How to Help Clients Change the Narrative of Aging

How to Help Clients Change the Narrative of Aging

by Bill Randall
By viewing aging as an adventure, gerontologist William Randall offers alternative narratives to counselors and clinicians working with older adults.


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'I want to tell people approaching and perhaps fearing age that it is a time of discovery. If they say – ‘Of what?’ I can only answer, ‘We must each find out for ourselves, otherwise it won’t be discovery.’

(Florida Scott-Maxwell, The Measure of My Days)

Psychotherapy and Ministry: Trafficking in Metaphor

Who doesn’t relish the odd adventure to spice life up, be it bungee jumping, looking for love online, or watching a thriller on TV? Major or minor, firsthand or vicarious, adventures are essential, it’s been said, to a robust sense of self.

might aging itself be an adventure
But might aging itself be an adventure?! The very idea seems a contradiction in terms. Before I propose that it isn’t, let me make a confession.

Prior to becoming a gerontologist, I was a protestant minister. In that capacity, I did my fair share of counseling, seat-of-the-pants though my listening skills were, but I’m no psychotherapist. What follows, then, are thoughts from the sidelines alone and should be taken, if not with a grain of salt, then with this admission in mind.

My sense, though, is that the two fields, therapy and ministry, share a key thing in common. They both traffic in metaphor; by which I mean, for instance, that there is always the possibility for a chance turn of phrase leading to an image that can be enlisted to help someone gain insight into their situation and move forward with their lives.

Given the profile of the average congregation, those I dealt with were mostly older adults. This might well have turned me off, as it can some psychotherapists — the feeling being that they are simply too old, and their problems too entrenched to benefit from counselling of any sort. However, I had no choice. They were “my people” and it was my job to get to know them. What I realized, though, was that they were often the most fascinating to work with.

compared to my younger parishioners, these older adults had richer stories to listen to and learn from
Compared to my younger parishioners, these older adults had richer stories to listen to and learn from. And in attending to them as closely as I could, less as a professional, really, than as a friend, I felt that I was providing them with something that was implicitly healing. I call it “narrative care,” a concept that takes in everything from full-on psychoanalysis to soulful conversation. And because they had that many more memories under their belts, they had that much more inner material on which an aptly deployed metaphor that emerged amid our exchanges might work its magic, enticing them to re-story a little their way of looking at life. The metaphor of aging as adventure, I suggest, can do just that.

Growing Old: A New Narrative About Aging

Since switching from ministry to gerontology, my appreciation for the role of metaphor in both language and life has only intensified. The best example is my 30-year interest in the metaphor of “life-as-story," or what Ted Sarbin calls the “root metaphor” of narrative. This led me into a sub-field known as narrative gerontology.

human beings are hermeneutical beings — makers of meaning
Drawing on insights from narrative psychology, Narrative Therapy, and (in my own case) narrative theology, narrative gerontology focuses on the biographical dimensions of aging as opposed, say, to its biological ones, dimensions to which gerontologists, certainly geriatricians, devote a disproportionate attention. It focuses on how human beings are hermeneutical beings — makers of meaning — and how our main means of doing so is by making up stories, big or small, about events, the world, and ourselves. And it focuses on how our self-stories, these meandering works of imaginative non-fiction, these myths by which we understand ourselves, change over time, and the effects of that change, for better or worse, on our overall well-being. It looks, too, at the storyline we subscribe to about aging per se.

Whereas gerontology remains dominated by a biomedical paradigm, which, with the best of intentions, pathologizes aging as a problem to be treated with all the anti-aging strategies we can muster, narrative gerontology represents a different starting point for exploring the complexities of later life.

Rather than defaulting to a storyline of aging as a downward drift to decrepitude and death, as an intrinsically tragic trajectory or “narrative of decline” (which older adults can unwittingly internalize, as can therapists too), narrative gerontology looks at aging through the lens of a more optimistic narrative, a better story. It views aging as a matter of growing old, potentially, and not simply getting old. It views aging as a way to the light and not the darkness alone, as a narrative not merely of decline but of discovery, of adventure.

Depression, Decline and Narrative Foreclosure

Before proceeding, let’s consider the narrative challenges that older people often confront. These can underlie and, if unaddressed, exacerbate the many other challenges that later life brings. Since I’ve written elsewhere on these challenges — which go by labels like narrative loneliness, narrative loss, narrative dispossession, and narrative imprisonment — I won’t go into them here except for one that deserves singling out. It is narrative foreclosure.

narrative foreclosure is the premature conviction that our story has effectively ended
Narrative foreclosure is the premature conviction that our story has effectively ended, that no new chapters are apt to open up, no new characters or themes will thicken the plot and take it in fresh directions. While our life itself — talking, eating, going here, going there — continues apace, our “story” of it is over. Granted, narrative foreclosure can befall us at any age.

When you’re 20 and your lover bids goodbye, you can suffer an acute case of it, and hurling yourself into the river seems a reasonable course of action. Why go on? The story of you riding off into the sunset together and living happily ever after will not come true! But later life, I fear, renders us unduly vulnerable to this condition, and thus the depression we may be diagnosed with and the pills we’re prescribed, when a dose of narrative care might work equally well to re-open our story. Here’s how it happens…

We retire from the career that defined our identity and our self-story loses a vital source of support. Our children get work in other parts of the country, taking our grandchildren with them, and our story-world shrinks still more. Our life partner departs this life and with them goes our raison d’etre. Our vision and hearing, mobility and autonomy grow more limited until we’re relocated to a nursing home where our world is reduced to whatever we can squeeze into one little room.

real as the decline surely is, it’s not the only narrative in town
Though our life itself keeps plodding along, “the story” is all but over. Intensifying our sense of loss is, of course, the narrative of decline that permeates our culture and quietly penetrates our hearts. But, real as the decline surely is, it’s not the only narrative in town. Our stories aren’t stuck in stone, in other words. We get to choose the ones by which we live and age.

Alternative Narratives of Later Life

In The Wounded Storyteller, sociologist Arthur Frank reflects on his time as a cancer patient and identifies three broad storylines by which people facing such conditions can make sense of their experience. First is the restitution narrative, where you reason “this too shall pass; I’ll be back to normal in no time.” Second is the chaos narrative, when the doctor says the tumor is inoperable and you have mere months to live, and the story of your life is thrown into a state of foreclosure from which you might never recover. Third is the quest narrative, where you interpret your illness, however serious, as — at the bottom — an opportunity to learn and an invitation to live life on a deeper level.

I’d like to build on Frank’s typology and propose that aging itself (often implicitly perceived as “a sickness unto death”) can be experienced in these three same ways. The restitution narrative goes like this: “If only I exercise more, do more puzzles, and drink less liquor, I will extend my life … indefinitely.” Such a storyline feeds emphasis on “successful aging” or “healthy aging” that are regularly promoted and obviously have their place.

Then there is the chaos narrative: “I’m old; I can no longer do X, Y, and Z, so my life is basically over.” This narrative can fuel the depression, if not despair, to which many older adults — especially men perhaps — may succumb. It's a recipe for narrative foreclosure.

Third is the quest narrative. “True, I can no longer do X, Y, and Z, but, as frustrating as it is, this is just one more chapter in my story. And there’s something to be learned in it, things to see that I couldn’t see before. This is new territory with new horizons to approach.” I see this narrative as underlying the positivity which, however “wounded” they might be otherwise, many older adults exude, despite (often because of) the troubles they’ve seen. It’s as if — as Wise Elders, perhaps? — they’ve taken those troubles and fashioned them into a good strong story: a narrative of adventure even…

Near Death Experiences and New Adventures in Aging

Aging as adventure — while not the whole story, I believe, warrants consideration. In fact, I’ve spent the past two years doing precisely that, reading and scribbling to where I have over 250 pages of single-spaced, typewritten notes that I hope someday to work into a book.

aging as adventure — while not the whole story, I believe, warrants consideration
At present, these are grouped around four broad directions that I see the adventure leading: outward, inward, backward, and forward.

I’ve been toying with aging as adventure downward and upward too, but I’ll sketch just these four here. I see them, though, as tightly entwined. Movement in one direction is eventually movement in another. Also, movement in certain directions may come more naturally for some, with certain personality traits (like “openness to experience”) than for others. But I’ll leave such permutations and combinations for future reflection.

Outward and Inward

Depending clearly on our income and our health, aging can usher us into a phase of life where we’re open to fresh endeavours. This can mean, upon retirement for instance, if not bungee jumping, then learning a new language, or taking up the piano, or trying our hand at painting, or going on that long-dreamed-of cruise, and generally cruising outside our comfort zone. In the process, we may become acquainted with sides of ourselves that we barely knew existed, thus thickening the plot of our lives in ways not feasible when raising our families and keeping the wolf from the door — whatever form or forms that wolf takes.

Every person has their own unique kind of wolf and/or wolves. With each such venture, we open new subplots, welcome new characters, weave new themes into the stories we are. Our horizons keep widening, including our horizon of self-awareness.

concerning the adventure inward, we have more time (if not inclination) to tackle what’s been dubbed the “philosophic homework” of later life
Concerning the adventure inward, we have more time (if not inclination) to tackle what’s been dubbed the “philosophic homework” of later life, something that may be neither easy to do nor appreciated by those around us. Sooner or later, though, it is our duty, Jung insisted, to turn inward. The longest journey, the saying goes, is the journey inward. Longest, often loneliest, but perhaps also most pressing, and sooner or later, it has us looking back.

Backward and Forward

The adventure inward leads to the adventure backward. It leads to an examination of our past, or at least the stories in which we’ve enshrined it. It leads to life review, which for Erikson is a core developmental task of later life, and a very narrative one at that. I call it “the autobiographical adventure.”

This adventure — fraught, like any undertaking worthy of the word, with both revelation and risk, promise and peril — can come to us naturally, of course, insofar as time-past becomes more compelling for us to contemplate than time-future. But it may be prompted, too, by changes in our brains themselves, improved cooperation, for instance, between left and right hemispheres, plus increased openness to paradox and contradiction, to uncertainty, ambiguity, and metaphor — all of which, it’s argued, heightens the autobiographical drive.

Going with that drive and accompanied by a skilled listener, gazing back across the years, there are discoveries to make, patterns to discern, secret corners (not always cozy) to investigate, issues around trauma or abuse, legacy or grief to be acknowledged, and overall, pieces of the puzzle, positive or negative, to try and fit together. As we ponder “the mystery in my story,” to quote a former student, we may well find that we’d gotten the story wrong, that the past wasn’t as horrible as we’d assumed.

the adventure forward, however, could seem the most controversial, and cruelest, to consider
The adventure forward, however, could seem the most controversial, and cruelest, to consider. In what universe does aging as an adventure forward even make sense!? We’re born, we suffer, we die. End of story. What is there to look forward to?!

To speak of the adventure forward requires looking at the links between aging and spirituality. A few years ago, I did so in a public lecture in which, intrigued by literary scholars’ insights into the problematic nature of “endings” in narrative generally, and by research into Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), I mused on the process of aging as a near-ing death experience. As such, it possesses several of the transformative elements that NDE’rs routinely report.

Besides the panoramic life review that the experience commonly entails, these include a decreased attachment to material possessions, a deepened appreciation for the preciousness of life, a sense that this world is not finally our home, and a major reduction in our fear of death. Death is viewed as transition, not termination, as a horizon beyond which we can’t yet see, a doorway to an even greater adventure maybe; the very sort of view which, in one form or other, the world’s great spiritual traditions have long espoused.

more recently, I’ve been reflecting on aging as a process of going slower, deeper, and wider into the landscape of later life
More recently, I’ve been reflecting on aging as a process of going slower, deeper, and wider into the landscape of later life. By “wider,” I mean a broader horizon of understanding — a bigger story — that moves aging out of a biomedical worldview and situates it amid the multi-dimensional mysteries of the cosmos itself.

Narrative psychologist Mark Freeman, writes openly, for instance, about “the transcendent horizon of the life story,” a theme which, despite gerontology’s reluctance to broach it, theorists of “gerotranscendence” and “transpersonal gerontology” are more than open to entertaining. It is one, certainly, that author Florida Scott-Maxwell alludes to when, writing in her 80s, she asks rhetorically, “Is life a pregnancy?” To which she answers, “That would make death a birth.” And it is one which scientist-mystic, Teilhard de Chardin, hints at with his cryptic phrase, “the hidden mystery in the womb of death.”

If such language has any merit beyond that of fanciful phrasing or wishful thinking, then it points, I think, to the need for a significant reconfiguration — a major re-genre-ation, if you will — of what aging is ultimately about. A shift, in short, from tragedy to adventure.

Helping Older Clients Shift Their Narratives

These are early days in what, itself, is proving to be a vast adventure: an adventure of ideas. Who knows where it will lead me? I’m certainly uncovering many questions in my quest.

where on earth is the “adventure” in dementia
For instance, how to enlist the adventure metaphor in a group setting versus one-on-one, or with the deeply depressed, or those at death’s door? And where on earth is the “adventure” in dementia?! So, my efforts might well turn out to be a wild goose chase. We’ll see.

Is this not, though, the mark of a bona fide adventure? We set out with no exact knowledge of where we’ll end up. Amidst the twists and turns, setbacks and surprises that are invariably involved, we don’t know — can’t know — how things will turn out. Yet we press on all the same, with curiosity and courage, humility and hope … and hopefully a bit of wonder too.

Naturally, the metaphor of aging as adventure will not be everyone’s cup of tea, nor every clinician’s either. But as agents of restorying in your older clients’ lives, as story companions walking beside them for a while, whether you buy into it yourself, you might find them open to giving it a try. And why not? If it nudges them toward a more inviting myth by which to live and age, then what’s there to lose?

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

How does the author’s notion of the narrative of aging impact you?

How might his ideas help you in your work with elderly clients?

How does your own relationship with aging impact your clinical work with the elderly? The dying?

What countertransference experiences have you had with clients who are dealing with aging, mortality, and dying?

* Editor’s Note: While he is not a therapist, I asked Dr. Randall to write this essay with you (the therapist, the clinical supervisor, the trainee) in mind.


© 2023
Bill Randall Bill Randall, EdD, is a recently retired professor of gerontology at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, Canada. His main interests are in narrative care with older adults, spiritual development in later life, and aging as adventure. He is author or co-author of over 70 publications in the field of “narrative gerontology”, including ten books. Among these are: The Stories We Are: An Essay on Self-Creation (University of Toronto Press, 1995/2014), Reading Our Lives: The Poetics of Growing Old (Oxford University Press, 2008), and Fairy Tale Wisdom: Stories for the Second Half of Life (ElderPress Books, 2022). To learn more about Bill’s work, you’re invited to visit his website: