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Lee Kehoe Nov 27, 2012

Changing Roles and Identity in Later Life

Through the major transitions, grieving of losses, onset of loneliness, and perceived loss of control, the relinquishment of roles typical of adulthood and acceptance of roles typical to later life become a great challenge for older adults. As I have worked with older adult clients, another theme that adds to the difficulties of adjusting to later life revolves around learning to navigate new roles. Many older adults worked for up to four decades in the same job, developing an identity that was very connected to that job. I have worked with female clients who identify as a mother before anything else; however, are still learning to adjust to having their grown children act as their caregiver, while they are left with no one to care for. These are just a couple examples of the role changes that I have seen in working with my older adult clients. Such role changes go deeper than simply getting use to a new way of living; they tap into the core identity of a person. When that identity is shaken, feelings of anxiety and depression are common symptoms of the struggle to adjust to the changing roles.

I think that it is important to constantly bring myself, as a counselor, back to the idea of context when formulating treatment plans and goals with my older adult clients. The issue of identity can arise in counseling when working with clients of any age, but I am constantly trying to make sure I am always building my work within a framework of the client’s age, situation, and setting. Since much of my work with older adults takes place within assisted living and nursing facilities, much of my efforts and attempts at helping clients struggling with changing roles and identity challenges center on translating the client’s sense of identity to their new way of life in the facility. In addition, working to integrate the older adult’s identity pre-move to the facility with the new types of roles they may take on while living in a new setting.

The ideas of translating and integrating identity sound nice in theory, but I am continually learning how to utilize these ideas in practice. In remaining conscious of context, I always try and develop a thorough understanding of the individual’s sense of identity. In the initial sessions with a client, I work to understand the clients’ subjective experience of their own roles in their lives prior to moving into a facility. After gaining some sense of the older adult’s subjective identity, I also ask the client what his/her biggest anxieties are regarding their move and adjustment to the assisted living or nursing facility. This is my attempt to try and build a framework for where the disconnect lies in terms of the older adults’ challenges in translating and integrating who they were before the facility with their new life in the facility. Through an exploration of the disconnect between who the client feels he/she used to be and who he/she now feels they should be, I have found the technique of paralleling to be very useful in helping older clients attempt to rediscover the consistent core of who they always have been. In paralleling, I collaborate with the client to explore salient transitions throughout his/her lives. As we go deeper and relive some of those transitions, the client can discover some of his/her sense of self that has remained consistent through every life transition; aspects of the self that comprise his/her core identity. Such paralleling of past and present transitions provides the client with tools for adapting and coping, but even more importantly I believe it reaffirms who they were and still very much are.

From a systems perspective of social roles in old age, Riley and Riley (1989) draw attention to the imbalance between the strengths and capacities of the growing aging population and the social role opportunities provided by society to utilize and reward those strengths and capacities. The authors highlight the gap created by the structure of social role opportunities and their inability to keep up with the changes to the older adult population. Therefore, they not only focus on the need for interventions that work to provide quality aging, but a restructuring of greater systems to provide the opportunities for older adults to continue and even grow within their social roles. We have a great resource in our growing older adult population. Older adults have lived longer than the rest of us in this world; they have had numerous experiences, developed amazing skills, and worked to overcome many obstacles in their own lives. As a country, I believe it will be continually crucial to utilize the invaluable resource we have in older adults. I find the topic of social roles in old age from a systems perspective to be incredibly interesting, as it speaks to the need for change in many of our countries working systems as the older adult population continues to rapidly grow. However, this is a topic for another day; I believe it is important to mention because it does build off of the core challenge of role changes in later life. As always feel free to email me with your own experiences and ideas – Thank you for your time.

Lee Kehoe is a 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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