Getting Older - Aging Well
The reality of getting older hits us all, whether it is when we finally accept that the children have left home, when a partner leaves or dies, when we are made redundant, or when we reach a milestone birthday, be it 40, 50, 60 or 70.
In our modern world, ageing has become something to fear rather than an inevitable and natural part of life. Society puts great value on being young - or at least on appearing young. Indeed, how old we are and how old we look can seem to be more important than who we are as a whole person. Older people are often written off as if they no longer have any contribution to make to society or even to their families. The wisdom of age and experience is unseen and undervalued.
Faced with getting older it’s possible to feel ‘past it’, hopeless and confused about who we are now. There are so many negative and dis-empowering stereotypes that we have been fed about seniors and about ageing. Seeing beyond those stereotypes can be hard.
Yet the world’s ageing population is growing larger. Medical science has advanced so quickly and people are living longer and longer. Our middle and later years can be a time of new beginnings, coupled with the increased maturity to enable us to make the most out of life.
It can help to begin by asking ourselves questions such as ‘What now?’ ‘What next?’ or ‘What else do I want to do with my life?’ If your life has been focused on raising your family, perhaps it’s time to focus on yourself. Perhaps there are goals you still long to fulfil, or desires that it’s time to realise.
If finding answers to such questions is hard, it may be useful to imagine how you would like your life to look, ideally, in five years, ten years, or fifteen years’ time. Where do you see yourself living? With whom? How will you be spending your day? What will be the focus of your life? What will make you happy?
How Counselling Helps with Getting Older
In many ways life is a series of roles – student, spouse, parent, grandparent and so on. Middle-age and old-age are also roles, though ones for which we may have done no preparation and for which there is little guidance in popular culture. Your image of who you were in the past may also conflict with who you are now. Counselling gives you the chance to explore what this new role looks like for you and find your own way to approach ageing.
There are many other factors connected with getting older which you can explore in counselling, admitting and releasing difficult feelings, coming to terms with now, acknowledging, celebrating your past achievements and contributions, exploring the opportunities which lie within new roles and finding a path forward into the future. Some important considerations include:
- Loss and grieving: in counselling you can grieve for the past which has gone, for who you were and for the people and events which are no more. You may need to mourn losses, including letting go of children, youth, looks, certain faculties or aspects of your health, and the loss of status after leaving employment.
- Embracing new roles and present life phases: sometimes with the loss of one thing, something new emerges. For example, whilst the role of being a parent with financially dependent children may cease, the role of being a grandparent may emerge. This can turn out to be a wonderful period of your life. To spend time with the young but also being able to hand them back to their parents. Being an active and engaged grandparent can also allow people to have another go at ‘parenting’, without the original pressures of work and limitations on time.
- Attitudes and beliefs about ageing and being an older person: what messages does society give us about ageing and how do these affect how you think and feel? Who are you now? How important are you now to society and to those you hold near and dear?
- Reflecting on the past: in counselling you can look back on the past and on your life experience, on all you have learned and done. This creates a strong foundation from which to look forward to the future and realise that though things are different, life need not be empty. What matters for you now? Is there learning from the past you want to build on for the future?
- The ageing process: through expressing and exploring our feelings about the ageing process, you can learn to soften and open up into an acceptance of physical, mental and emotional change and ageing, rather than hardening and resisting it. This may involve looking at illness, pain or physical limitations and at what health, vitality and well-being mean now, in the context of middle-age or old-age.
Ageing and Women
For women, going through the menopause and then perhaps becoming a grandmother are strong new identities to adjust to. In order to fully accept the new identity a woman must be willing to grieve that her childbearing years are over, to grieve the end of youth, and to reflect on her life lived so far.
Contrary to the messages of our culture that diminish the power of old-age, a woman can embrace her entrance into a time of great wisdom. The more consciously she approaches the transition, the more readily she’ll be able to live and enjoy this phase of her life.
As she ages, a woman's family responsibilities are typically waning. In her fifties, a woman may have many new choices before her. Perhaps this is a time to pursue a long-neglected dream - to return to school, to develop a dormant talent, or to establish a different lifestyle that is more compatible with her needs as a woman.
Sexuality and Ageing
As we grow older, many of us want to continue to have an active and satisfying sex life. But the ageing process causes changes which can be challenging.
Firstly, there are changes to how we look, which can be hard to accept. Grey hair, wrinkles and changes in our body shape can all make us feel less attractive and stop us feeling free to enjoy our bodies, romance and having sex.
There are also physical issues and changes which more directly affect our ability to have sex in the same way as before. For men, impotence becomes more common as they get older. By 65, about 15 to 25% of men have this problem at least one out of every four times they are having sex. A man may also find it takes longer to get an erection, becomes more difficult to sustain an erection, and the amount of ejaculate may be less than it used to be.
For women, there are all the physical effects and changes of perimenopause and menopause, including hot flushes and the other effects of hormonal change. While there is a great deal of literature available about these physical changes, the immense emotional and psychological effects of this time may be misunderstood or neglected. These changes may profoundly influence a woman’s sense of whether she is sexually attractive and so influence her level of interest in sex.
Counselling for Sex and Ageing
Perhaps most importantly, counselling can open up a conversation for a couple or individual, about a topic that may feel difficult or even shameful – ageing and sex. This is particularly helpful for individuals and couples that have difficulties communicating their needs and desires. Counselling can help you realise that both male and female sexual issues are a joint problem with a partner - and that ageing is a fact of life. It’s important not to blame yourself or your partner for sexual difficulties or to assume your partner doesn't find you attractive just because they don’t seem as interested in sex as before.
It helps when male partners of menopausal women are educated about the sexual effects of the menopause, how to treat them and what makes them worse. In general, a counsellor can help put your minds at rest about what is normal for both men and women.
Counselling can also help you explore how to develop a new language and new ways of sexual play which suits this time in your life. There are many ways to sustain an active sex life as you get older. In counselling you can look at:
- the physical and psychological changes you are both experiencing, so that you can relax and be more accepting and open
- the latest research treatments on how to enjoy more sexual pleasures with your partner
- what your partner wants and what you want
- sensual touch to promote greater intimacy
- sex without intercourse
- having sex at new times of day or in different positions
- slowing down – both of you may need more intimate touching or kissing before you become aroused
Counselling will also help you process the emotional component of ageing and sex. This may involve a process of mourning for how things were in the past. It can help you come to terms with how you are now and how sex can be enjoyed now - and learn to embrace that.
At ARM, we have mature age counsellors who are trained in sexual health that can help you and your partner. Give us a call. We can help.
If you would like more information about sex between menopausal women and their partners, you may find this Guide useful.