • Exercise – aerobic; Yoga
  • Understanding the link between nutrition and mental health
  • Giving back to their communities; volunteering
  • Consciousness raising support groups
  • Nature – renewing their commitment to spending time outdoors
  • Examining and redefining roles
  • Counseling
  • Using the Arts, including journaling to reconnect with Self