You don’t have to read War And Peace to know that Tolstoy sure had a handle on people. “Everybody thinks of changing humanity, but nobody thinks of changing himself,” he said. In fact, I’ll bet he’d have made one heck of a counselor. He certainly had the patience. Scholars say that he endured a 48 year marriage known as, ‘one of the unhappiest in literary history.’ Interestingly, he would die of pneumonia at a train station the very night he was finally making his escape, both from the marriage and his aristocratic lifestyle.
Face it. We are reluctant to change ourselves no matter our age. ‘Change’ is the counselor’s ultimate nemesis. If client’s don’t change, at least in small ways, they will be as unhappy when they leave therapy as they were when they entered it. As a therapist, I have watched an angry person slowly uncoil, piece by agonizing piece. It’s like diffusing a bomb and you sure wouldn’t want to rush the process.
Of course, you can’t rush old folks at all, particularly in traffic. One of the first things you realize when dealing with the elderly is that ‘change’ is not as easy as it is with younger clients. They are less likely to take up new hobbies or find new friend groups. To them, Facebook is a foreign language. While the young are bursting out of their cocoons, our elderly are slowly weaving themselves back in. It’s simply a matter of science: their brain just doesn’t make those new connections like it used to.
So, meet them where they are, not where you think they should be. Think ‘choices’ instead of ‘changes.’ Demystify the technological world into which they have been thrust. Never hear from the grandkids? Have them bring in their computer and set up a Skype account for them. Many suffer from depression and have good cause. Their bodies are failing. Their friends are dying. Find the things they CAN do. Okay, jogging is out, but how about that water aerobics class at the local Y?
Remember, it is often the smallest things that make the biggest difference. I know a woman in her 80’s who goes to Starbucks 5 times a week. “It’s really not for the coffee,” she confided last week. “I just come here to remind myself that I am still alive and the world goes on.”
Helen Hudson is a counselor and 20 year member of the ACA. She is also the author of "Kissing Tomatoes," and speaks around the country on the importance of caring for the elderly, particularly those with Alzheimer's, with compassion.