I am a clinical social worker with more than 25 years of experience working with the elderly. Working with geriatric patients is a labor of love for me. But for a variety of reasons, working with the aged is not a popular choice of practice for other psychotherapists. According to George Kraus, a clinical psychologist who proudly wears the badge of a geriatrician, about 70% of psychotherapists see adults on their caseload, but only 3% have had any formal training on working with older adults. Kraus goes on to say that many therapists feel that older adults do not have a positive outlook generally on psychotherapy. This opinion is untrue. Studies have shown the elderly have just as positive an outlook on psychotherapy as other age groups do.
Kraus goes on to say in his book At Wit’s End: Plain Talk on Alzheimer’s for Families and Clinicians, that there are three main myths often given underscoring why many mental health experts do not see psychotherapy as being able to help the psyche of older people. Myth number 1 is that psychotherapy is time wasted because the elderly client has so little time to enjoy any gains that might be made. But is the length of time one has really the issue? As Kraus wonders, “Freud at age 49 is known to have contended that anyone over 50 was uneducable and I wonder if some of our biases working with older adults might stem from this overstated assertion.”
Myth number 2 is that “the grief, loss, and somatic and socioeconomic burdens of the elderly are too excessive to warrant believing they could get better.” For Kraus, the answer is that the therapist must not let the deprivation and burdens of the client be too excessive for the therapist to handle. He or she has to be able to cope with the client’s issues and not project them back on the client as he feels is done by many therapists who work with elderly people.
The third myth outlined by Kraus is “Old people are staid in their ways; they are too stubborn to change.” The answer Kraus offers is simple. He feels that many mental health professionals will overlook the elderly client’s strengths and focus on only their liabilities. Older people possess many assets and abilities that younger people do not, such as wisdom, experience, courage and many others. Generalizations like these are ridiculous to make by anyone, but especially by learned people who can change policies and make life easier for those who need help.
As many foreign countries do, America must somehow learn to bestow respect and kindness onto our older citizens. We are too quick to make fun of or ignore our older people and not give them a place where they can talk about their problems and ask for help when they need it. Above all, mental health professionals and medical people as well must learn to give more attention and respect to the elderly.