Growing up into Growing Older

This article first appeared in the spring 2017 issue of Thresholds, published by the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy©’.

I wrote this article on the ageing process for the BACP’s spring edition of their Thresholds magazine. They have kindly agreed for me to post it on my blog.

Growing up into Growing Older

I was brought up in a family and educated at a school where religious belief was obligatory and spirituality was an anathema. Consequently, I went through my childhood without any idea that I had an inner life that could help me to understand myself or provide solace.

I mourn that loss even now because growing up often felt hollow and confusing. Nevertheless, it did not make sense to me that life was a one-stop shop and then we died. It made more sense that life was some kind of ongoing school where lessons had to be learnt, and a feeling of contentment emerged when I was absorbed in something creative. Even though I was unaware of it, I was instinctively expressing myself creatively to give my life meaning.

Making meaning of life is a very personal thing. Some people find it, for example, through the arts or teaching, or taking part in sport. Others find it by entering the healing professions or by doing charitable work, or bringing up a family, or mending and building things.

Some people are fortunate to connect with meaning early on in their lives (Elton John was playing the piano by the time he was four). For others, such as myself, who did not have that early inner connection, it felt as if something was missing.

As I entered adolescence, this translated into a deep yearning for something that I interpreted as being ‘out there’. By the time I was in my 30s I had become increasingly frustrated, disappointed and depressed, and I lost sight of how my thoughtless actions were destroying everything in my life.

However, we are constantly presented with opportunities to confront our immature patterns of behaviour so we can grow up. This can be experienced as an intuitive feeling that some kind of life change needs to happen, or it can become a profound life crisis.

‘The world always makes sure that you cannot fool yourself for long about who you think you are by showing what truly matters to you,’ writes Eckhart Tolle in his book, A New Earth (1).

My own search for meaning kick-started when I was involved in a light aircraft crash some 28 years ago. We were flying at 1,500 feet when the propeller stopped and we fell out of the sky. Most light aircraft crashes are fatal, or certainly involve a fatality. For whatever reason, the pilot and I both scrambled from the wreckage physically unscathed. But the mental shock I experienced was another matter.

Looking back, I realise now that I had developed severe post-traumatic stress. This manifested for a time in night sweats, inability to concentrate, and a suicidal depression. It was only when I began to train in trauma work as an EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) practitioner in my early 50s that I fully understood how a crisis such as this strips away carefully constructed defence mechanisms and leaves us exposed and raw to the core (2).

In his book, Out of the Darkness, transpersonal psychologist Steve Taylor interprets these crisis moments as ‘spiritual alchemy’. He explains, ‘Terrible though these consequences are, for many people, they are balanced by – and even transcended by – longer term positive effects’(3).

The crash was certainly a moment of spiritual alchemy for me. It forced me to accept that I needed help and healing. So I now look back on this experience as life saving. I had to reassess everything, and this has led, albeit sometimes precariously, to the work I am involved in today.

 

Spiritual calling intensifies as we age
Even so, life continued – and still continues – to challenge and raise questions, and I am aware that my desire to make meaning of it all has increased as I have entered my later years.

I refer to this desire as my ‘call to God’. I am not a religious person, but I am comfortable with what ‘God’ signifies to me. (Some refer to God as The Light, or The Source, or The Universal Energy, or Higher Wisdom.)

Father Richard Rohr, an American Franciscan monk and founder of the Centre for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, writes beautifully about the ageing process in his book, Falling Upwards. He regards the second half of our life as a profound quest: ‘The first half of life is discovering the script, and the second half is actually writing it and owning it. So get ready for a great adventure, the one you were really born for’(4).

The response to God or a higher calling as we age seems to me to be a natural part of the human condition. During the Middle Ages many affluent women were benefactors to nunneries, and would often choose to retire to convents to spend the rest of their lives immersed in quiet contemplation. This helped them to make peace with God as they readied themselves for death (5).

Today Eastern religions and traditions accept that older people often choose to spend the latter years devoted to spiritual evolution. It is their way of preparing for the inevitability of death and to confront and release karma they have accrued so they can reincarnate into a better lifetime next time round.

I saw this for myself when I visited Varanasi, revered as the holiest city in India. Hundreds of older Hindus were – and are right at this very moment – living in small dingy rooms, sometimes for years, close to their beloved Mother Ganges as they wait for the moment of Salvation when their ashes are scattered on her sacred waters (6).

I imagine that they welcome their release from this world with peace, joy and relief.

Western society’s attitude towards ageing
But our secular, ego-driven Western society, addicted to youth and beauty, medical innovation and life-extending treatments, does not encourage or support spiritual exploration in later life. As I point out in my book, Sex, Meaning and the Menopause, most people are so immersed in the frenzied pace of modern life that they are completely caught out in their 50s by the menopause (7).

The menopause is biology’s signal that our youth is over and the second half of our life as an older person is starting. However, if we are not ready for what these penetrating hormonal changes can bring, it can throw up powerful feelings of loss, confusion, even despair. So we try and hide any sign of ageing. According to Imogen Matthews, author of The Premium Market Report, women over 45 spend £2 billion annually on cosmetics, anti-ageing skincare and toiletries, a figure that is growing faster than premium beauty (8).

We also try and medicalise ageing: the global market for erectile dysfunction remedies is worth roughly $5bn,(9) hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is still being prescribed to combat the menopause, despite health risks(10) while $20 billion is spent globally on plastic surgery, and is set to rise to £27 billion by 2019 (11).

The silver tsunami years
Of course we can do a lot naturally to maintain our health and wellbeing as we grow older. A good diet, regular exercise, and companionship are essential to keep fit and engaged with life. But the spiritual and emotional fall-out from our desire to deny the ageing process is creating serious psychological issues.

Novelists Martin Amis and Christopher Buckley coined the phrase ‘The Silver Tsunami Years’ to describe the wave of baby boomers who are currently entering later years, and the effect this will have on our ill-prepared British society.12 Over 15 million of us are now aged over 60, and this is forecast to pass 20 million by 2030 (13).

I regard the silver tsunami years in a more personal way. A recent research study by psychologist Dr Oliver Robinson states that one in three people over the age
of 60 experiences some kind of major life crisis (14). This can involve a combination of health issues, bereavement, financial hardship, and/or marital breakdown.

Marital breakdown in the over 60s, or ‘silver separations’ as they are referred to, has hit epidemic proportions, and the over-60s are now registered as the largest group to divorce (15). Reasons for this are many, but perhaps the most prevalent is how many baby boomers are refusing to put up with imperfect relationships as their parents may have done. It is not unusual for a baby boomer to have been divorced at least twice, and I know of people who have divorced into their 70s.

The fall-out from this speaks for itself: 3.5 million people over the age of 65 live alone. Forty-one per cent of people aged 65 and over in the UK feel out of touch with the pace of modern life, and 2.04 per cent, or 1.2 million, older people (aged over 65) in England report being persistently and chronically lonely (13).

This is extremely sad to report, and I jump up and down when I hear people talking about the 60s as being the new 40s. In my opinion, it is not. Having personally experienced a profound midlife crisis after the plane crash and another life-changing crisis aged 60 when my husband left me, I have found it is completely different. At 40, there was a sense of time stretching ahead to put things right. At 60, time felt much shorter. I had a much more heightened sense of my mortality, and an extreme fear of being thrown into ageing alone. Therefore, for me, the effect of this later life crisis was far more distressing.

Addressing what the ageing process brings
Still, the experience presented me with yet another opportunity to make meaning in my life, and I began to run workshops, retreats and death cafés that provide a space for older people to explore how they are coping with ageing and mortality.

While some participants seem to be embracing their ageing process and making the best of it, others speak about feeling invisible or ignored, or angry about ageing at all. Some are learning to cope with very distressing family or financial situations. Some feel trapped between caring for elderly parents and supporting children and grandchildren. Others are being drawn to do life differently through spiritual practices such as meditation, going on retreats, or travelling.

But all the participants express gratitude and relief for the opportunity to spend time together to talk about it. And I think that’s it: it is about being open and honest with how we feel about becoming the older generation and being willing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with each other. It is about making the best of it too, even though we are ageing in a world that has drastically changed from how it was when we were young. But that happens with every generation – I can still see my mother’s face when I played The Beatles’ music for the first time.

I am at the stage in life when I want time to reflect on the past 64 years. I want to deepen my understanding of who I am, and I want to clear away the mental and emotional dross that holds me back from finding peace of mind.

In his book, Dark Nights of the Soul, Thomas Moore speaks of the continual need to emotionally process the commotion and chaos of life: ‘Life has its ebb and flow. It builds up, and then it clears out. You need this rhythm, just as you need to breathe in and breathe out. Like your body your soul gets filled with pollutants. Dark moments are part of the rhythm by which you fill up and empty out’(16).

For me, this clearing is about being willing to salute the spiritual alchemy that forces me to become conscious of my mortality and to hug it close as another day passes by. It is about looking into the mirror and being OK seeing an ageing woman gazing back. It is about finding time to reflect on my life, which happens on the silent retreats I commit to twice a year. It is about being aware that my life has been filled, and will continue to be filled with both successes and failures and these, in their own very different ways, teach me about who I am.

It is also about preparing myself to grow up from being an older woman into being old. So the spiritual alchemy of life never stops, for which I am grateful. It keeps me on my toes, and presses me onwards to strengthen how I continue to make meaning of my life as I age, and to fully engage in my call to God; so, just like those who I saw in Varanasi, when my time comes, I can release myself from this earthly life with peace, joy, and relief.

I want to leave you with these words from Carl Jung, which for me sum up what it is like to grow older:

‘One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie’ (17).

References

1. Tolle E. A new earth: creating a better life. London: Penguin Books; 2005.

2. http://www.emdria.org/?page=emdr_therapy(accessed11 February 2017).

3. Taylor S. Out of the darkness: from turmoil to transformation. Hay House; 2011.

4. RohrR.Fallingupwards:spiritualityforthetwohalvesoflife.SPCK Books; 2011.

5. http://web.clark.edu/afisher/HIST252/lectures_text/women_ religious_roles_middleages.pdf (accessed 11 February 2017).

6. http://amardeepphotography.com/death-in-varansi-the-ultimate- liberation/ (accessed 11 February 2017).

7. Brayne S. Sex, meaning and the menopause. London: Continuum Books; 2011.

8. http://www.fddinternational.co.uk/ima-premium-market- report-2015/ (accessed 11 February 2017).

9. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/09/07/move-over- viagra-british-made-erectile-dysfunction-gel-to-hit-th/ (accessed 11 February 2017).

10. http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Hormone-replacement-therapy/ Pages/Disadvantages.aspx (accessed 11 February 2017).

11. http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/global-cosmetic- surgery-and-service-market-report-2015-2019—analysis-of-the- 27-billion-industry-300053760.html (accessed 11 February 2017).

12. http://www.economist.com/node/15450864 (accessed 11 February 2017).

13. https://www.ageuk.org.uk/Documents/EN-GB/Factsheets/ Later_Life_UK_factsheet.pdf?dtrk=true (accessed 11 February 2017).

14. http://www.counselheal.com/articles/4898/20130413/late-life- crisis-occurs-people-over-60-psychologists.htm (accessed 11 February 2017).

15. https//www.ons.gov.uk/aboutus/transparencyandgovernance/ freedomofinformationfoi/divorcefigures (accessed 11 February 2017).

16. Moore T. Dark nights of the soul. London: Piatkus Books; 2012.

17. Jung C. The structure and dynamics of the psyche. New York: Pantheon Books; 1960.

Continue reading “Growing up into Growing Older”

Another Day Talking About Sex, Meaning and the Menopause

This time the workshop took place in Sailsbury with a group of 16 therapists and counsellors. Five (including the only man – thanks again, for being there) were in their fifties and (apart from the male therapist) well into the menopause. Ten were in their forties, and one – a pregnant counsellor who worked with people with learning difficulties – was in her thirties.

Of course, many similar themes emerged to those I wrote about in my previous blog, so I won’t go over old ground.  However, I will outline different issues that this particular group raised.

Again, this was very much a day of exploration.  The day was split  into two sections.  During the morning, we looked at the personal experience of the menopause. In the afternoon, we discussed different ways to improve working with older female clients, couples, and younger women with early onset menopause.

Continue reading “Another Day Talking About Sex, Meaning and the Menopause”

At last, choice is on the way for those not wanting resuscitation

I was very heartened to read yesterday’s Daily Telegraph’s piece, Emergency staff to be told if you want to live or die.

Backed by health minister Simon Burns, the Government is now keen for electronic records to be shared by paramedics and out-of-hours GPs, which will give seriously ill people the choice of whether they wish to receive life-saving treatment, or be allowed to die without further medical intervention.

According to the article, 8.8 million people currently have electronic records, but all of us registered as NHS patients in England will now be offered the opportunity to sign up for this facility.

This means that we can state our end-of-life wishes, and, as long as everything is in order, we will not be resuscitated if that’s what we want.

Hooray!

Continue reading “At last, choice is on the way for those not wanting resuscitation”

Fight the Change – yet again

I feel another soapbox rant coming on.  On the train to London I read a left-behind Daily Mail.  ‘Fight the Change’ cried the headline of Life and Style section. For those suffering from dry skin caused by the menopause, new products promise to turn back the clocks.

‘Fortunately,’ said the article, ‘skinscare companies realise there’s a market for high-tech products targeted specifically at postmenopausal skin.

And how!

Continue reading “Fight the Change – yet again”

Marriage, menopause, and the importance of good communication

Following the article, Will YOUR marriage survive the menopause? (adapted from Sex, Meaning and the Menopause) in last week’s Femail section of the Daily Mail, I received an  email from a distraught reader. He was very concerned about the state of his own marriage.  According to her GP, his wife had gone through the menopause a few months ago, but he recognised many of the symptoms discussed in the article, particularly anger outbursts and ‘behaving like a crazed lunatic’.

‘I love my wife,’ he said, ‘and would do anything to save our marriage and help her.’  He went on to ask how to broach the subject of  couples counselling with her.

Continue reading “Marriage, menopause, and the importance of good communication”

Nan Maitland, ending her life with courage and dignity

Woman Commits Suicide to Avoid Old Age, was a front page Sunday Times headline.  Immediately I imagined some poor, pathetic, lonely old soul, without friends or family, reaching the end of her tether, and killing herself in a horrible, grisly way.

Reading the story I realised how sensationalist and misleading this headline was.

Eighty-four year old Nan Maitland, who suffered from arthritis, planned her death, to my mind, purposefully, courageously and without drama.  In the note that she left behind, she made it clear that she had no wish to enter a prolonged period of painful decline that many elderly experience these days before they die.

Continue reading “Nan Maitland, ending her life with courage and dignity”

Jacqui Smith, pornography and the menopause

I think Jacqui Smith, whose programme Porn Again was broadcast on BBC 5 Live last night, is brave to talk openly about her husband using pornography.  It’s certainly caused a sensation, and, as some people suggest, whether or not she’s using this as an opportunity to open up a career in journalism isn’t the point.  But pornography being a major issue in society certainly is.  I discovered just how much during my research for Sex, Meaning and the Menopause.

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And the Oscar goes to: Body-fillers

Well done Colin Firth for winning the Oscar last night for his performance as George VI (Bertie) in the wonderful King’s Speech.

The film is about how Britain’s future king comes to terms with his awful stammer. I can’t imagine how dreadful it must have been for him to have made those speeches. Courage is an understatement.  But it’s the relationship between Bertie and his eccentric speech therapist, Lionel Logue that brings the film to life. Bertie had someone batting on his team. Someone who brought out the very best in him.  It’s this that brought tears to my eyes.

Continue reading “And the Oscar goes to: Body-fillers”

Please God, turn back time so I can get onto Masterchef.

It’s back!

My one weakness (although my husband would argue fervently that I have more) is my passion for MasterChef.

I have no idea how it has slurped and slopped its way into my soul, but it has.  It is also the cause of much anguish, of which my husband has had a belly full.  As soon as he hears the signature tune he disappears into his study, because he can’t stand hearing me wailing, ‘It should be me with that apron on.’

Continue reading “Please God, turn back time so I can get onto Masterchef.”

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