I have been working for the past year with a 78-year-old woman who has a moderate level of depression. She has a limited income, lives alone and has very little contact with other people. I have suggested several resources, including some that are online, that she could use to reduce her isolation. She agrees with me in session but doesn’t follow through. I’m starting to feel both frustrated and discouraged about being able to help her. I talked with my supervisor about ending the therapy but she told me to keep trying.
This question highlights the way in which generational differences can enter into therapy. When we work with individuals who are separated by one or two generations from us, we need to be aware of the age-related psychological issues facing our clients as well as the cultural differences that exist between us.
Starting with the psychological issues facing your client, she may be facing a high degree of loss and grief related to each of the risk factors you mention: limited income, living alone and lacking contact with others. Find out whether there were significant changes in your client’s life in the two to five years before she became depressed. If so, she may still be grieving the loss of income and financial status, the death of a spouse or close friends, and/or facing health problems that reduce her mobility. Even if these risk factors were present before she became depressed, she may have become less able to stretch her budget, participate in social activities or function independently as she ages. If you haven’t given her an opportunity to talk about feelings of loss or offered your empathy for her grief, I would suggest doing so. She will need to feel understood emotionally before she is ready to follow your suggestions about other resources that might help to improve her depression.
Another set of psychological issues arises in the fact that your relationship with your client mirrors a parent/child or grandparent/grandchild relationship for both of you. On your side, your frustration and discouragement probably include feelings you have about your parents or grandparents who faced or are facing some of the same issues as your client. Talk with your supervisor and therapist about these personal relationships to gain a better understanding of your countertransference. On your client’s side, working with a therapist who is young enough to be her child or grandchild exacerbates the sense of invisibility and devaluation she may feel as an older person in a culture that equates youth with worth. Your suggestions may feel condescending or invalidating if you are assuming you know more than she does about her experience and needs.
Moving to a cultural perspective, your client’s values and world view are different from yours due to the generational differences between you. Your client was a child during the Great Depression and World War II, came of age during a time of nationwide financial expansion, and experienced the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War and feminist movements as a young adult. Her experience of technology has spanned the period from radio and black-and-white television to internet and smart phones. It is a mistake to assume that she is comfortable, either emotionally or technologically, using online resources to reduce her social isolation. Her agreement with your suggestions may reflect a deferential attitude toward professionals who hold positions of authority, based in the values of her generation. Viewing your relationship as a cross-cultural one may help you to bridge your differences and approach your client with curiosity and interest.
I hope you find these suggestions helpful in working across generational differences in therapy. Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.