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Clinical Meeting: On Ageing by Helen Vance


I believe in life, which one day each of us shall lose. When we are young we think we won’t, that we are different. As a child I thought I would never grow up, that I could will it so. And then I realized, quite recently, that I had crossed some line, unconsciously cloaked in the truth of my chronology. How did we get so damn old?Patti Smith, M Train 2015

For this month’s clinical meeting we invited experienced art therapist Jean-Jacques Bonneau to explore the themes around ageing. As usual the art therapy team spent 10 minutes making artwork prior to the presentation and discussion to elicit the themes that occur in their art therapy work and in their own processes. The subject aroused a lot of interest, referencing memories, parents, cultures and values. The images each portrayed something of the collective mind around this topic.

With many thanks to Helen Vance for writing the blog.     Hephzibah Kaplan

“Then give me back the days departed
When I myself was still in growth…”'Faust' by Johann Wolfgang van Goethe


The Coming Of Age

Proust said, “Of all realities (old age) is perhaps that of which we retain a purely abstract notion longest in our lives.” (1972:2)

Jean-Jacques starting theme, “Memory of Old Age” was a potent springboard for the group’s creative responses, which included memories of witnessing old age, imagined reflections from the point of view of old age, and many different thoughts and reflections in between.  The group’s perceptions of old age was varied, perhaps, not least, because of the different life stages represented in the room.

The fear of old age was a theme that was considered.  De Beauvoir understood this as a fear of addressing the inevitable.  She wrote, “Thinking of myself as an old person when I am twenty or forty means thinking of myself as someone else, as another than myself.  Every metamorphosis has something frightening about it.”  (1972:5) It is perhaps unsurprising that this fear of ageing is widespread.   We discussed the narcissistic denial within our culture of the inevitability and necessity of old age, and how this can leave older members of society feeling invisible or isolated.  Perhaps it is the inconvenient shadow side to the shiny happy world of advertising.  And it is interesting to note that De Beauvoir saw the same cultural tendency nearly fifty years ago.  “…the consumers’ society has replaced a troubled by a clear conscience and that it condemns all feelings of guilt.  But its peace of mind has to be disturbed.  As far as old people are concerned this society is not only guilty but downright criminal.  Sheltering behind the myths of expansion and affluence, it treats the old as outcasts.”  (1972:2)

We talked about how difficult it was for the younger generation to look in the mirror and see old age ahead for themselves.  We conferred that sometimes there is a preference for the forced jollity of the message ‘use it or lose it’, rather than admitting the resignation, grief, disappointment, frustration, sadness and despair that old age can indeed bring.  However, we also celebrated good older role models and considered the positive qualities needed to live successfully through the later years.  We drew comparison between people of similar ages whose very different outlooks on life seemed to determine their ability to cope with the complications of old age.  Sigmund Freud’s playful conversation with his artificial jaw was sited as a brave attempt to find creative expression for health difficulties.

We also explored the idea that age does not necessarily bring wisdom, yet often young people project wisdom onto older people.  This might be because other possibilities are too difficult to consider.  De Beauvoir commented, “If old people show the same desires, the same feelings and the same requirements as the young, the world looks upon them with disgust: in them love and jealousy seem revolting or absurd, sexuality repulsive and violence ludicrous.  They are required to be a standing example of all the virtues.”  (1972:3) For therapists who are older than their clients this brings the challenge of working with these projections.  For therapists working with older clients perhaps it is important to note that society’s projection of wisdom may not serve this client.  Instead it may create introjects which prevent them from accessing their authentic feelings during therapy.  As De Beauvoir said, if they are only called upon to “display serenity” then “this assertion allows the world to ignore their unhappiness” (1972:4).   Older clients may even try and protect the younger therapist from their felt truth because of these social expectations.  All things to consider during the therapeutic process.

In this thoughtfully led session, Jean-Jacques successfully opened up the subject of old age, breaking “the conspiracy of silence” that De Beauvoir talked about.  As therapists, this seems an essential theme to consider for personal development, whether or not we are working specifically with older clients.  “We must stop cheating: the whole meaning of our life is in question in the future that is waiting for us.  If we do not know what we are going to be, we cannot know what we are: let us recognise ourselves in this old man or in that old woman.  It must be done if we are to take upon ourselves the entirety of our human state.” (1972:5)

‘The Coming of Age’ by Simone De Beauvoir, (1972).

By Helen Vance, Integrative Arts Therapist

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