When Hilda Davis Carroll turned 60, she was between counseling positions following a layoff. As she watched the sun rise on the morning of her birthday, she thought to herself, “OK, I’m 60. Where do I go from here, and what am I going to do with the rest of my life?”
The answer for Carroll, a member of the American Counseling Association, was to open a private practice in her hometown of Nashville, Tenn. Not so long ago, that choice would have struck many as surprising because 60 generally signaled the point to start ramping down a career and making preparations to settle into a quiet retired life. But as Carroll reached that milestone age, she found herself happily anticipating at least 20 more years of work. As a member of the baby boomer generation, Carroll isn’t unique in choosing to rev up her career instead of slow down.
Nancy Roth, a counselor at Philadelphia FIGHT (Field Initiating Group for HIV Trials), says baby boomers are thinking differently about aging than previous generations. “Boomers were the generation that said, ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30.’ As they age, they’re now the ones saying 60 is the new 50 and 50 is the new 40. Older generations were OK to say, ‘Now I’m hitting a certain age, and I’m content to retire or ride off into the sunset.’ Boomers are saying, ‘OK, now I’ve hit this great age, and I’m going to reinvent myself.’ They’re seeking more. They’re not just content with what [the norm] was before.” Roth, a member of ACA, is among that contingent, noting that she reinvented herself at age 50 by going back to school to study counseling.
It is important for counselors to take notice of this attitude shift because of the sheer number of potential clients who are baby boomers, Carroll says. She also points out that baby boomers represent the largest population in U.S. history to be reaching retirement age. As boomers age and look to make meaning of their remaining years, Carroll believes counselors can assist in multiple ways. This includes offering understanding that boomers might feel a little disoriented or overwhelmed and might even confront some level of grief when thinking about the reality that they have less time ahead of them than behind them to live.
Aside from simply being a very large generation, these counselors say baby boomers possess some general characteristics that set them apart from both previous and ensuing generations. “Baby boomers are accustomed to challenging authority,” Carroll says. “Baby boomers are accustomed to things changing because we make them change. Counselors can utilize that for helping boomers push the limits of what might be expected of retirement. Tap into that strength and resilience that carried them through the tumult of the ’60s, societal changes in the ’70s and the [financial] collapse in the ’80s. [Tap] into boomers’ history of being able to make change and change themselves.”
Roth agrees. “It’s not surprising that a generation that was challenging all those social norms would also be challenging the received wisdom about what it means to grow older,” she says. “From clinical experience, I would say that boomers tend to be more confident that they can change — that they can change themselves or can change the world — than I see in the generation that came before or the generations that came after.”
On the basis of her observations, Carroll says clients in younger generations can at times be more concerned both with how they’ll be perceived and with social standards. Boomers are less concerned with those things, which can be a strength, she says, because it allows them more room to focus on how they will make a difference, find fulfillment and leave a legacy.
Catherine Roland, professor and director of the doctoral program in counselor education at Montclair State University in New Jersey, says the baby boomer generation is not particularly accustomed to depending on others for help. For that reason, she says, it’s imperative that counselors treat these clients with the utmost respect and ask them how the counselor might assist them rather than telling them what to do. That independence can also make baby boomers reluctant to go to counseling in the first place, but once they take that step, Roland says they tend to be very committed to the process, from keeping their appointments to writing entries in their journals or following through with other treatment exercises.
Although no one particularly likes to think about aging, it’s something everyone goes through, so it is imperative that counselors examine the process so they can better assist clients, says Roland, the Association for Adult Development and Aging’s representative to the ACA Governing Council and a past president of the ACA division. Aging decreases or takes away some abilities and activities, such as the ability to run perhaps, but Roland points out that it also restores or gives us new perspective on other abilities, such as being able to bask in the glory of being a fast walker at an older age.
Squeezed in the middle
Baby boomers are sometimes referred to as the “sandwich generation” because many find themselves caring for their aging parents, while simultaneously still trying to provide support for adult children, some of whom have returned home to live with them. With clients who are in this situation and feeling overwhelmed, Roland, who also runs a private practice, conducts a family overview and asks if anyone else in the family can assist in any part of the caregiving. Considering the independent streak many baby boomers possess, Roland will often hear these clients exclaim, “My sister doesn’t want to help, so the heck with it. I’ll do it myself.” But there comes a time to ask for help, which is sometimes the advice that Roland offers her clients.
With baby boomers who are experiencing these pressures, Roth often first urges them to take care of themselves, then shifts attention to taking care of parents and children. Carroll also emphasizes a primary focus on self-care and echoes Roland in asking these clients whether another family member can provide some level of assistance. If not, she suggests resources such as AARP and the client’s area Council on Aging as possible starting points for finding professional respite care.
At times, Roland has even suggested that clients consider assisted living for their parents. As heartbreaking as that decision can be to make, she says it is sometimes the one that most benefits everyone involved. If the situation grows too dire otherwise, she says, both the aging parents and their baby boomer children can find themselves vulnerable to accidents, higher health-related costs and stress-related issues. “Having that conversation is one of the most difficult situations to talk about as a counselor,” Roland acknowledges.
Counselors should also prepare themselves to address some amount of anticipatory grief among baby boomer clients, Carroll says. She explains that these clients are likely to experience grief associated with watching their parents age and lose vitality, while also dealing with anxiety related to anticipating that the same scenario will play out for them in the future.
Issues concerning romance may also surface during counseling sessions with baby boomers, Carroll says. Whether these clients are navigating their relationships with longtime partners or seeking new relationships after the death of a spouse or a divorce, questions surrounding how to find a mate or how to stay attractive to a mate are common, she says. Carroll, who writes a blog, says one of her recent posts was titled “KY Jelly and People of a Certain Age.” “We’re grown-ups,” she says. “We can talk about sex.” Baby boomers weren’t accustomed to thinking about sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS in their younger years, but now it’s imperative that counselors discuss those topics with them, Carroll says.
Roland says it isn’t uncommon to see baby boomers enter counseling after their relationship of 25 or 30 years has ended, often because their partner decided to leave. “It’s a tremendous loss and blow to the ego,” she says. Counselors can offer help to these clients by carefully processing what happened and the history of the relationship, she says. Through the review process, Roland says, clients often see that the breakup wasn’t altogether surprising. Sometimes, in fact, they discover that they were equally unhappy in the relationship and can identify many ways that it might be freeing to move on without the other person.
Of course, aging is not something that people always want to face or embrace, Carroll says. She points to the lucrative markets for plastic surgery and drugs such as Viagra as proof of the pushback against aging. Carroll admits it’s a struggle even in her own life. “One minute I’m glad to be 62,” she says, “and the next minute, I am in jeans and three-inch heels pushing age out of my mind. How do we manage and balance those?”
But Carroll tells her clients that the grief sometimes attached to getting older won’t disappear with a facelift. Even as they prepare for the future, she advises them not to agonize over what might happen and what things will change with age. Her advice to clients: Rein those thoughts in, breathe and stay present in the moment.
Although the economy’s recent struggles have presented challenges for each generation, the timing has been particularly bad for baby boomers. Many were or are approaching the point where they expected to retire, Roth says, but instead they have found that their house is under water or their retirement account isn’t what they expected. “That forces people to make decisions they hadn’t planned on making,” including possibly learning new skills and seeking a new career, Roth says. In other instances, boomers have adult children and aging parents depending on them financially, adding another hurdle to their ability to retire.
In these situations, counselors can evaluate and work on coping skills with clients, Roth says. “How do you manage your feelings? How do you cope in positive ways so that you’re not turning to drugs, alcohol, overeating or some less helpful way of coping? Can we increase your frustration tolerance? Can we help you regulate your mood, even though things aren’t going the way you want them to, so that you can continue to find joy even though your life isn’t the way you had planned? In many ways, that’s a lot of what we do with clients because we just can’t control everything.”
When baby boomers are able to fully retire, they’re often quite surprised to discover that they feel somewhat isolated and that their sense of self-worth was tied to the work that they did, Roth says. Counselors can minimize the difficulty of this transition for clients by discussing with them what they will do with this new free time, how they might choose to continue to use their skills and how they plan to stay connected to the world, she says.
Roland agrees that the time after retirement can be unsettling for some people. “Everyone doesn’t have three children and eight grandchildren who all live close by,” she says. “Many times they regret retiring or feel sad. It’s a tremendous loss of identity. One of the things you need to say [to them] is that it’s not about retirement — it’s the absence of the everyday position. That’s why there’s a loss of identity.”
Roth encourages clients who are struggling with their identity in retirement to look at the good things that have occurred since they retired. She also suggests these clients consider volunteering their time and skills or, if finances are still a concern, pursuing a part-time job.
Roland says it’s also important to remind clients that when it comes to aging, there are many positives worth focusing on. For example, she says, there is power in growing older and not caring as much about what people think of you. If you’re retired, there is no boss to report to or tiptoe around. Financially, you’re likely to be better off in retirement or preretirement than you were in your younger years. “Every year that you live, you become wiser for yourself in your life than you were the year before,” Roland says. “You’re just more savvy.”
Boomers are a great group of clients with which to use strengths-based interventions, Roth says. “They may be at a time in life where they’re feeling uncertain, but they come to the table being able to say they’ve done X, Y and Z in the past,” she says.
Many of the HIV/AIDS clients with whom Roth works at Philadelphia FIGHT are baby boomers who have lived on the streets or in poverty and are not well educated. Still, Roth says, they are a group with enormous capacities and strengths. Their past experiences have taught them significant coping skills, and they’re consistently able to learn more, she says. “Even when we’re working with very challenged individuals, they have enormous strengths that we can build on,” Roth says. “I have found that to be less true of some of the younger people I’ve worked with.”
Roth also finds a psychodynamic approach effective. “It’s helpful for people who are at that middle-age point to be able to look back on their lives and look at patterns that have developed and how those help or hinder them moving forward,” she says. A structural family approach is also helpful for those boomers who find themselves active participants in the sandwich generation, she adds.
Life review is another appropriate intervention for baby boomers, according to Roland, with the concept being to have clients identify the positive things in their past. For example, if a client was an avid runner, Roland might ask her to talk about her experiences as a runner. “It’s important for them to understand the successes they’ve had,” she says. “When something is taken away from us, we tend to forget the good that we’ve done. I want them to remember their great accomplishments.”
With most baby boomers, Roland uses a combination of client-centered and cognitive-behavioral techniques. “They don’t want to sit and nod,” she says. “They want to know, ‘If these are the issues, give me some things I can do.’ Their eyes light up when they get homework. [Counseling] has to be action-oriented, not analysis.”
Spirituality is another factor that can help boomers face the challenges of aging and being part of the sandwich generation, Carroll adds.
To provide better services to baby boomer clients, counselors should take workshops focused on working with older adults, Roland says. “If you were trained awhile back, you might not have had human growth and development classes,” she says. “So … go back and take some new classes.” Counselors also might want to consider getting a gerontology certificate from a university or visiting a hospice for older adults, Roland says.
To strengthen their knowledge base further, Carroll recommends that counselors read the AARP The Magazine and listen carefully to the people they know who are boomers to learn about them. In addition, she urges counselors to join AADA and attend its conferences and participate in other workshops focused on the topic of counseling baby boomers.
Because baby boomers have some unique characteristics, these counselors offer a few recommendations for working with this population:
- Don’t stereotype, Carroll says. Do be open to who is in front of you.
- Check your personal temperature concerning how you deal with older adults, Roland says. If you have a problem in your family and you really don’t like being around Aunt Tilly, then don’t work with older adults right now, she says.
- Don’t assume that baby boomers are planning on retiring, moving to a retirement community and disengaging from life in the greater world, Roth says.
- Don’t assume that because a client is of a certain age, he or she does not still desire a romantic relationship, Carroll says.
- Make sure your office is accessible, comfortable and possibly brighter than you would keep it for other clients, Roland says.
- Allow clients to grieve in their own way about their aging process and everything they’re experiencing, Carroll says.
- Don’t assume that baby boomers don’t have an additional chapter left to write in their lives or that they can’t take on something new and challenging, Roth says.
- Offer concrete support, Carroll says. It’s good to listen, but also provide specific means of help, including resources in the community.
- Find out what medications clients are on and help with medication management, Carroll says. Don’t rush these clients, Roland says. You may be the only person an older client is speaking to that day for any length of time.
- Be aware of what you bring to the equation as a counselor, Carroll says. Pushing clients too hard or not pushing them hard enough might be reflective of the counselor’s own feelings rather than what the client needs.
Looking ahead, Carroll predicts that the sensibility around aging will evolve as baby boomers continue to age. “It will be change in a positive way because the boomers are the people who gave us the Internet, civil rights, women’s rights,” Carroll says. “That same energy will be poured into aging.”
To contact the individuals interviewed in this article, email:
Hilda Davis Carroll at firstname.lastname@example.org
Catherine Roland at email@example.com
Nancy Roth at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lynne Shallcross is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at email@example.com.
Letters to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org