We like to think of ageing as the route to wisdom, even serenity. The older generation was necessary, valued, at the top of the family tree. We knew the way the world worked, and we could offer sound counsel, and solace when it was needed.
Once over 50, we were among the “elders” in terms of seniority and ranking, but we had the energy and interest to want to help others younger than us make the right decisions.
Well, lots has changed since Cat Stevens wrote ‘Father and Son’ (“I was once as you are now and I know that it’s not easy to be calm when you’ve found something going on…”) and one of the most obvious is the way that middle-aged people are seen.
Take work, for example. As the technological revolution advances apace, many are finding that they are either priced out of the workforce or simply don’t understand the way it’s being run any more.
One film editor in his late-40s recently told me: “When they look around for someone to do a job, they go for the younger person. Digital natives don’t have to adjust to new ways of doing things. It’s all they’ve ever done. I’ve even lost some jobs to interns.
“They’ve been editing on laptops all their young lives. They’ll work day and night for nothing or next to nothing, whereas I want to be properly paid and then get home in time to see my family.”
A new road to navigate
This mix of waning powers and creeping obsolescence is not a tasty concoction. We may feel wise, but many of us also feel wobbly. What we thought would just be a slightly slower pace of life turns out to be a completely new road with signage in a language we don’t understand.
Rates of depression are rising among older people, and recent figures show that nearly one in ten people treated for alcoholism is a female over the age of 60. As a woman recently told me, we seem to have become ever smaller figures in an ever-expanding world that is more significant than we are.
Seeking therapy in middle age
For these reasons, an increasing number of men and women are turning to therapy or counselling to help them negotiate the new terrain.
Camilla Nicholls, a psychodynamic therapist in central London, says that middle age has always been a difficult period because it’s a period of change, and for some it’s clearly unwelcome.
“A job or a marriage may have come to an end just at the point when they feel they can take their foot off the gas and relax a little into life.
“When this happens, they have a mix of feelings, including anger, disappointment and fear, but these often start with confusion. How do I date again or put a CV together when my sense of self has been dealt such a narcissistic blow?
“Therapy can help to prevent confusion about identity becoming a crisis and rally the emotional resources needed for a form of reinvention.”
I spoke to a 56-year old woman whose husband’s affair had pushed her into seeking therapy. She’d seen a therapist before, in her 30s, but this time she felt the therapeutic relationship was more intense, and opened up a greater understanding about herself, largely because of her age.
“When I was younger, I just wanted my problems dealt with. It was all work/life balance, when I should have children, and so on.
“This time, once I had finished with laying out the anger and shame, and picking over the entrails of the affair – why her, when did he see her, and all that ghastly stuff – my therapist and I had great conversations that went far deeper.
“After six months, I really felt that I understood myself far more, and I was in much better shape to properly engage in my marriage. Without the therapy, I suspect I would have seethed away and ultimately the bitter taste of betrayal might have simply overwhelmed me.”
It didn’t come cheap. Her psychodynamic therapist charged £60 a session. But, as she pointed out, her female friends’ beauty bills were probably higher and had less of an effect on their wellbeing.
We know ourselves and what holds us back
Andrew Samuels, in his 60s, is a psychotherapist with a high proportion of male clients in his practice. “Life may begin at 50 these days, but tell that to men who feel unattractive, economically challenged, and marginal at home or work.
He believes that people in their 50s get a lot out of therapy because they’ve already spotted the patterns in their lives that hold them back.
“When it is case of ‘Oh no, here I go again’, then you are in the therapy zone. As a therapist, I also enjoy the fact that over-50s can be less deferential and passive. They don’t accept that I have all the answers. They challenge me.
“In terms of specific problems, I have three men in my practice at the moment dealing with the lingering deaths of parents and parents-in-law.
“It is particularly difficult and poignant for one man, as he has to wash and physically care for his mid-80s mum. Another man just cannot wait for his father-in-law to die – which his partner picks up on.”
Samuels has always seen a mix of straight and gay men, but believes that the latter are more open to discussing problems.
“The key issues of not feeling sexually desirable and not feeling sexual desire, particularly for long-term spouses or partners, are part of everyday communication amongst sexual minorities in ways that they are not for straight people.”
Emotional support at this time of transition
As a result of being made redundant from a senior executive role at 50, Tamar Posner became a psychotherapist, so she has had personal experience of the transitions that people in middle age sometimes need to make.
“Part of it is existential. Most of us have had death anxiety as children, but it resurfaces when we are less distant from death.”
She found that many of her clients were feeling lonely and isolated. “Thoughts would go round and round in their heads with no capacity to do anything other than get bigger! Usually these were people whose lives had been busy and productive but that had ended, through retirement or redundancy.
“Or their work had been looking after the home and family, but the children had left, or they’d been widowed or separated. There was no one to talk to. Their experience resonated with what I’d been through, ten years earlier, and I thought how much easier it would have been if I hadn’t been isolated.”
Posner has now organised Silver Circle, an informal support group of people who gather for two hours once a week. “I think of it as a space we can use to discharge what they can’t when alone. As one woman said, hearing somebody say what I’ve been thinking has totally changed the way I feel about it.”
She told me that one woman told the group of a particularly fun evening she’d had. But then when she went back to the home she’d shared with her husband and dog, who had both died, she felt the contrast even more sharply.
“Another participant said ‘I can empathise with that’. And then together they started to talk about what might make a difference.”
As with Samuels’ male clients, Posner’s Silver Circle participants (currently all women) also talk about sex. “Just because they are older doesn’t mean they don’t have desires and needs. They may not want to have a sexual partner, but they miss male energy, and they miss being touched by a partner.”
Posner believes that post-50 is a particularly relevant time for people to seek therapy, but in her experience, culturally (and often financially as well) older people are more inhibited than younger people about seeking it.
“If they come, they have to accept that therapy or counselling is not a ‘quick fix’. It will not make you computer literate or financially competent (two commonly expressed desires from the women I see) but the process can give you the confidence to seek to become those things, to find a new, different way of approaching the world.”
Louise Chunn is the founder of Welldoing, a find-a-therapist directory about self-development, mental health and wellbeing. She is a former editor of Psychologies magazine, Good Housekeeping and In Style. All therapists mentioned are on Welldoing