How to Do Old Age

merry oldies

I meant to post on ways to cheer oneself up in old age, beginning with  the kind of psychotherapy that seems to be  interminably extended conversations. These continue, for an hour on each of most days of the week. The process lasts as long as clients stay solvent and therapists healthy and sane. The post has not come off because of irritation with  recent published memoires of such long intense relationships by some clients and therapists. I began to suspect that both of these groups collaborate  to construct alternative life-stories until they agree on one that “fits”,  hopefully, providing  a plot for a life story that can serve as an explanation, possibly even an excuse, maladaptive behaviour and its miserable consequences. Any relation of these ingenious sagas to reality seems irrelevant and both therapists and patients insist that gains are unquantifiable (except, perhaps, in terms of the therapist’s income). Both parties seem proud of this, perhaps because it invests the transaction with  something numinous and also because it blocks crass evidence-seeking questions such as whether clients who experience such talking therapy get better faster, or more completely that those who do not 1.  Relieved from any obligations to test by evidence  therapeutic relationships can be judged in the same ways as novels or poems: in terms of different levels and kinds of enrichment of experience. Perhaps this is why  many  clients move restlessly on from therapist to therapist and so from one theory of therapy (e.g. Jungian, Freudian, Transactional etc.) to another until they feel that they are getting the best return of interest and comfort for their fees. There  is no clear evidence that any one analytic theory works better than others, but this apparent interchangeability  does not question their validity any more than the fact that individuals prefer some poems or novels to others proves that literary theories are “wrong” or “misguided” or “unscientific”.  Maybe we should agree to use formal techniques of literary criticism to assess the relative values of the life stories that therapists help their patients to weave rather than haggle over “recovery rates” from different therapeutic disciplines. Many of us, certainly I, have had our lives transformed by particular poems and novels. Sometimes even for the better.



Another block to a post on psychotherapy for the old is that I am beginning to think that a better way to learn to manage our attitudes to our lives is from the examples of our friends.  People of my age become increasingly valuable to each other as we grow old together and notice how we each  manage difficulties that we currently share or must anticipate. It would be crass for me to try to list the various ways in which this  helps since I have a direct example from a school-friend who endeda long and  diverse career as a Professor of Political History at the Hague.

“Good to hear from you. .. I am about to join you across the boundary into octogenarianism. That thought has had a deeper effect than I anticipated when considering the next decade. …. such reflection began more than a month ago, when I had to make first us of my help service. One afternoon I had another fall indoors. It was the usual occasion. I was walking with my stick, this time into the bedroom, suddenly felt dizzy and lost my balance. Miraculously, as in all incidents so far, I did not strike any hard object and break anything, but did end up stuck in a foetal position (second childhood?) between the wardrobe, the bed and a bookcase. What distinguished this occasion was that I could not free my legs enough to roll over and crawl to where furniture could be grasped with enough leverage to stand up. On three occasions when this has happened before I have wriggled serpent-like to the front door, managed to get it open, and asked a passer-by to help me up. Now I could use the speaker round my neck, and after about twenty minutes two large, strong young ladies used their key to get in and lifted me up. After checking I was uninjured they left me to experience recovery shaking on the sofa.


Anyway, the result was that I came to the conclusion that moving into a home for the aged with constant supervision might not be as bad as it has hitherto seemed (in 2011 I was in one for four days after an operation in order to recover. It was sociologically fascinating but not decisively attractive). ….. So the next stage will be to find out what I can get. Actually, I still get a weekly outing to do shopping and take a cappucino, thanks to the self-sacrificing Desiree, my partner now for 15 years. However, she actually lives and works in Leiden, so can drive here and back just once a week (a further factor is that she is basically afraid of driving…) She telephones to check on me, but in the absence of family ….. living nearby I really miss someone popping in and seeing how I am and doing things like changing light bulbs. In principle, that is what social services arranges.

On the writing front, my help against becoming totally gaga, writing every morning, has begun to run down. I’ve just finished another novel. It is about what happens to a history lecturer who, while in a long-term coma after a car crash, finds himself in late 19th century London and able to make real his favourite horror stories of the time, featuring Jekyll and Hyde, Frankenstein and Dracula, and play parts in them. For example, he proves that the real-life Jack the Ripper, identity unknown to this day, was in fact Mr Hyde. No pressure intended, but if you might like to read it… On that general front, I fear the writing-to-ward-off-senility device is becoming severely threatened by the knowledge that the chances of getting published are in effect nil. My last attempt to find an agent not so long ago failed once again. Even my ego balks at again taking the self-financing route, though my savings would be up to at least one more venture. The autobiography is currently affected by this mood, although a limited printout for friends only is possible.

That seems more than enough self-pity for now. ….”

On the contrary, my dear old friend, the cool absence of self-pity, the ability to maintain a detached and analytical humour about a bad situation and of ones’ prospects in it, and determination to continue to amuse oneself and others is a better lesson in living than I can find in psychotherapists’ memoires.  Thank you for a master-class in How to do Old Age.


1. To summarise a very large and very convincing literature: They don’t.

About Gray Rabbitt

Grumpy gerontologist
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