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Addressing Loss Through Psychotherapy

News from Coachella Valley’s Integrated Health Community

Medical News  July/August 2015

By Barbara Pedalino, PsyD

Psychotherapy generally focuses on change and growth. Why then, would senior adults seek treatment at this stage of their lives? Surely they have experienced decades of growth and change. Have not these unique dimensions of their lives been completed by now?

As a psychologist, I am always impressed when seniors quest new learning. Learning is a lifelong process; thereby, learning fosters growth and change. For seniors, I have found that psychotherapy can be the key to new understanding about loss.

By the time adults become seniors, they have experienced a variety of losses and anticipate further losses. Seniors in my practice describe dealing with the loss of spouses, partners, family members, friends, pets, life roles, and home life as they knew it. They often report feeling better as a result of sharing and being heard. Their careers may take on a new, different direction or they may face retirement. Decline can occur in health, vitality, memory, vision, hearing and mobility, and if not just for themselves, also for those around them. Many couples I work with feel frustrated by escalated arguments; accordingly, we work together on new skills to foster discussion and improve communication. Other loss issues addressed in therapy relate to self sufficiency, finances and independence.

For some, managing loss is very challenging. It can spur the loss of self esteem and feelings of anxiety, grief and depression. Seniors can feel estranged from themselves. This is a time when new coping skills, support systems, novel interests and alternate perspectives can provide relief and revitalization. Thus begins the process for seniors to seek out psychotherapy and learn to transform their current struggles with loss from depression to acceptance and moving forward.

The psychotherapy process for seniors involves a combination of cognitive behavior therapy and reminiscence therapy. It ensues by developing a trusting, supportive relationship with a psychologist or other mental health professional that genuinely cares about their welfare. Cognitive therapy focuses on thoughts and feelings, often negative, with the goal of becoming more positive and hopeful.

Behavior therapy guides clients to explore what they can do successfully, what fresh ingredients they can add, and ways to help themselves feel better in some way. One senior with whom I worked registered for lifelong learning classes, attended concerts, participated in physical activities commensurate with his capabilities, wrote his memoirs and joined a choir. It was not long before he developed friendships, socialized more, discovered his worries had subsided, and felt a renewed sense of accomplishment and purpose.

The goal of reminiscence therapy is to enable stories to unfold – stories of youth to maturation and all the life experiences in between. A treasure chest opens and the richness of history, antics, relics, delights, woes, misgivings and wisdom sparkles once again.

Thus, through the process of psychotherapy, seniors’ thoughts and feelings that were triggered by loss can evolve into a rich and meaningful gain.

Like a snapshot, you develop.
Unlike a snapshot, you never stop.

Leonard Nimoy

Dr. Pedalino is a licensed clinical psychologist in Palm Desert whose interest in self-esteem spans all ages.