ACA Blog

Lee Kehoe
Sep 19, 2012

The Implications of Growing Old: A Model of Later Life Challenges

In focusing on counseling the older adult population, I may bring up the word personhood in many of my blogs. The concept of personhood has grown to be near to my heart and forever evolving as I grow as a counselor working with older adults. My exploration of personhood was the focus of my master’s thesis, and the model of the development of personhood and the loss of personhood in old age that I present later in this blog is what came from my thesis work.

My current working definition of personhood is a continually evolving entity comprised of personal factors, multiple life experiences, and interactions. In considering the idea of mind, body, spirit within a framework of personhood; personhood is the culmination of an individual’s mind, body, and spirit, with an emphasis on the spirit as the driving force for feeling alive.

In further consideration of personhood, I found it important to form a model to understand how personhood is developed. It is essential to incorporate the past, present, and future of each individual into the formation of personhood. The past self is comprised of significant life experiences, which culminates to contribute to the organization of belief systems and interpersonal styles. As life experiences occur over time, the interaction of belief systems and interpersonal styles continually contribute and interact with the present self. The present self is composed of moods, affects, energy, and spirit, all of which contribute to the individual’s evolving personhood. Furthermore, it is important to consider the future self, which consists of an individual’s hopes, desires, and goals. The intricately intertwined relationships between the past, present, and future selves are nuanced by ever changing contextual factors that constitute an individual’s living essence or personhood.

The concept of personhood is important in my own work with older adults because I believe it reaches to the heart of many of the challenges later life brings. While personhood is developed and evolving over the lifespan, and therefore a concept that can be applied to any age, I believe that personhood becomes an especially important focus during later life. The simultaneous and overwhelming challenges rock the very essence of the older adult’s spirit. As a counselor, the focus of personhood has grown to become part of my operating theory. I believe that the core to my approach in assessment, diagnosis, treatment planning, and therapy is to first understand and then work to either maintain, or in some instances restore, the personhood of my older adult clients. In using the model of the development of personhood discussed in the second paragraph, I can attempt to form a comprehensive understand of my individual client. I believe this is done best by allowing the older adult a space to bring their spirit back to the forefront. Once a more holistic picture of the client’s past, present and future self is developed and a deeper understanding of the older adult’s personhood has taken shape, I believe the next step becomes understanding what factors have contributed to their loss of personhood.

The loss of personhood is the second model that took shape through my thesis work as I explored each individual challenge and transition that comes up as individuals age. Kubler-Ross (1969) discusses the idea of “little deaths” in understanding the many losses older adults experience across every facet of their lives. These “little deaths,” including loneliness and grief, loss of control, social role changes, loss of mobility and cognitive and health declines, interact and impact an older adult’s present self, shutting down the individual’s mood, affect, energy, and spirit for embracing everyday life; in essence taking away their personhood. The breakdown of this present self, leads to the breakdown the individual’s future hopes, desires, and goals. What is left is the individual’s past significant experiences. In a future blog, I will discuss ways I’ve utilized the past self as a tool for working to revitalize personhood.

I truly believe that an understanding of the challenges of later life and the implications of those challenges is an important start to building on ways in which counselors can best serve older adults through counseling. The goal of revitalizing personhood through counseling is a complex service to older adults that touches upon a fundamental belief in respecting the living life of every individual. An important emphasis should be placed on the deliberate use of the term “living life” since every older adult is still very much living. Mental health counselors with their developmental and humanistic focus on human beings have the resources and skills to serve older adults in helping them to revisit their past and reintegrate remembered experiences with the present self, thereby revitalizing that person and restoring their motivation to live on into the future. I look forward in future blogs to going in depth into each specific “little death” discussed above and further explore therapeutic approaches in helping older adults with such challenges. As in my first blog please feel free to email me with ideas, experiences, or thoughts! My email is lee.kehoe@gmail.com. Thanks for reading and have a wonderful week living out your passions!



Lee Kehoe is a licensed counselor working with the older adult population. It is her passion to serve the older adult population through counseling, research, and advocacy efforts, with the hope of raising awareness to the growing needs of older adults and their families.

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