Distress and Aging

No single principle of mental health can guarantee that a person will pass through the challenges and perils of a long life without experiencing distress, loss, suffering, and human error that are part of most lives. However, it is within our abilities to reduce the depth and frequency of suffering and to help each other when our own resources are temporarily overrun.

In old age, distress can be more acute since immediate problems bring to mind earlier difficulties. The old person may be haunted by memories of stressful events and relationships as far back as early childhood. Tormented by both past and present, they may feel helpless. At the same time, there may be fewer resources available to cope with problems in the immediate situation, fewer people to share experiences with, less physical and financial control over the environment and so on.

We can help such people by encouraging them to use all the control they still have and by supporting them in all their remaining areas of vigor and competence. We can hear them out, listening carefully to their sorrows and alarms.

Old people who face difficult life situations or have emotional problems benefit from psychological consultation. However, this possibility seldom suggests itself to them, for many grew up in the pre-psychotherapy era. For many, it was assumed that old people were not appropriate candidates for therapy. Fortunately, clinicians have increasingly begun opening themselves to this challenge and discovered that psychotherapy can prove effective with the old as well as the young.

There is general agreement that there is a higher percentage of people suffering emotional distress in old age than at any other time in adult life. The gap between need and suitable care is all too often filled by dubious measures. Yet with proper support and appropriate treatment, the old person can be restored to a brisk and active life.

A final thought: If you feel you are overwhelmed by despair, or depression or loneliness – don’t suffer in silence. Talk to someone, a trusted relative or friend, a health care professional, clergy or a social service agency. Help is available. Seek it out!

Quotable Quote: “Never discourage anyone who continually makes progress, no matter how slow.” Plato
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