Older adults are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. The number of people age 65 and older is expected to nearly double by the year 2050.
From helping with family dynamics and end-of-life issues to working on a client’s coping and communication skills after hearing loss, counselors are uniquely skilled to help the older adult population, says Charlene Kampfe, a retired counseling professor, nationally certified gerontological counselor and national certified rehabilitation counselor.
“With the growth of the older population, we counselors will have the exciting opportunity to carve a place for our profession in those systems that serve older people,” Kampfe writes in the preface of her book, Counseling Older People: Opportunities and Challenges. “Although some counselors may not have worked with older consumers in the past, they already have many of the skills necessary to do so. Counselors understand and support the concept of empowerment. They know how to provide a safe, respectful and challenging environment in which individuals can explore their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. They have also been trained to be good listeners, advocates, problem solvers and case managers.”
Q+A with Charlene M. Kampfe
In your book, I notice that you use the phrase “older population” instead of other terms (senior citizen, geriatric, elder, etc.) Why?
An excellent question. One of the primary reasons that I chose to use the phrase “older population” is that some of the other terms seem to have taken on a negative connotation. “Senior citizens,” “geriatric” and even the word “elder” may now be terms that have been viewed by our current society with a negative perspective — e.g., age prejudice. Another phrase that I use is “people who are older” rather than older people. I did this in order to focus first on the person/s and then on one of their qualities — i.e., people who are older, people with disabilities, people who have visual impairment, people who are age 65 or older, etc.).
From your perspective, how are counselors a good fit to work with the aging/older population?
I could say so much about this, but will keep this answer at a minimum. Throughout my book, I describe the reasons that counselors are a good fit for working with the older population. Counselors have the ability to listen — to really listen. One of the issues often faced by older people in our current society is that they are not listened to. Therefore, the listening skills of the counselor are vital to this population.
Counselors also have the ability to empower their clients. By empowerment, I do not mean they give the power to the person; I mean they recognize and acknowledge the power of the person they are counseling. In our current society, many older people are no longer given the opportunity for choice and decisions about their own or their families’ lives. Therefore, the counselor’s ability to encourage client power is vital for this population.
Furthermore, counselors have the ability to advocate, both individually and systemically, for clients. Advocacy is vital for people who are older because many of the systems that serve them do not serve them well or are disempowering. Counselors have the ability to do creative problem solving. Therefore, they can support consumers as they negotiate the many transitions and issues they face as they age. Counselors know that each person is unique and does not fit a mold. Counselors can use this understanding to avoid putting all older people into a single category with the same skills, wants, needs, issues, etc.
In your book’s preface, you say the systems that serve older people often leave seniors “disempowered.” Can you elaborate? How could counselors help in this area?
Many of the systems or service providers that serve older people assume that all older people are the same or similar. They may assume that older people are no longer able to make their own decisions. It is likely that children or service providers who think they are “helping” older people are actually taking away the opportunity to make decisions for themselves, doing things for them that they can do, ignoring their desires or disempowering them.
Counselors can help by counseling family members to … recognize how their behaviors may be disempowering and to find new ways of interacting with their older family members or friends, advocating for systemic change within institutions that are disempowering, modeling behaviors that are empowering rather than disempowering and serving on boards of or acting as consultants to service providers. Counselors can act as staff trainers to challenge disempowering attitudes and practices. See my book for a reference to a training package that is available to counselors.
What are some main takeaways you want counselors of all types and specialties to know about working with the older population, especially considering this population is one of the fastest-growing demographics in the U.S.?
One important point is that this group is not homogeneous. Some scholars have suggested that it is the most diverse of all groups today. Simply by virtue of the definition of “older,” this group can span 40-plus years — 65 to 105 or older. Each generation — those who are age 65 versus those who are 75, 85, 95, 100 or 105 — has experienced unique life experiences based on the year they were born. Furthermore, within the older population, there is diversity in race, culture, location of birth, education, health status, life experiences, family perspectives, mental status, etc. Counselors can, therefore, not lump this group into one category. Each person will be unique, and that uniqueness should be recognized and honored.
What would you want a newly graduated counselor to know about working with the older population? What might not have been covered in their studies?
New counselors can use all the counseling strategies they have learned in their graduate studies. Perhaps the most important things that they will now need to do are:
1) Examine their own attitudes toward aging and older people. This is discussed in detail in my book, [and] exercises to challenge one’s own attitudes toward aging are included.
2) Learn about the multitude of transitions that older people may be experiencing, and learn ways to support these people as they make these transitions. Learn problem-focused counseling skills, and learn about the specific transitions that older people may experience.
3) Learn about the various systems that serve older people — e.g., Medicare, Social Security, nursing homes and other residential options, health care systems, mental health programs, recreation programs, social service programs, etc. Know the ways these systems can be of assistance to older people, and know the problems associated with these systems. Keep current about changes in such systems. Learn about the legal issues associated with being old. In nearly every chapter of my book, I provide resources for each topic. These are very valuable resources that can be of great help to counselors and the consumers they serve.
4) Recognize that the older population is one of the most diverse populations in the United States and that older people cannot be placed in any specific category. Learn about the various issues faced by people from specific cultures.
5) Learn how to advocate for the older population and for individuals who are older. This can be systemic advocacy and individual advocacy.
6) Learn about the issues of people who are caregivers to older people. Learn how to work with these people in order to help them with their own personal issues. Learn how to show caregivers the importance of dignity versus dehumanization and personal choice of the people they serve.
From your perspective, how can the counseling profession as a whole become more involved in the care of the older population?
The counseling profession, as a whole, can be especially watchful of legislation that is being considered regarding the older population and become activists when the legislation seems to create negative issues for that population.
The counseling profession, as a whole, can:
- Focus on its own attitudes toward aging
- Consider the concepts of positive aging
- Advocate for better and more empowering living conditions for older people
- Advocate for more positive societal and service workers’ attitudes toward aging
- Advocate for employment opportunities for older people
- Reinstate the national gerontological counselor certification (a specialty the National Board for Certified Counselors retired in 1999)
- Develop program guidelines for gerontological counseling specialties
The book as originally written was almost twice as long as the resultant book. There is so much for people to know. I would suggest taking a class in gerontology, aging, etc., in order to get more details. Also, counselors can use the many resources that are listed in my book to learn more about each specific topic.
What inspired you to write this book?
I was blessed as a child and young woman to know and love three of my great-grandparents. I was also very fortunate to have and to know my four grandparents. All of them taught me many important life lessons from their various perspectives. Likewise, my parents and other family members were wonderful mentors and supporters. In other words, I learned the value of people who were older as a young person.
Over the years, I began to find that one of my professional foci was aging. I was influenced by various people who were counselor educators and leaders who were interested in the older population — e.g., Mae Smith, Jane Myers — and who taught me much about attitudes toward aging and about specific issues associated with aging. These mentors had great influence on my path.
Over the past 30 years, I have engaged in a great deal of research and writing about the older population. I also became heavily involved in the Association for Adult Development and Aging (AADA), a division of the American Counseling Association. As a member of AADA, I served as president, chair of many committees and as an ACA Governing Council representative of this wonderful, family-like professional organization.
Another inspiration has been my lifelong work as a rehabilitation counselor and rehabilitation educator. I have been guided by rehabilitation principles such as dignity versus dehumanization, personal power, personal choice versus being told what to do, appropriate language when speaking of and to different populations — i.e., person-first language — advocacy for and by consumers themselves, respect for consumers, etc.
In summary then, my book Counseling Older People: Opportunities and Challenges, is the culmination of my personal and professional interest in people who are older, the issues they face, the strengths they may display and the role of counselors in their lives. At my own retirement, I desired to continue to serve the counseling community and the aging community by writing this book. It has been a fantastic journey.
Counseling Older People: Opportunities and Challenges is available from the American Counseling Association bookstore at counseling.org/publications/bookstore or by calling 800-422-2648 x 222.
About the author
Charlene M. Kampfe is professor emeritus of rehabilitation counseling at the University of Arizona, Tucson, a nationally certified gerontological counselor and national certified rehabilitation counselor. She is a past representative to the American Counseling Association Governing Council and has held leadership positions in two ACA divisions: the Association for Adult Development and Aging (past president) and the American Rehabilitation Counseling Association.
She is also a member of the International Association for Creative Dance and dances regularly at the Tucson Creative Dance Center.
For more on counseling and the older population, see Counseling Today’s 2014 cover story, “Ages and stages”
Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org